Property debated as ANwSU vote nears

VERGENNES — Towns’ ownership of their schools and surrounding land has concerned residents each time Addison Northwest Supervisory Union has voted on unification, most recently in 2010, and the upcoming decision on March 1 is no exception.
In the past decade, a central question in some residents’ minds has been reluctance to allow control and ownership of their schools to be transferred to a single board with representatives from all five ANwSU towns, as will be the case in ANwSU if its member towns vote yes next month.
“That’s the bottom line on this,” said Ferrisburgh selectboard Chairman Steve Gutowski. “The townspeople want to make sure property that they’ve been paying taxes into for forever remains for the use of the town.”
And this time around new wrinkles in Ferrisburgh, Vergennes and Addison have complicated the land situations. (See related articles on the details in each community. In the future, the Independent will also explore other issues related to ANwSU unification, including potential financial benefits, educational equity, and collective debt assumption of individual town’s debt.)
In those communities, in addition to the provision in the unification Articles of Agreement that pledges towns will get their schools back if they are no longer used for education, selectboards and school boards are working on agreements to deal with everything from contradictory 1959 deed provisions in Vergennes to town-school land swaps in Addison.
Ferrisburgh Central School Board Chairman Bill Clark summed up the goals of the memorandum of understanding (an MOU, for short) that his board is trying to work out with Gutowski’s selectboard — with the help of lawyers who are not always agreeing, of course.
“We don’t want a unified district to somehow be able to sell off, transfer, or long-term lease, or significantly modify, the land as we know it today,” Clark said.
That said, officials generally believe these wrinkles can be ironed out, especially given that if unification is approved the new board will not take over until July 2017, meaning selectboards and existing school boards have time to reach needed agreements.
In Vergennes, for example, three issues are on the table. City Manager Mel Hawley, also an ANwSU Act 46 Study Committee member, said the city attorney has already prepared one needed document, Vergennes officials are happy to have him write another necessary easement, and the third question is not complex.
“Instead of having a memorandum of understanding with three items on it, let’s take care of two of them,” Hawley said. “Let’s just do them.”
Officials also emphasize that while these issues certainly do need to be considered, the stakes for unification this time around are higher: Act 46 will give districts that unify before this July, five years of property tax breaks that start at 10 cents in the 2017 academic year; allow them to retain Small School Grants, which they say is crucial for Addison Central School; and award them $150,000 to help with the transition.
And they note Act 46 also empowers the state to dictate consolidation to districts that do not choose to do so on their own, without those benefits. The ANwSU study committee report concluded Act 46 “also includes the eventuality that the State Board can, in November 2018, order unification, if regions have not developed their own approaches to unification.”
Debate before the Ferrisburgh selectboard in recent weeks and months highlights the larger question of giving up property ownership. Some residents have insisted, as Gutowski noted, that land and buildings on which they have paid taxes for years should remain with the town.
Others have wondered what could happen if ANwSU chose to build offices on the property, and then returned it to the town under provisions of the articles of unification.
Those articles include measures that call for each school within the unified district to remain open for at least four years, unless its host town votes to close it. After four years, a school can be closed by a majority vote of the 12-member unified district board, which will include four members each from Ferrisburgh and Vergennes, two from Addison, and one each from Panton and Waltham. Those latter two towns do not own school property.
A property no longer used by the unified district for education will be returned to towns for $1, unless the town chooses not to accept it. In that case, the unified district would sell it.
Some in Ferrisburgh, including Bob McNary, have speculated the Legislature could amend Act 46 in such a way that the town’s right to the property would be taken away.
“There are a couple of people who have extremely strong opinions about it, and really believe Montpelier is going to come in and find a way to take the land away from us wholesale and just keep it,” Clark said.
Members of the selectboard have also been wary, and Gutowski said the board will take care to make sure any MOUs are carefully written.
“A lot of people are of the feeling that we will have no control over that property once unification happens,” Gutowski said. “So that’s still a work in progress.”
Clark said what he hears from most people can be addressed with the addition of an MOU to the language already in the articles and in Act 46 itself.
“The majority of people I’ve spoken with basically are concerned that a unified district should never be able to subdivide, sell off or long-term lease the land,” Clark said. “And if the day comes the unified district decides that the property and school known as Ferrisburgh Central today is no longer needed or viable for educational purposes or otherwise abandoned, that there be some process to ensure that that goes back to the town of Ferrisburgh. And that’s what we’re trying to accomplish.”
In Vergennes, land ownership is not an issue. It’s recreation area, once owned by the now-defunct Vergennes ID School Board, was transferred to the city before 2010 unification voting, and Vergennes already shares ownership with the Vergennes union high and elementary school towns, the latter with Waltham and Panton. Hawley said unification would simply add Ferrisburgh and Addison to the VUES ownership roster.
“We already have a union high school and a union elementary school,” Hawley said. “I don’t see that as being any different.”
Addison Central School Board Chairwoman Michele Kelly, also a member of the ANwSU study committee, said the question has not become a major issue before her board. Nor do the past three months of selectboard minutes reflect citizen concerns.
Kelly believes the articles of unification provide solid protection, as was the study committee’s intent.
“The people of Addison have put their money into the school for the education purposes of their children. It was paid for by the taxpayers, and we wanted to make sure that if they wanted the building at whatever time Addison was not used as an educational facility, they would get all their assets back,” she said. “That was a concern for all of us on there for every town.”
See also:
Ferrisburgh considers recreation area
Addison town, school talk land swap
Vergennes dealing with three issues

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