Benefits, issues seen as ANwSU merger balloting nears

VERGENNES — For the third time since 2005, residents of the five communities that make up Addison Northwest Supervisory Union will decide on March 1 if one board, not the current five, should run their four schools.
A yes vote on March 1 (Town Meeting Day) in all five towns would create the Addison Northwest Unified School District and a 12-member board to operate it, effective July 1, 2017, after a year of planning during which the existing ANwSU boards would still call the shots.
ANwSU voters will also vote on Town Meeting Day for a dozen directors to serve on the unified board, four each from Vergennes and Ferrisburgh, two from Addison, and one each from Panton and Waltham. There are no contested races for those seats.
On July 1 next year, if the consolidation effort passes, the towns’ schools and school property would also transfer to the new unified district, with a provision that real estate be returned, or at least offered back, to the towns if no longer used for education.
Existing debt would also be assumed by the greater union, an issue for some in Addison, which owns a school that is debt-free and in good condition.
Those provisions are similar to those in previous unification plans, although according to ANwSU officials more tightly worded this time around than in 2010, when unification passed the first time around, but lost in a petitioned revote.
The difference, they say, is that Act 46, the 2015 state law created to promote unification, both offers better incentives to districts that consolidate, and gives the Vermont Board of Education power to force districts to merge that do not do so voluntarily now.
ANwSU board chairman Jeffry Glassberg put it this way to the Vergennes City Council last week: “There are a few more carrots. And there is a stick, as well.”
Glassberg, who has been presenting to area selectboards in recent weeks, also told city council members that ANwSU would be a prime target for the Board of Education for a mandated merger because the district already has “one of the simplest structures that exist” among Vermont supervisory unions.
Vergennes Union Elementary School board member Cheryl Brinkman, presenting along with Glassberg, added that Addison Northwest Unified School District — essentially a plan most ANwSU voters have backed twice — is the preference of the district. What the state could impose — even a marriage with a neighboring supervisory union — is uncertain, she said.
“Who knows who we would be merging with?” said Brinkman.
As far as the incentives, Act 46 provides for 10 cents off the otherwise approved local residential school tax rate in the first year after an approved merger, 8 cents in the second year, 6 cents in the third year, 4 cents in the fourth year, and 2 cents in the fifth and final year of that bonus.
Glassberg said that does not necessarily mean lower taxes, just a lower rate than would have been the case.
“I’m not here to tell you your taxes are going down,” Glassberg said.
City Manager Mel Hawley, a member of the ANwSU Act 46 Study Committee that drafted the Articles of Unification on which residents will vote on March 1, said the best way for residents to look at the tax-rate incentive would be as a “discount.”
“It’s a discount, and it’s a decreasing discount over five years,” Hawley said.
Act 46 also provides for a $150,000 grant to help districts plan the transitions, and allows them to keep Small Schools Grants. Addison Central School currently receives such a grant of about $80,000 a year. Officials also expect up to $70,000 in annual savings from consolidation, citing items such as fewer board insurance policies and audits.
Hawley said unification also holds promise for larger future savings. He noted at the council meeting last week that unification would allow consideration of more radical changes, such as making one of the elementary schools kindergarten through third grade only, or sending all sixth-graders to VUHS to create a “true middle school” there.
“It’s going to take bold moves to get a handle on per-pupil spending, and those bold moves can only be done under unification,” Hawley said.
That flexibility extends to dealing with staff, Glassberg said. Labor costs make up about 80 percent of school budgets, and being able to more easily move staff from school to school to meet needs, something not possible under the current system of separate contracts for each school, could help control costs as well as make best use of teachers’ abilities as enrollment continues to decline.
“We have to plan for smaller numbers,” Glassberg said. “We need to be in position to use our talented teachers in a more efficient way.”
Officials also believe that one board can better ensure that students in the three ANwSU elementary schools have access to similar quality programs, including foreign languages, library services, physical education, nursing services, the arts and pre-K.
Brinkman told the city council that students do not always arrive at Vergennes Union High School on an equal footing.
“They’re not all coming with the same skills. They’re not all coming with the same curriculum,” she said.
An article in the Feb. 11 Independent looked at property issues in depth. The Articles of Unification call for towns to convey real and personal property to the new unified district for $1. The new district will assume all debts and operating surpluses, if any. That property will be returned to the towns for $1 if it is no longer used for educational purposes, unless towns choose not to accept the property. In that case, the unified district would sell it.
Each school within the unified district will 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 unified district board. 
In Vergennes last week, Glassberg also addressed what he called the “hot-button” issue of varying levels of debt. Ferrisburgh Central School is still paying off a school bond, while VUES needs roofing work.
Meanwhile, Addison Central School is debt-free and does not need any immediate repair, and some in Addison are reluctant to sign on to the school sale.
“That’s a hard pill to swallow for the people in that community,” Glassberg said.
But Glassberg noted that under tax-rate projections, Addison residents are the biggest winners, largely due to the size of their school and the preservation of the Small Schools Grants.
“My response is turn the page, go to per-pupil rates,” Glassberg said. “Vergennes Union Elementary School has the lowest per-pupil rates.”
Vergennes Alderman Mark Koenig, who is running for the unified district board, also weighed in.
“They’re also getting the best bang for the buck on the homestead tax rate,” Koenig said.
Ferrisburgh Central School board chairman Bill Clark addressed the bigger picture of consolidation.  
“It means that we are collectively as a community deciding it is a good idea for all of us to pool all of our educational resources and funds, so that collectively we can do a better job, and maybe a more equitable job, of educating the kids in our community,” Clark said, “and just really acknowledging we are a community of five towns surrounding the greater Vergennes area, and that none of us is really an island to itself when it comes to education.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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