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For fourth time, Vergennes-area towns to vote on one-board plan

VERGENNES — For the fourth time since 2005, on March 1 residents of the five communities that make up Addison Northwest Supervisory Union will decide if one board, not the current five, should run their four schools.
A yes vote on Tuesday 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.
Australian ballot voting will take place in each of the five towns.
ANwSU voters will also vote on Town Meeting Day for directors to serve on the Unified District 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. Panton is lacking a candidate, and if unification passes the town’s selectboard will appoint a director.
Also according to the Articles of Agreement on which residents will vote on Tuesday, on July 1, 2017, 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.
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.
Those provisions are similar to those in previous unification plans, although according to ANwSU officials more tightly worded this time around.
ANwSU officials also say the state-offered incentives found in Act 46 are better this time around, while the law also could by 2018 order districts like ANwSU to consolidate without offering any of the benefits that would come with a voluntary merger this year.
As far as the incentives, Act 46 provides for 10 cents off the 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.
City Manager Mel Hawley recently said the best way for residents to look at the tax-rate incentive would be as a discount on the otherwise approved rate.
ANwSU officials estimate that under unification:
• Addison’s school tax rate would be 15.2 cents lower in the 2017-2018 tax year, and savings in the following year would be 13.3 cents.
• Ferrisburgh’s school tax rate would be 14.8 cents lower in the 2017-2018 tax year, and savings in the following year would be 12.9 cents.
• Panton’s school tax rate would be 5.7 cents lower in the 2017-2018 tax year, and savings in the following year would be 3.6 cents.
• Vergennes’ school tax rate would be 4.4 cents lower in the 2017-2018 tax year, and savings in the following year would be 2.3 cents.
• Waltham’s school tax rate would be 5.1 cents lower in the 2017-2018 tax year, and savings in the following year would be 3 cents.
In all five communities, the tax rates in the following three years would be 16.7, 14.9 and 13.0 cents, respectively, lower with unification than without, according to the ANwSU estimates.
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.
Officials also said they would have greater flexibility to share staff among elementary schools if there were one single contract with a Unified District Board, a situation that could save money and help students.
They also say it would be easier under a unified governance structure to ensure that all ANwSU elementary school students share the same curriculum and extra-curricular benefits, thus helping them to enter Vergennes Union High School on an equal footing.
Addison, Ferrisburgh and Vergennes municipal and school officials are working with school boards to deal with land issues in each community that they believe can be settled before town school property would be transferred on July 1, 2017.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at andyk@addisonindependent.com.

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