Middlebury-area towns to weigh in on unified school governance

MIDDLEBURY — Addison Central Supervisory Union voters on Tuesday will be asked to endorse a seismic shift in the way their schools are governed, a shift that supporters believe would save taxpayers money and lead to more efficient delivery of public education to students in the towns of Bridport, Cornwall, Middlebury, Ripton, Salisbury, Shoreham and Weybridge.
The referendum in question calls for the ACSU to form one, 13-member Addison Central School District (ACSD) Board to preside over all seven of the district’s elementary schools, along with Middlebury Union Middle and High schools. A single budget would be crafted for all ACSD schools.
All seven ACSU towns must back the governance change for it to take effect.
This new streamlined governance system would replace the nine boards and  ACSU Executive Committee that currently govern Middlebury-area schools. Each of the schools currently has its own budget, and those budgets have been consistently on the rise in spite of declining enrollments throughout the ACSU and most of Vermont.
Locally, only Middlebury has recently seen a bump in its elementary school population.
“This is the trend we have seen since 2005,” Ruth Hardy, co-chair of the ACSU Charter Committee, told participants at a Feb. 21 unification forum sponsored by the Independent, the ACSU and Middlebury Community Television. “We also have unequal spending per pupil between the highest and the lowest spending district in our supervisory union. There is more than a $5,000 difference in what we spend per pupil.”
ACSU is one in a handful of supervisory unions (including Addison Northwest) statewide that will be considering the transition to single-board governance on Town Meeting Day. It is a move encouraged by Act 46, passed by the Legislature last year.
Act 46 provides financial incentives for school districts that consolidate their governance, seen as a tool in containing the rising costs of public education. School districts at this point are simply being encouraged to unify their governance; but the state has served notice that it will compel all districts to join the unification effort by 2020.
Carol Eckels, former ID-4 board chairwoman, noted at the Feb. 21 forum the ACSU has been exploring governance consolidation since 1963. Eckels quoted from several merger studies conducted throughout the years, noting all of the reports point to two advantages of unification: increased efficiency and greater accountability.
“The evidence suggests … that if you have a board that looks at all the children all the time, like the UD-3 board, they tend to form a working relationship together, and work for the benefit of all kids,” Eckels said, noting the individual boards within the ACSU are more focused on their own schools and students.
It was in 2010 that the ACSU began its latest exploration of unifying its governance structure and resources. A Regional Education District (RED) Committee studied the prospect of combining some, or all, of the ACSU schools into an RED, which was envisioned as a new type of union school district that would allow multiple community and secondary schools to operate under one board with a common budget with shared resources.
The ACSU’s RED Committee held forums to solicit input for a report. The report included examples of the benefits of consolidation, but concluded ACSU towns were not yet ready for a unification referendum. Still, the ACSU took steps to centralize its student support and special education services and forged, with teachers, a master contract placing all of the supervisory union’s educators on an equitable salary scale.
With the passage of Act 46 last spring, the ACSU formed a Charter Committee to gauge support for governance unification and to map out how it could be accomplished. The Vermont Agency of Education approved the ACSU’s proposed governance merger plan last December, paving the way for Tuesday’s Australian ballot voting on unification and membership of the single board.
Supporters stress that voter approval of the governance unification and new ACSD board would not mean schools within the district would close. If the unified board sometime in the future determined that a school should close, it would take approval of at least 10 of the panel’s 13 members to bring that initiative forward to the public. If a school does close and is no longer used for educational purposes, it would become the property of the town in which it is located.
The new 13-member ACSD board would be roughly proportional to the populations of the forming towns, based on the U.S. Census. Middlebury would receive seven seats at the table, with one each for Bridport, Cornwall, Salisbury, Shoreham, Ripton and Salisbury. Board members would be elected to three-year stints, though the initial election would feature staggered terms.
All 13 board positions will be elected at-large during Australian ballot voting on March 1. That means voters in each ACSU town will not only cast ballots for their own representatives, but also for all 13 positions up for grabs. Here are the ACSD board candidates who will appear on the ballot:
• Suzanne Buck and Rick Scott will be vying for Bridport’s one-year term on the board.
• Three candidates are vying for one three-year term representing Ripton: Bryan Alexander, Perry Hanson and Jerry Shedd.
• Peter Conlon is the lone candidate for Cornwall’s two-year term, as is Jennifer Nuceder in Salisbury, Nick Causton in Shoreham and Christopher Eaton in Weybridge.
• There are seven candidates running for Middlebury’s seven seats: Lorraine Morse, Josh Quinn and Steve Orzech are seeking three-year terms, Jason Duquette-Hoffman and Ruth Hardy are up for two-year terms, and John Rees and Victoria Jette are up for one-year terms.
Under Act 46, ACSU communities voting this March on school governance mergers will receive financial advantages.
Most notably, those include including a discount of 10 cents on their education property tax rate during the first year of the governance merger, followed by 8 cents in year two; 6 cents in year three; 4 cents in year four; and finally, 2 cents in year five.
The participating SUs will also receive a one-time “transition facilitation grant” of $150,000 and the ability to retain their Small Schools Grants, which for ACSU schools amount to a combined total of $470,000 annually. Officials say retaining those grants are important in keeping small schools open.
ACSU Charter Committee members have estimated that school governance unification would bring cumulative, five-year savings of $1.80 on Bridport’s tax rate; $1.60 on Cornwall’s rate; 80 cents for Middlebury; $2.30 for Ripton; $1.60 for both Salisbury and Shoreham; and $2.80 for Weybridge.
According to the estimates, the cumulative five-year savings on a $200,000 home would be $3,600 in Bridport, $3,200 in Cornwall, $1,600 in Middlebury, $4,600 in Ripton, $3,200 in both Salisbury and Shoreham, and $5,600 in Weybridge.
These incentives would become less generous, however, if the governance merger is not approved by this July, or if one or more towns in the proposed union reject it.
Hardy explained that a revote could be petitioned in any of the seven towns that might reject (or approve) the ACSU governance merger. But anything less than a unanimous endorsement by all seven towns would put the new ACSD board on hold and trigger a new discussion of different governance structures that could win voter approval.
Charter Committee members noted that ACSU towns that choose not to become members of the new ACSD would not only lose the merger tax incentives and Small Schools Grants, they could also eventually be placed by the state into a governance structure that might be less to their liking.
While the financial benefits are clear — especially to the six smaller communities in the ACSU — not everyone is on board with unification. Some residents, during public meetings, have expressed concerns about a potential loss of local control by no longer having their town’s school board.
Other residents have touted new education possibilities that a unified ACSD could afford, such as the potential for students to attend different elementary schools within the union based on specialized programming.
School districts that become a part of the new unified district would convey to the ACSD, for the sum of $1, all of the real estate and personal property owned by them — including all land, buildings and contents — by June 30, 2017.
Schools would also transfer all of their fund balances and capital debt to the new ACSD, so a larger proportion of taxpayers would thus absorb that cumulative debt. Records currently show Bridport carrying around $350,000 in debt through 2025, ID-4 carrying around $500,000 in debt through 2021, Ripton carrying around $300,000 in debt through 2033, and Shoreham carrying around $100,000 in debt through 2020.
UD-3 is carrying around $1 million in debt that the seven towns already share.
Schools will, however, be able to keep and use any special funds currently used for educational purposes.
Lawmakers and school officials have said governance consolidation would stem the rate of school budget increases. In the ACSU, officials expect to see approximately $175,000 in immediate savings from greater sharing of staffing and school facilities, and from fewer board-management, business, financial and audit costs.
As a unified district, budgets and tax rates would be consolidated under one system, which would provide greater clarity and transparency in the budget process, according the ACSU Charter Committee’s final report on unification.
“It would make it easier for our communities to engage in the process of understanding the myriad of financial formulas that are currently displayed in both local and union budgets,” the report states. “Rather than sifting through a number of different tax rates, voters would be presented with one budget and one tax rate from that budget. Administrative staff would be able to spend more time on improving services, providing clearer reports, and developing strong communication with our communities.”
Rep. Dave Sharpe, D-Bristol, is chairman of the House Education Committee and was among those present at the Feb. 21 forum. He gave kudos to the ACSU for pursuing unification.
 “The comments, the energy and the possibilities that I see here in this district are really exciting and give me energy to go back (to the Statehouse) and keep working on things for kids,” Sharpe said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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