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Vergennes-area towns support one-board school governance plan

VERGENNES — Residents in each of the five communities that make up Addison Northwest Supervisory Union on Tuesday approved by wide margins the plan to unify the district under the governance of one board, effective July 1, 2017.
As of that date, ANwSU will become the Addison Northwest Unified District (ANwUD) and a 12-member board will operate it, with four members each from Vergennes and Ferrisburgh, two from Addison, and one each from Panton and Waltham.
That board will operate the four district schools under one budget.
Those board members were chosen in uncontested races on Tuesday. Existing boards will operate for a year during a transition phase until the new Unified District Board takes over in July 2017 after a year of planning.
The new ANwUD will at that point assume ownership of the four district schools and their contents and operate them under one contract with its teachers. 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.
The new union will also assume school districts’ existing debt.
Collectively, the plan passed, 2,223-691, in a strong turnout that ran at about 50 percent in the five towns due to the Presidential primary as well as the unification vote.
ANwSU had considered unification in 2005, 2010 and 2011. It had first passed in the latter two years in all five towns before losing in petitioned re-votes in Addison and Vergennes, respectively.
This time around, in percentage terms, the smallest margin of victory came in Addison, where about 68 percent of voters favored the measure. Overall, voters in the five towns favored unification 76 percent to 24 percent.
Town by town the vote went:
• In Addison, 366-169.
• In Ferrisburgh, 852-241.
• In Panton, 181-46.
• In Vergennes, 661-214.
• In Waltham, 163-21.
ANwSU Superintendent JoAn Canning said she was thrilled with the results, which she called a win for the district’s students.
“I am feeling relieved and excited and so honored by the fact that these results are so resounding and this community has understood this unification possibility is really going to have a positive effect on all our students,” Canning said.
Act 46, passed a year ago by the Legislature, created incentives for districts that unified their governance before this summer. Locally on Tuesday, ANwSU and Addison Central Supervisory Union joined what is now a total of nine new unified districts created under Act 46 taking advantage of those incentives, according to a press release from Gov. Peter Shumlin.
Those incentives include discounts of 10 cents off the local residential school tax rate in the first year after a 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.
Also, ANwSU will receive a $150,000 grant to help plan the transition, and the district will retain its Small School Grants, a key factor in Addison, where the central school receives about $80,000 annually, about 5 percent of its budget.
ANwSU also released estimates that over the next five years tax rates in all five communities would be lower under unification.
But Canning said the successful vote this time was not just due to the financial incentives. She credited a process that involved citizens as well as board members in the ANwSU’s unification study committee, and the word of mouth those involved created.
“This time around we had board members and community members who were willing to reach out to individual community members and talk to them directly about the advantages of unification,” Canning said. “You can offer people an opportunity to come to a meeting, or you can hold a lot of meetings in your locations, but the biggest thing is to reach out and go to the people.”
Canning echoed themes that unification supporters said during the run-up to the vote: That the ability to more easily share programs and curriculum among the ANwSU elementary schools and, if necessary, move teachers from school to school, will benefit students and allow administrators to plan for what they expect to be declining enrollments.
 “I’m really excited about being able to share all of our school resources and be able to deal in a strategic way around our declining enrollment,” Canning said. “I’m not interested in reducing staff on a year-to-year basis. We need to understand where we need to go in five years, where we need to go six years.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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