Orwell-area schools vote on unification plan

ORWELL — Orwell and the five other Addison-Rutland Supervisory Union (ARSU) communities will decide on April 12 whether to consolidate their school governance system into a single board that will oversee one education budget for its five elementary schools and Fair Haven Union High School.
Residents of the ARSU-member towns of Benson, Castleton, Hubbardton, Fair Haven, Orwell and West Haven will also cast ballots on April 12 on their respective representatives to the new, 18-member board that would govern a newly created “Slate Valley Unified Union School District.”
All six communities will need to endorse unification if it is to pass under an accelerated timetable offered through Vermont’s Act 46. That new law provides financial incentives to communities that undertake school governance mergers, a transition that the Legislature wants to see replicated statewide as a means of delivering public education more efficiently and cost-effectively during this period of declining student enrollment.
If the ARSU opts for unification, it would join three other area supervisory unions that took such action earlier this year: Addison Central, Addison Northwest and Rutland Northeast, which approved the measure this past November.
The looming vote comes at the recommendation of the ARSU’s Act 46 Study Committee, which spent several months exploring the potential educational and financial advantages that a merged district could provide for the six communities. The panel — chaired by Rep. Alyson Eastman, R-Orwell — acknowledged the advantages in a final report, which included a blueprint of how the Slate Valley Unified Union School District could be created and managed.
The committee noted, in its report, that the ARSU has already laid a solid foundation for governance unification.
 “In our current system we have already centralized transportation, teachers’ agreements, support staff agreements, food service, special education services, curriculum, professional development, as well as accounting and technology services,” the report states.
“Therefore, it makes sense for our communities to join together as one unified union school district to support the best interests of our students. Our study committee believes the formation of a unified school district for pre-Kindergarten through grade 12 would only enhance the overall quality of education for the students in our six communities.”
The current teachers’ contract expires next June, according to ARSU Superintendent Ron Ryan. All teachers in the SU are already covered under a master agreement.
“We have worked on centralizing that throughout the years,” Ryan said. “We went to 2017 (for expiration of the latest contract) specifically for this reason. We knew we were looking at Act 46 and the bottom line is if this vote is successful, we have 90 days from that vote to open negotiations again and work on that whole unification piece.”
Rep. Eastman acknowledged she was not immediately sold on unification. She is among those legislators who voted against Act 46 last year.
“The reason I was a ‘no’ vote is because I didn’t believe it would provide the tax relief that folks had asked us to get a handle on,” Eastman said, adding she and others were also concerned the law might lead to additional loss of local control.
But Eastman said she gained a broader perspective on governance unification after taking the helm of the ARSU Act 46 Study Committee. She believes a unified district would, among other things, make school operations and budgeting more transparent. It could also lead to more shared resources among schools, she believes.
“I got a better look at it from the school board perspective, and tried not to look at it from the Montpelier perspective,” Eastman said. “For me, it wasn’t easy; it took a lot of time to get there. There are so many intricacies of the law that it took probably eight months before I was comfortable in my understanding of what we were trying to do.”
And she noted that with a positive vote, the new unified district would still have another year to work out the kinks in the transition. The new unified board would supplant the current eight school boards in the ARSU and assume full control of the district on July 1, 2017. The ARSU would cease all operations by Jan. 31, 2018.
Some opponents of unification have voiced concerns that merging governance could be a precursor to closing schools. Act 46 supporters have countered that unification would give small schools a new lease on life, given the greater efficiencies and financial incentives offered through the new law. A positive vote on April 12 would give the Slate Valley Unified Union School District communities:
• Decreases of 10 cents on the 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.
• A “transition facilitation grant” of $130,000 to assist in the creation of the new district.
• The ability to retain a combined total of $200,000 in Small Schools Grants now being received by the ARSU. That amounts to around $100,000 for Orwell alone, according to Laura Jakubowski, director of finance for the ARSU.
ARSU officials tentatively estimate that Orwell would see a 10-cent reduction in its education property tax rate (from $1.41 to $1.31) in fiscal year 2017, assuming the same local and state budgeting variables that are present in fiscal year 2016. That translates into a $200 savings on a home valued at $200,000. Unification in Orwell would not trigger any additional savings for those eligible for income sensitivity provisions of Act 68, according to information supplied by the ARSU.
A unified district, according to the study committee, would eliminate billing back and forth for services provided by one member district to another; allow for contracting services for the new district, versus individual entities hiring their own; and allow for district-wide pre-K and EEE programs.
The Orwell Village School currently has an enrollment of 122 students and is not at risk of being closed or consolidated, according to ARSU officials.
“Enrollment in Orwell has started to go up, and that’s a good thing,” Ryan said. “Our other towns aren’t in such a good place, in terms of enrollment, but Orwell has had a significant increase. Hopefully, that will continue.”
Here’s what the ARSU’s Act 46 Study Committee reported on the topic of school closings:
“We do not anticipate closing any of the schools in Benson, Castleton, Fair Haven, or Orwell,” the panel said in its final report. “That is not the intent of the law. Budgetary pressures such as losing the small schools grants and losing the 3.5 percent hold-harmless protection for declining enrollment would stay in place if a new Unified Union District formed, therefore sustainability of their school would be greater in a larger district with more pupils.”
In any case, the new union school district would not be able to close any schools within its boundaries during the first four years it is fully operational. Thereafter, it would take a unanimous vote of the board to close a school.
Eastman is proud of Orwell’s strong community and thriving school.
Prospective homebuyers, she said, are encouraged to walk through the Orwell school to check out the amenities, which often provides an extra inducement for people to settle in the community, according to Eastman.
Orwell this fall will be offering parents two hours of pre-school for their three- and four-year-olds. The Mary Johnson Children’s Center will be coordinating that offering, as well as after-school care, so parents will have the option of day-long activities for their young children instead of having to find transportation and care for kids after a two-hour program.
“We are offering a neat situation that other schools can’t,” Eastman said.
Membership on the new unified board would be based on each community’s proportional representation in the district. That means Orwell (1,185 residents) is in line for two members on the 18-person board. Castleton, with 4,367, would have the most members, with seven.
Each community will vote only on its delegates.
In Orwell, Amy Roy and Glen Cousineau are competing for a two-year term on the panel, while Eastman is the lone candidate for a three-year term.
All terms on the board will eventually be for three years. They are being staggered, initially.
An informational meeting on unification will be held on Monday, April 4, beginning at 7:30 p.m., at the Orwell Town Hall. Australian ballot voting on the unification question and the elections to the new board will also take place at the town hall, from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., on Tuesday, April 12.
Officials are hoping for a good turnout at the polls. They served notice that a “no” vote would have substantial ramifications for the ARSU and other supervisory unions that either reject or delay unification.
Supervisory unions that don’t merge voluntarily will need to conduct a self-study and make a case for why the current systems serve students better than a unified district. The school boards would also be required to meet with other boards and discuss collaboration. The Vermont Agency of Education would then decide whether to mandate a merger in 2019 — and at that point, minus financial incentives.
After July 1, 2019, these districts will only be able to retain their Small Schools Grants if the state board determines they are geographically isolated or can demonstrate academic excellence and operational efficiency, according to the study committee’s final report. As of July 1, 2017, supervisory unions found to be out of compliance with state-mandated centralization provisions will see a 5-percent tax penalty, according to the report.
Eastman hopes ARSU residents will see the advantages of  unification, including expanded educational options for students through shared equipment, technology and staff.
“There are things about being part of a bigger unit that will help us educationally,” she said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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