Orwell vote stops unification in Addison-Rutland district

ORWELL — Orwell residents on Tuesday voted 211 to 121 against joining five Rutland County communities in forming a “Slate Valley Unified Union School District” that would have been governed by a single board presiding over a global education budget for all of the schools in the new union.
“A pretty strong message was sent,” Orwell’s Alyson Eastman, chairwoman of the Addison-Rutland Supervisory Union’s Act 46 Study Committee, said on Wednesday of her community’s vote on the issue.
“We will see if any action is taken for a revote.”
Orwell was the lone dissenting community from among the six ARSU towns that voted on both unification and the composition of an 18-member board that would have led the new school district. According to Eastman, Castleton endorsed unification by a 263-127 tally, West Haven by 32-13, Benson by 115-47, Hubbardton by 66-13, and Fair Haven by 158-129. The new district would have had one education budget for its five elementary schools and Fair Haven Union High School.
The ARSU was seeking to join three other area supervisory unions that took the school governance unification leap earlier this year through an “accelerated merger” referendum: Addison Central, Addison Northwest and Rutland Northeast.
But Vermont’s Act 46 requires all participating communities to endorse the accelerated merger proposal for it to take effect and thereby net the associated communities the requisite financial incentives. Those incentives included:
• 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 annually for Orwell.
So now proponents of a Slate Valley Unified Union School District will wait to see if an Orwell resident files a citizens’ petition within the requisite 30 days that would trigger a revote in the town on the unification proposal. Barring a petition and a successful revote, the district could seek to move forward with a “conventional” model of unification that would offer participating communities fewer tax incentives.
Eastman said that absent a successful revote, the ARSU will need to form a brand new Act 46 Study Committee to plan for a new unification effort. Orwell would again be invited to participate on that panel. The committee, among other things, would need to determine whether Orwell’s membership in the unified district would be necessary or merely “advisable” in making the new Slate Valley Unified Union School District a reality. If the panel determines Orwell’s participation is not absolutely necessary, this could allow a unified district to form with just the five Rutland County towns if Orwell voters again take a pass, officials said.
Act 46 requires the new unified school districts to have at least 900 students. The proposed six-community Slate Valley Unified Union School District would have had an estimated 1,350 students, according to Eastman. A new district without Orwell in the mix would still contain more than 900 students, Eastman noted.
The Orwell Village School currently has an enrollment of 122 students and is not at risk of being closed or consolidated in the foreseeable future, according to ARSU officials. But Eastman and ARSU Superintendent Ron Ryan noted some residents at the pre-vote informational meetings in Orwell expressed fears that school governance consolidation might become a precursor to closing of some of the rural schools in the new Slate Valley Unified Union School District.
Other Orwell residents said they feared a loss of local control that consolidation might bring.
But supporters of Act 46 note that communities that have not joined a unified school district by 2018 will be required to do so anyway — and the Vermont Agency of Education can direct them to join a district that might be less palatable than the one they rejected.
Orwell would have seen an estimated 10-cent reduction in its education property tax rate (from $1.41 to $1.31) in fiscal year 2017, had residents opted for the accelerated merger, according to the ARSU business office. Lawmakers have touted Act 46 as primarily a vehicle for containing future education cost increases in this era of declining enrollment in most regions of the Green Mountain State.
“It’s somewhat disappointing,” Ryan said of the Orwell vote. “The Act 46 Committee did a lot of hard work. We will wait now to see what happens.”
Eastman was among those who put in the long hours studying the unification issue. She also serves as Orwell’s Republican representative in the Vermont House, and was among those legislators who voted against Act 46 last year. But she gradually changed her mind on the new law, believing a unified district would, among other things, make school operations and budgeting more transparent.
With Tuesday’s vote now in the rearview mirror, Eastman does not want Orwell’s public education interests to get lost in the shuffle. She is concerned, for example, that Orwell could be confined to only one unified school board representative if the community is forced to join a district in the future. Eastman noted that the ARSU Act 46 Study Committee expanded its proposed unified school board to 18 members in part to assure Orwell two seats. That representation could now drop to one on a future unified board, she said.
“I understand we love our school, and we have a great community that supports our school, but if the law stands as-is and we are told where to go, it could be not as positive an outcome,” Eastman said.
In other voting in Orwell on Tuesday, residents picked Eastman (unopposed), and Glen Cousineau over Amy Roy, 211 to 74, in a contest for what would have been Orwell’s two seats in the Slate Valley Unified Union School District board. Those elections are, of course, a moot point given failure of the unification referendum.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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