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ANeSU residents question school merger law

BRISTOL — Monday night’s Act 46 forum for the five towns in the Addison Northeast Supervisory Union drew appreciation for the intensely detailed work the ANeSU Act 46 Committee is engaged in.
It also saw a fair heap of skepticism as to the potential benefits of school district unification and a series of eloquent and impassioned defenses of the value and mechanisms of local control.
“It was great to have so much participation, and I appreciated all the comments and the discussion,” said ANeSU Act 46 Committee Chair Jennifer Stanley of Monkton. “The committee will need to discuss further some of the comments we heard. I think it’s not a big surprise that we heard a lot of concern about losing local control and local involvement in the schools. And I think that gives the committee some work to do in that area.”
The committee last week decided to hold a November vote in the five-town area on a unified school governance plan that would also produce a single budget for all public schools in the Bristol area (see story here).
Close to 30 people from all five towns attended the forum, including the main author of Act 46, Rep. Dave Sharpe of Bristol. Sharpe answered questions and spoke forcefully on the benefits of the legislation, but said he was really present as a concerned community member.
Such was participants’ engagement with the issues at hand that even when Stanley declared the meeting at time after an hour and a half, all participants elected to stay an additional 30 minutes for further discussion.
CONVENTIONAL MERGER
Passed in 2015, Act 46 requires Vermont school districts to unify governance structures into more sustainable models. Towns in the three supervisory unions serving most of the rest of Addison County have approved Act 46 unification plans.
ANeSU towns would be pursuing what’s called a “conventional merger,” meaning that their plan for unification would be approved by voters no later than July 1, 2017. Carrots for conventional mergers include yearly property tax reductions, starting at 8 cents in the first year and then decreasing to 6, 4 and 2 cents in the following years. School districts that unify by July 2017 also receive a transition assistance grant and keep both the Small Schools grant and the “hold harmless” provision that modifies official enrollment tallies against actual sharp declines.
Districts that fail to act lose out on the tax incentives, receive no transition grant, and lose their Small Schools grants and “hold harmless” provisions. The biggest stick wielded by Act 46 is that districts that don’t act will be assigned a unified district to join regardless.
Some attendees at Monday’s gathering expressed dismay that the Act 46 Committee voted on a governance structure before the May 9 public forum. Others accepted the committee’s reasoning that it was more effective to present a strategy at the forum and incorporate public feedback into the actual articles of agreement, which will be the focus of the committee’s work from now through July.
Committee members also summarized their work thus far, including conducting a community survey on issues relating to Act 46, investigating examples of articles of agreement and reports on unification from surrounding communities, and analyzing the equity and quality of current ANeSU educational offerings.
ATTENDEES SPEAK OUT
One of the main benefits that different committee members advanced for the unified union structure was that the current governance structure results in school superintendents spending most of their time attending board meetings rather than getting out into schools and being able to work directly on educational leadership.
“We’re hearing from a lot of folks … that this change will significantly reduce a lot of demands on the superintendents so that they can focus more on education and educational outcomes and less on meeting with a lots of boards,” said committee member Caleb Elder.
Having worked in school administration, committee member Nancy Cornell added, “I’m not diminishing board work … but to get so much more of a superintendent’s time devoted to teaching and learning is a big gain.”
Bristol Elementary Board Chair Elin Melchior voiced the hope that in working out the articles of agreement the committee would be able to find new structures for local input.
“I’m really hopeful that we’re going to have something better come out of this, some kind of connection between the community and the schools that is dealing more with what’s actually happening in the school rather than policy. So that’s why I voted,” said Melchior.
In a follow-up interview with the Independent, Stanley noted the many ways that community members engage with the schools — such as Monkton’s read-a-thon, Teacher Appreciation Day and new gardening project — that are completely outside the world of the school boards and the boards’ decision-making processes.
When asked about the extent to which ANeSU would see financial savings from unification, consultant Andrew Pond said that it would see benefits but not dramatic ones.
“There wasn’t a tremendous amount of financial savings,” said Pond, referring to the analysis that had been done thus far on unification’s financial benefits to ANeSU. “There were things like audit costs and reduced bookkeeping costs. While there will be some money saved, the thought is that a unified district will be able to operate more efficiently. The  true goals are to be able to let the school boards and the superintendent focus on education and not so much on having meetings.”
But many at the forum questioned whether there wasn’t an alternate way to achieve the Act 46 goal of simplified governance and whether the simplified unified union structure would actually benefit students.
Dan and Sally Ober of Lincoln both gave the example of Lincoln’s recent passage of a bond to renovate its school facility and wondered how such projects would be accomplished in a unified district.
“I don’t understand why townspeople would ever vote for this, to give up control to an 18-member board where we’d have very little representation, where we don’t get to talk about things at town meeting,” Dan Ober said. “We did this $6 million addition to our school and we had to work hard at it as townspeople. It got voted on twice. We got together and through political talk and the process, we came up with a good plan for our school. I don’t see how that would have gotten done with two members  sitting on an 18-member board.”
Sally Ober used a recent example familiar to all ANeSU community members to illustrate her concern.
“How does, let’s say, Monkton sell a major renovation to their school to all the voters in the district when we couldn’t even sell the Mount Abe one to all the voters in the SU?” she asked.
SENSE OF COMMUNITY
Continuing in the same vein, Rebecca Elder of Starksboro questioned whether the streamlining of governance would erode a vital sense of community.
“I was hoping to come tonight and be convinced that a unified union was the way to go because I have had serious doubts all the way along and I’m trying to keep an open mind,” she said. “I believe that the very fact that we’re having a discussion that says ‘Well, we don’t have a choice so therefore’ means that our Legislature has handed us something that is unacceptable. Act 46 has failed this state, and we’re going to see the ramifications of that for many, many years to come.”
Rebecca Elder said she liked having a local school board.
“I like having places where we sit in my local school and have discussion with the community,” she said. “It spans from minutiae all the way up to the bigger picture. And to think of sitting in the large room the way the ANeSU board meetings occur, the intimacy is gone. You’ve got a huge group. So ‘should we use a microphone?’, ‘shall we have more presentations?’ so that we can look at a screen instead of looking at each other and talking about what’s going on? That to me is what we lose.”
Starksboro School Board Chair Louis duPont admitted that the number of meetings school board members have had to attend has become “untenable,” but he also wondered what would be lost for those towns like Lincoln and Starksboro that still vote on school budgets from the floor of town meeting.
“To me the thing that I really hate to give up and it seems quaint and there’s only Lincoln and Starksboro, so it’s like ‘Wow! Are we a Norman Rockwell relic? Is that really such a passé thing?’ Well to me it certainly isn’t. It’s a powerful, just a fantastic expression of democracy, local democracy. And to me that has value.
“And I really hate to see that go away. And I keep thinking there has to be some magic way to retain that local control and make some of these governance changes that undeniably make sense.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at gaenm@addisonindependent.com.

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