Orwell to hold revote on school governance
ORWELL — Orwell school officials are projecting a June revote on the question of whether the community should join five Rutland County towns in forming a “Slate Valley Unified Union School District” that would be governed by a single board presiding over a global education budget for all of the schools in the new union.
This past Friday, May 6, the Orwell town clerk’s office received a citizens’ petition seeking a revote on the same school governance unification question that local residents defeated on April 12 by a 211 to 121 tally. Orwell was the only community of the six to reject unification; the question passed comfortably in the other Addison-Rutland Supervisory Union (ARSU) towns of Castleton, West Haven, Benson, Hubbardton and Fair Haven.
ARSU officials stressed that only Orwell will field the revote question. If town residents vote “yes” this time around, Orwell would proceed with an “accelerated” governance unification process that will entitle the community to various financial incentives guaranteed through Vermont’s Act 46. Those incentives include decreases of 10 cents on the local 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. Orwell would also receive a “transition facilitation grant” of $130,000 to assist in the creation of the new district, and the ability to retain its Small Schools Grant of around $100,000 per year.
Most communities that have not joined a unified school district by 2018 will be required to do so anyway — and the Vermont Agency of Education could direct them to join a district that might be less palatable than the one they rejected, ARSU officials noted.
The five Rutland County communities in the ARSU would be able to pursue unification without Orwell, using a “modified” Act 46 process that would yield less generous tax incentives.
Ron Ryan, ARSU superintendent, is pleased about the impending revote.
“I think it’s nice to be able to have another chance at it,” he said in a Monday interview.
“It would be nice (for the six communities) to all move forward together,” he added.
Orwell resident Alyson Eastman, chairwoman of the ARSU’s Act 46 Study Committee, said the Orwell Village School Board will meet on May 16 to discuss the petition and likely sign a warning for the revote.
Officials are anticipating a June referendum. Orwell Town Clerk Betty Walker said the revote must take place within 60 days of the filing of the petition.
“I realize that we have our work cut out for us, but am also thankful for another opportunity to meet with the electorate and answer questions,” said Eastman, who also serves as the independent representative of Orwell, Shoreham, Whiting and Benson in the Vermont House.
Back on April 12, voters in the six ARSU communities also elected the 18 members of a new, Slate Valley Unified Union School District board. Those elections are still valid, so those officers are in place to preside over the new unified district, if it is OK’d in a June revote.
Eastman and Glen Cousineau were elected to Orwell’s two positions on the new board.
Unification supporters will spend the coming weeks correcting what they said was some misinformation spread prior to the April 12 vote, while reiterating what they believe are the advantages of joining a unified school district, a move that has already been approved in the nearby Rutland Northeast, Addison Central and Addison Northwest supervisory unions. Addison Northeast is also discussing a path to unification.
Advocates for unification through Act 46 contend such a move would streamline school operations, encourage the sharing of personnel and resources between schools, and reduce long-term education costs during this era of declining student enrollment in Vermont.
Opponents have voiced concerns that governance unification would diminish local control and could be a precursor to the closing of some of the state’s smaller schools.
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. The proposed six-community Slate Valley Unified Union School District would serve an estimated 1,350 students.
Orwell would see an estimated 10-cent reduction in its education property tax rate (from $1.41 to $1.31) in fiscal year 2017 if it endorses an accelerated merger under Act 46, according to the ARSU business office.
Andrea Ochs, an Orwell resident and member of the Fair Haven Union High School Board, joined approximately 50 of her fellow townspeople in signing the revote petition. A minimum of 43 registered voter signatures were needed.
Ochs said she voted in favor of unification back on April 12. She said she looks forward to a new public information campaign for residents to glean more insights into the governance unification question.
“It’s something that is dividing the town right now,” she said of the issue.
“It’s not perfect,” Ochs said of the unification plan, but added she believes the community might regret doing nothing and thereby allow the state draw up a plan for the Orwell school.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
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