Orwell nixes ARSU school unification for a second time

ORWELL — Orwell residents on Tuesday for a second time rejected a plan calling for their town to join their fellow Addison-Rutland Supervisory Union towns in forming a unified union school district.
The vote this time was closer than it was in the first ballot; this time it was 166 in favor of the proposed Slate Valley Unified Union School District and 204 against.
Orwell citizens on April 12 had voted 211 to 121 against joining Castleton, West Haven, Hubbardton, Benson and Fair Haven in the proposed union.
That district would have been governed by a single, 18-member board with one budget for all of the schools now in the Addison-Rutland Supervisory Union (ARSU).
Orwell was the only community in the ARSU in April that voted against the unification plan, proposed under Vermont’s Act 46. Castleton endorsed unification by 263-127, West Haven by 32-13, Benson by 115-47, Hubbardton by 66-13, and Fair Haven by 158-129. 
An Orwell resident petitioned for the revote, which the Orwell School Board then set for Tuesday.
Tuesday’s vote left the ARSU’s and Orwell’s education futures uncertain, according to ARSU Superintendent Ron Ryan.
“I’m disappointed, because the whole district, it would be nice to be molding together in one direction,” Ryan said. “We’ll take a deep breath here for a little bit. Sometime, probably toward the end of July or early August we’ll get together again and determine whether the boards want to form another Act 46 committee.”
Given the strong sentiment for a unified union elsewhere in ARSU, Ryan said he expects the movement to unify to continue with a new committee.
“The Act 46 committee could just say, we’ll just send a letter to the state and say what we’re doing now, we feel meets the requirements. They might not submit a plan,” Ryan said. “I would think based on the results in the towns the first time around they would probably want to submit something.”
The other five towns could choose to form what Ryan called a “modified unified union district” that would still operate as a supervisory union — without Orwell, which he said could become a “standalone” town.
“At this point in time Orwell feels that they want to be on their own and want to continue to do that. And a district, of course, you all want to work together and move in the same direction. And I feel it will be a lot harder to do that when you have one town not part of the whole picture,” Ryan said.
Such a modified unified union could give Orwell a say in the union high school budget, but the town would be on its own without Small School Grants to help fund the Orwell Village School.
Still, Ryan said there will be several options on the table when an ARSU Act 46 forms later this summer.
“There are some different scenarios,” Ryan said.
Leading up to Tuesday’s vote, some unification opponents who spoke at informational meetings in Orwell said they worried that school governance consolidation might lead to closing of some of the rural schools in the new Slate Valley district, notably the Orwell Village School.
Others said they feared unification might lead to loss of local control.
Backers of Act 46 pointed to potential financial savings through governance unification, and noted towns that have not joined a unified school district by 2018 will be required by the state to do so. And the Vermont Agency of Education could order them into a district that they might like less than the one they rejected, which is another possibility for Orwell down the road.
Tuesday’s vote meant the loss of unification incentives to all six ARSU towns, as outlined by an district flyer:
• A property tax discount of 10 cents off the school property tax rate in the first year of the merger, followed by 8 cents in year two, 6 cents in year three, 4 cents in year four, and 2 cents in the fifth and final year of the transition.
• A transition grant of $130,000 to help the towns form the new district.
• Retention of $200,000 in small schools grants, including that which supports Orwell’s school.
If ARSU were to unify in the future, Ryan said its towns could still qualify for four years of tax discounts, starting at a maximum of 8 cents, but said the other benefits were uncertain. 

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