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Report lays out unification plan for Bristol-area schools

BRISTOL — Addison Northeast Supervisory Union officials next Monday will officially unveil a proposed blueprint for uniting all of the district’s schools into a single entity governed by one board and financed through a global budget. The July 18 forum will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Lincoln Community School.
The school governance unification plan is outlined in a final report and “articles of agreement” released this week by the ANeSU Act 46 Study Committee. That 14-member panel — featuring representatives from the ANeSU communities of Bristol, Lincoln, Monkton, New Haven and Starksboro — has spent the past several months determining whether the district’s five elementary schools and Mount Abraham Union High School could reasonably merge their respective boards into a single panel to more efficiently manage the educational needs of area students.
“I feel very hopeful that we’ll be able to provide even more great educational opportunities to our students by forming a larger union,” ANeSU Act 46 Committee Chairperson Jennifer Stanley said during an interview with the Independent. “I feel excited about the opportunities that this could bring for our schools.”
On May 4 the committee voted 9-3 to advocate for school governance unification, recommending such a merger be put to ANeSU voters on Election Day, Nov. 8. The panel then held a series of meetings at which they explained how a governance merger could work locally under Vermont’s Act 46, a law that encourages supervisory unions to streamline their administrative functions as a way of containing education costs in this era of declining student enrollment.
Voters in all five ANeSU communities will need to endorse unification on Nov. 8 in order to put the plan into motion.
“We have structured our proposal so that all five towns have to approve, or the unification will not go forward,” Stanley said. “We have not included any ‘modified union’ language.”
The committee has prepared a draft plan spelling out specifics of the ANeSU’s potential metamorphosis into a single Addison Northeast Supervisory District (ANESD). Here are some of the main provisions of that plan:
• All of the current elementary school boards, as well as Mt. Abe’s, would be phased out and supplanted by a single, 15-member ANESD board. That panel’s composition would be based on the population of the towns as outlined in the most recent federal census, meaning Bristol (with the greatest population) would be accorded five members; Monkton and Starksboro would each get three members; and Lincoln and New Haven would each get two. Board representatives would be elected by the voters in their respective towns, as opposed to on an at-large basis.
Representatives would initially be elected, on Nov. 8, in staggered terms of one, two or three years. Ultimately, all board members would be elected to three-year terms on Town Meeting Day.
• The ANESD would not close any public schools within its boundaries during the first four years of its existence. Officials stressed that the governance unification bid is about making education in the district more efficient and cost-effective, and not a precursor to closing any of the five elementary schools. 
“We certainly don’t see any desire to close Addison Northeast schools in the near future,” Stanley said.
But if declining enrollment or other issues result in a school becoming a candidate for closure, it would take a positive vote by the ANESD board and the citizens of the school’s home town — by Australian ballot — in order to shutter that school.
• If approved by voters, the new unified board would assume full control of the district on July 1, 2018. The panel would prepare its first global budget encompassing all schools in the ANESD for fiscal year 2019, the period from July 1, 2018, to June 30, 2019. Addison Northeast voters would decide that budget by Australian ballot.
The current, individual school boards within the ANeSU would continue to function “for the sole purpose of completing any outstanding business not given to the new supervisory district under these articles and state law,” according to the proposed articles of agreement. The ANeSU as we know it would cease to exist on Jan. 1, 2019.
• No later than June 30, 2018, each of the member communities would convey to the new supervisory district, for the sum of one dollar, all of their school real estate and related personal property —  including all land, buildings and contents.
The new supervisory district would assume all school-related capital debt of member communities, including both principal and interest as may exist at the close of business on June 30, 2018. The new district would also assume all of the communities’ school operating surpluses and deficits of the that may exist by that same date.
If the new unified board were to determine that any of the school property, including buildings and land, conveyed to it by a member community was unnecessary to the continued operation of the new district and its educational programs, it would convey those assets — for $1 — to the town in which it is located. This conveyance would be conditioned on the town agreeing to use the property for “community and public purposes” for at least five years. If the town were to sell the property prior to five years of ownership, it would need to reimburse the unified district for any capital improvements and renovations it might have made.
PROPERTY TAX SAVINGS
Stanley said district officials are still crunching numbers on potential property tax savings that five-town residents could see through governance consolidation. Stanley said early estimates, based on current Act 46 projections, indicated “all towns (in the ANESD) would see some kind of tax savings over the first four years,” according to Stanley.
That’s partly due to state incentives for districts that embrace Act 46. Addison Northeast officials said the district is in line to save around $137,000 annually through streamlined operations, including the ability to maintain one budget (instead of the current seven); four years of tax incentives for all homestead taxpayers in the five towns, beginning in the summer of 2018; and eligibility for a $150,000 unification transition grant through the state. The district would also be able to keep its small school grants.
Addison Northeast officials are hoping for a big turnout at the July 18 forum at the Lincoln Community School. Officials will answer questions and welcome feedback on what would be a major change in school administration. It’s a change that has already been endorsed by residents in the neighboring Addison Central, Addison Northwest and Rutland Northeast supervisory unions.
Communities that don’t opt for governance unification will eventually be assigned by the state to a supervisory district that it might find less palatable.
The early signs have been good for public support. Seventy percent of the approximately 400 respondents to an on-line survey conducted by the ANeSU revealed support for a unified district, according to Stanley. 
New ANeSU Superintendent Patrick J. Reen is hoping for a positive vote — as an administrator and as a constituent.
“There are many benefits to the creation of a unified governance structure including short-term tax breaks and anticipated cost savings through greater operating efficiencies,” he said. “However, as superintendent and as the father of two children in our school system, what excites me most about a unified governance structure are the possibilities that exist when the organization can focus more intensely on improving outcomes for our students. The current structure, with eight boards, inevitably leads to a lot of duplicative work and therefore takes away from our focus on moving the system forward. ANeSU does many great things for its students and increasing our focus will only further support this great work.”
Reen noted that not everyone is on board with the proposed change.
“I know a lot of our five-town community members have concerns about a reduced connection to their local schools and the possibility of losing local control,” he said. “As superintendent, I feel strongly about not only maintaining the relationship community members have with their local schools but actually expanding opportunities for developing these very important relationships. After all, it takes a village to raise a child, let alone hundreds of children.”
The ANeSU Act 46 Study Committee’s final report and proposed articles of agreement can be found in the link below.
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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