ANeSU trio dissents on unification plan

BRISTOL — The three dissenting members of the Addison Northeast Supervisory Union (ANeSU) Act 46 Study Committee have published their own paper detailing why they believe local voters should reject a proposed governance unification plan for the district and instead pursue other avenues to meet goals outlined in the new state law.
On May 4 the study committee voted 9-3 in favor of a plan that would create a single, 15-member Addison Northeast Supervisory District board to govern Mount Abraham Union High School and the elementary schools in Bristol, Lincoln, Monkton, New Haven and Starksboro. All of these schools would be financed through a single budget.
Unification supporters contend such a move could accomplish the goals of Vermont’s Act 46 by streamlining school operations, producing administrative cost savings, and providing for more efficient delivery of education to Bristol-area students.
But that’s not the way ANeSU Act 46 Study Committee members Nancy Cornell, Mike Fisher and Herb Olson see it. They were the three who voted against the unification plan as presented, and they’ve published a response to the majority report — titled “Is School Centralization Best for our Students?” — that outlines their concerns with their colleagues’ recommendation, which will be up for adoption by ANeSU voters on Nov. 8.
“I think everyone on the committee recognizes that there are positives and negatives associated with this change in governance,” Fisher, a former state representative from Lincoln, said on Monday while attending a public forum in Lincoln on the ANeSU unification report (see related story).
“I think the three of us weight those issues differently,” he added. “This seeks to bring all the issues to the conversation.”
The trio stressed they are not trying to subvert their colleagues’ efforts, but want to stimulate more discussion in the community about a different path to achieving the principles of Act 46.
“We have no doubt as to the sincerity and good intentions of the study committee majority that produced the draft report,” reads the minority’s response, which can be found in its entirety at addisonindependent.com. “With regret, at this time we cannot support the draft report. There is still time to change direction, but to do so it will be helpful if community members request that an alternative solution to school governance be seriously explored.”
In their response, the three dissenting committee members contend:
• Centralization will not have a significant impact on taxes.
Act 46 provides would allow the ANeSU to maintain its small school grants and receive four years of education property tax discounts amounting to 8 cents in year one, 6 cents in year three, 4 cents in year two, and two cents in year one. District officials are also estimating that governance unification would save the ANeSU around $137,000 annually through streamlined operations.
“Not only are the tax savings minimal, but at the end of four years the tax incentives will go away, and unless real cost savings are achieved our property tax rates will go up to their previous, pre-incentive levels,” Cornell, Fisher and Olson state in their response.
They noted the $137,000 in annual savings represents “approximately 0.006 percent” of the ANeSU’s current annual expenses.
“It seems quite clear that the draft report’s estimated cost savings are not enough to prevent a tax increase after state incentives disappear,” they contend.
• Centralization is unlikely to have a significant impact on education quality.
“We firmly believe that our community and educational leaders need to set appropriately high standards and expectations if we are to make real progress in improving the quality of education for our students,” the response states. “The equity and quality goal should be to offer the best education we can, not merely to ensure that each elementary school offers the same programs. Missing from the draft report is any discussion of how our schools compare to some of the best schools in the State, and what should be done to raise the quality of education for our children to this higher standard.”
• Students benefit from schools with strong relationships to families and the community.
“In the statewide discussions concerning Act 46 and whether to centralize our schools, the proponents of centralization typically talk about the virtues of a modern, centralized school system versus an archaic system of ‘local control,’” The response states. “We see the issue rather as a question of what system of school governance will be best for our students: (1) a larger, centralized system conferring greater power and control to a superintendent; or (2) the current system where local boards have a direct and close relationship with the community; or (3) an alternative governance structure that addresses areas that need improvement without jettisoning what is good about the current system.
“The important point, however, as articulated in the above comments, is that we lose something valuable with centralization, even if we might disagree as to how valuable it is,” the trio adds. “Before we jump in we need to be sure that the trade-off is worth it.
• The ANeSU could do better with an alternative vision for education in the five towns.
“We truly believe that an alternative governance structure can be developed that addresses key concerns with the current system, while retaining those features of the current system that are important and valuable,” the response states.
The trio acknowledges a sometimes difficult, “cumbersome” decision making process within the ANeSU. But they said that rather than unification, the remedy might include “delegating many decisions from local boards to a supervisory board or its executive committee,” and “clearly delineating roles and responsibilities between the superintendent and the local boards, so energy can be focused on implementing useful policies and programs.”
They said the five communities should maintain a “meaningful role,” something they believe might not be preserved through a single, 15-member panel.
“Without a meaningful role in governance the community-school relationship will be significantly diminished,” the response states.
“We may want the local boards, orelected school councils, in collaboration with the Superintendent, and school-based searchcommittees that include community members, to retain responsibility for hiring schoolprincipals. We may want the local community to retain some voting role in establishing thebudget for the elementary school. We may also learn that our communities wish toestablish structures that preserve and improve communications and responsiveness tofamilies and students.”
 Cornell, former associate superintendent of the ANeSU, said she was disappointed the committee didn’t spend more time determining how the district might be able to achieve the objectives of Act 46 within its current governance structure, rather than advocate for a substantial makeover.
“The committee never did that analysis in any detail,” Cornell, a Starksboro resident, said.
She and her two colleagues said they hope their response will have an impact on the final report before it is submitted to the Vermont Agency of Education for approval within the next few weeks.
“I think we were all hoping for a little more discussion about alternatives that might cover all the bases, both the equity and cost issues as well as the community relations issue,” said Olson, also from Starksboro. “The way the committee process went is we made this decision up-front to go to the ‘preferred’ structure, so we never really got an opportunity to ask the community, ‘Do you want to do this, or do you want to do that?’ It got down to either you do (the preferred structure), or you do nothing. And we pretty strongly feel that there are other things that can be done.”
The ANeSU Act 46 Study Committee was scheduled discuss the minority response at its meeting at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, after the Independent went to press.
Committee Chairperson Jennifer Stanley of Monkton said she’s not surprised that the unification debate has generated a different point of view. She noted Act 46 student committees in other supervisory unions — such as Chittenden East — have generated minority reports.
Stanley said she looked forward to discussing the minority report at the committee’s July 20 meeting. The panel will also determine whether to include the minority position as part of its report, or have it stand on its own.
“I think part of the joy and excitement about this process is there are so many people who are passionate about how to help out kids have the best education,” she said. “We have had a lot of deep discussions within the committee.”
Click on the link below to read the minority report called, “Is School Centralization Best for our Students?” Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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