Bristol-area residents react to ANeSU Act 46 report

LINCOLN — More than 50 people turned out at the Lincoln Community School on Monday to react to a new report detailing how the Addison Northeast Supervisory Union could switch to a new governance structure in which one board would govern all ANeSU schools under a single K-12 budget.
After almost two hours of discussion, participants left members of the ANeSU Act 46 Study Committee that crafted that plan with a lot of questions to answer during the months leading up to a scheduled Nov. 8 referendum on the unification proposal.
Late last week the study committee released its school governance report and a series of “articles of agreement” outlining how the new unified district would function. The ANeSU includes the elementary schools in Bristol, Lincoln, Monkton, New Haven and Starksboro, as well as Mount Abraham Union Middle and High School. 
The committee’s report is in response to Act 46, the new state law that directs supervisory unions to streamline their governance structures as a way of containing education costs and delivering education more efficiently during this era of declining student enrollment.
Locally, the Addison Central, Addison Northwest and Rutland Northeast Supervisory Unions have all passed school governance unification plans.
The ANeSU proposal would replace all of the district’s individual school boards with a 15-member Addison Northeast Supervisory District (ANSD) board made up of representatives from all five towns. The new board’s membership would be based on population, with five of the 15 spots going to Bristol, three each to Monkton and Starksboro, and two each to Lincoln and New Haven.
Supporters contend unification would save around $137,000 annually through streamlined operations, including the ability to maintain one budget, instead of the current seven. District homestead taxpayers would also be eligible for four years of tax incentives, beginning in the summer of 2018, the new district would be eligible for a $150,000 unification transition grant through the state, and its would also be able to retain its small school grants.
A majority of residents in each of the five towns need to back the unification plan on Nov. 8 in order for it to go through as presented.
ANeSU Act 46 study committee members also warned in their report that state education officials can impose merger plans if districts don’t design their own. 
“If we fail (to unify), the Vermont Board of Education (AOE), in November of 2018, can issue an order for creation of new school districts to be effective July 1, 2019, and we will be forced to unify,” according to information contained in a “frequently asked questions” document released by ANeSU officials at Monday’s forum. 
“If no action is taken by July 2017, ANeSU can propose an ‘alternate structure,’ but the state Board of Education does not need to accept the proposal and can order the creation of a unified district with none of the incentives, tax savings or support. Acting now promotes local control. Acting to unify exempts our region from a redistricting plan that will be developed by the state board in the fall of 2018.”
Monday’s forum saw participants break into small groups to discuss specific provisions of the report. The groups then wrote comments of support, concern or questions on posters hung throughout the Lincoln school gym. Study committee Chairperson Jennifer Stanley said the responses will shape the panel’s final report and future public outreach prior to the Nov. 8 referendum. 
“Our goal was really to get some input from the community about whether the report has enough clarity, or if people feel there are some questions or information that would be helpful to add, or if there is anything we should be taking out that is not helping to tell the story of unification,” she said. “The second objective was to have a detailed look at our articles of agreement, and get input.”
The study committee is seeking feedback on a report that is proposing, among other things, that:
• The new unified board assume full control of the district on July 1, 2018. The panel would prepare its first budget for all ANSD schools for fiscal year 2019, which spans July 1, 2018 to June 30, 2019.
• The single, K-12 budget would be decided by Australian ballot.
• Unified board representatives be initially elected 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 ANSD would not close any public schools within its boundaries during the first four years of its existence. After four years, the new district could close a member school only if the residents of that town vote — by Australian ballot — to take that action, as well as the unified board. 
• By no later than June 30, 2018, each of the member towns would convey to the new supervisory district, for the sum of $1, 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 towns on June 30, 2018. The new district would also assume all of the towns’ school operating surpluses and deficits on that date.
If the new 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 plus debt assumption and the repayment of school construction aid — to the town in which it is located.
Participants were asked to react to these and other provisions of the governance unification plan. Some of the comments were supportive; others conveyed specific concerns about some of the proposed changes. Written concerns submitted to the committee included:
• “New, big bond votes should be prorated” to the home town in which a school project is taking place, said one commenter who objected to the notion of all communities jointly footing the bill.
“(School) debt should stay with the town.”
• “There is no incentive to end within budget if the deficit is assumed by all (communities).”
• “I think the loss of local boards just removes one more level of control and communication within the towns.”
• “What impact will this have with attendance at town meetings?” a commenter asked about the proposal for Australian ballot voting on a single K-12 budget. Lincoln and Starksboro still vote their elementary school budgets from the floor at their respective annual town meetings.
• “I think Act 46 is a gateway to closing small schools. If it’s not, where is the real cost savings going to come from?”
Among those present at Monday’s meeting were Addison-4 Reps. Fred Baser, R-Bristol and Dave Sharpe, D-Bristol.
Sharpe is also chairman of the House Education Committee, which designed Act 46. He gave a passing grade to the ANeSU’s school governance unification plan, with two caveats.
First, he suggested that the towns be allowed to vote the first unified budget from the floor, and then decide whether future spending plans should continue to be decided in a meeting format, or instead by Australian ballot.
“I think that deserves some consideration,” said Sharpe, who added there is no Australian ballot voting requirement in Act 46.
Second, Sharpe believes school administrators could be given more responsibility over operations within their respective school buildings. He said this would help maintain more local control over school functions, a chief concern among some Act 46 critics. 
Three members of the study committee have also produced a report outlining their criticisms of the current unification plan (see related story).
Study committee members would like the Vermont Board of Education to consider and approve the ANeSU unification report at its September meeting in order to allow for the Nov. 8 public vote on the plan, according to Stanley. This schedule will likely require submitting the ANeSU governance unification report to the AOE by the end of this month, said Stanley, adding more forums are on tap.
“We’ll definitely continue to have public engagements throughout the fall,” Stanley said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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