ANeSU governance plan filled with state
BRISTOL — The Addison Northeast Supervisory Union has crossed a major hurdle toward district unification under Act 46. The ANeSU Act 46 Study Committee sent its official governance unification proposal to the Agency of Education last Friday, Aug. 5.
If the proposal is accepted by state officials, residence in the five Bristol-area towns that comprise the ANeSU will vote in November on whether to unify governance of their schools under one school board with one budget.
The committee voted 8 to 3 to 1 to approve the plan, which also includes a Minority Report from dissenting committee members Nancy Cornell, Mike Fisher, and Herb Olson (a story on the Minority Report will appear in a future edition).
“The report draft reflects a lot of hard work by the committee and input from community members, local board members, and the (supervisory union) office team. This draft was revised significantly after the community forum on July 18, and all the input we received at that event has helped us make the report better,” said Chair Jennifer Stanley. “It is exciting to be at the point of sending the draft for official (Agency of Education) review.”
If the committee’s plan is approved by the state, voters in the five towns that make up the Addison Northeast Supervisory Union must then decide this November whether to accept or reject it.
At stake for supporters and opponents alike are the educational and financial benefits Act 46 is intended to bring to Vermont communities.
Among these proposed benefits are the series of financial incentives Act 46 lays out to communities that comply with the law, according to state guidelines.
Communities that vote to approve a merger plan by July 1, 2017, and become operational by July 1, 2019, will receive four years of tax incentives, a $150,000 transition facilitation grant and a merger support grant. Communities that pursue what the Agency of Education calls a “conventional merger” face no deadlines for voter approval, but their plans must be operational by July 1, 2019. These communities receive the four years of tax incentives and the merger support grant, but lose out on the $150,000 transition facilitation grant.
Communities that pursue alternative structures or that want to demonstrate how current structures meet the goals and requirements of Act 46 must present a formal report to the Agency of Education by Nov. 30, 2017. There are no financial incentives for communities that pursue these options. Communities pursuing these alternatives forfeit the tax incentives, facilitation grant and merger support grant.
Supporters and opponents of the ANeSU plan continue to argue passionately as to how to best achieve Act 46’s goals of reining in education costs, creating better efficiency in educational governance structures and providing greater equity in the quality of educational opportunities for Vermont students.
CHANGES TO THE FINAL DRAFT
At a July 18 forum, the committee took feedback on an early July draft of the plan and on related Act 46 topics.
The greatest change since that earlier draft is that the proposed 15-member Addison Northeast Supervisory District (ANSD) board was reduced to 13 members. Stanley said the reduction in size was to achieve greater efficiency and to address faulty census data used to apportion the previously proposed 15-member board.
“In our discussions, the committee felt it was a good idea to have at least two board members from each town. There was an error in the census numbers we used initially. With the corrected census numbers, we would still have a good balance of representation from the different towns, and have a slightly smaller board,” said Stanley.
The plan now allocates the proposed ANSD board of directors as follows: Bristol, 5; Lincoln, 2; Monkton, 2; New Haven, 2; Starksboro, 2. In the earlier 15-member proposal, Monkton and Starksboro each had 3.
The final plan also included a clarification that “any debt incurred by a forming elementary district … shall remain the debt of the forming elementary district” unless the new school district determines otherwise. The wording is intended to close up any unforeseen loopholes, explained Stanley, so that new debt couldn’t sneak in between voting to form the new district and the new district becoming operational.
The revised plan also expands the discussion of how the unification plan will benefit the five-town communities, while acknowledging the concerns that have been raised thus far.
“We recognize that there are some tradeoffs to unification, and that community members have real and serious concerns,” states the report. “Indeed, with any change, we give up ways that we do things today with the expectation that the new way will be better. The Committee’s study of whether to unify has included discussion of many concerns about unification. We believe the expected benefits of unifying outweigh these concerns.”
Among the concerns and benefits the report addresses are:
• Voting on one budget.
“Voters can vote directly on this full budget. Preparing one budget also means there won’t be assessments for centralized services, and the supervisory district board will have more flexibility in balancing priorities.”
• Voting by Australian ballot.
“Many community members are saddened by the loss of floor voting and the dialog it allows for those who are present. The committee recommends Australian ballot voting because we believe it allows more people to participate.”
• Flexibility in assigning staff.
“The new supervisory district will have more flexibility in assigning staff, meaning teachers and other staff could be shared between buildings or assigned to a different building if needs change … In the new model … (a) teacher could have the option to take a position in a different building rather than lose their job.”
• One board rather than seven to oversee and evaluate the superintendent.
“Today, our supervisory union has seven boards plus an executive committee who monitor and evaluate individual pieces of our supervisory union, providing many splintered pieces of input … We believe one board will be able to speak with a clear voice in defining goals and providing feedback.”
The report argues that the single board will provide an adequate platform for concerned community members and also support the unique strengths of each of the ANeSU schools.
“One board will give community members with concerns one place to bring those concerns. The proposed governance model features strong principals who are leaders of their schools working together with local, school-based advisory councils. These voices will help ensure that the new supervisory district board continues to value each school’s uniqueness within the larger supervisory district.”
EQUITY AND MORE
The final unification report also expands the discussions on how the committee’s plan will achieve the Act 46 goals of equity and quality, efficiency and sustainability, and transparency and accountability.
• Equity and quality.
The report states that the decline in school enrollment means that “now, more than ever, we need the opportunity to be flexible in the use of our resources and to realize larger-scale efficiencies in our business operations … A unified supervisory district provides much greater flexibility to find creative ways to meet the needs of our students and continue to provide a top-quality education.”
The report cited the benefits already in place from ANeSU-wide adoption of a single math curriculum and argues that a standard curriculum would provide better opportunities for professional development and more resources for students.
The report includes language that underscores the “deep value for the unique character of each of our schools. We believe these unique cultures and values can and will be maintained in a unified supervisory district.”
• Efficiency and sustainability.
The revised report notes that alongside declining enrollment numbers, “many other factors have also contributed to the continued rising costs (of public education), including new state initiatives and mandates, increased need for academic, social, and emotional supports, inflation, and the rising cost of personnel benefits.”
It then extends the discussion on how unification would support educational leadership.
“Approximately 85 percent of the superintendent’s time is spent preparing for, attending, and debriefing board meetings, or board committee work. In a supervisory district, we would seek to reduce that effort to less than 50 percent … Reducing superintendent and staff time focused on board work frees up time for educational leadership functions.”
• Transparency and accountability.
The revised report expands the argument for how unification will increase transparency and accountability. For example, under the current structure, voters do not vote directly on the supervisory union budget. In a merged district, voters would see a unified budget, including former SU expenses, and vote on all items.
“While the act is not explicit in what these terms (transparency and accountability) mean, it does connect this with voters being able to vote directly on the current supervisory union budget. We understand this goal to mean that the new supervisory district will prepare and present one complete budget to voters. This budget would include all costs for all operations in our six school districts and current supervisory union, including central office expenses and consolidated functions and services. Voters would be able to vote directly on all these expenses at one time.”
TOWARD THE BALLOT BOX
The next step in the Act 46 process is that the Agency of Education will review the report and provide feedback to the ANeSU Act 46 committee. According to Stanley, the committee will then meet in late August to review the feedback and finalize the report for submission to the State Board of Education, an 11-member body appointed by the governor.
If the board approves the plan, it would go before ANeSU voters on Nov. 8.
The Study Committee’s final report, as submitted Aug. 5 to the Agency of Education, is available online at the ANeSU website. To read the report in its entirety, go to anesu.org.
Reporter Gaen Murphree is reached at [email protected]
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