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Challenge to ANeSU unification is offered

BRISTOL — A trio of dissenters said no to the Addison Northeast Supervisory Union Act 46 Study Committee’s official plan for district unification, which was sent to the Agency of Education for review this month.
The official proposal includes a “Minority Report” — authored by committee members Nancy Cornell, Herb Olson and Mike Fisher — that makes a passionate defense of the “value of local control” of ANeSU schools.
Cornell and Olson of Starksboro and Fisher of Lincoln maintain that the committee process was flawed, that alternatives to the majority’s unification proposal were not sufficiently explored and that there are better ways to preserve what is already working in ANeSU, while still meeting the goals and requirements of Act 46, a 2015 law that aims to control school spending and improve education by unifying supervisory union governance under a single board that oversees a single budget.
“There’s something in this about how important it is for community members to not only feel engaged in their school but to know that they have a genuine responsibility for their school in their community,” said Cornell, an educational consultant and former ANeSU associate superintendent. “That’s a very valued and vibrant part of what makes our communities work in Vermont as a whole and certainly in Addison Northeast. And I think that’s a lot to lose.”
ANeSU voters will be asked to vote on unification Nov 8.
The Act 46 Committee expects to revise the report according to any Agency of Education feedback in late August and then submit it to the Vermont Board of Education. Given a thumbs up from the board, the committee plans to have its unification proposal on the Nov. 8 ballot. A yes vote would put ANeSU on track to meet the state’s deadline for getting voter approval by July 1, 2017, for what’s called a Regional Education District (RED) merger, with its concurrent incentives of four years of tax reductions and other carrots (see accompanying story).
Cornell, Fisher and Olson believe that other choices will better benefit the towns of Bristol, Lincoln, Monkton, New Haven and Starksboro.
REPORT SUMMARY
The Minority Report asserts that the committee’s official proposal “falls far short” of the goals of Act 46, and that while education improvements are needed, these can best be met within the current governance structure. Voters should reject the unification proposal this November, say the trio, because it “has serious flaws.”
Among these flaws are problems with the committee process itself. Cornell, Fisher and Olson maintain that because of “misinformation in the press and the failure on the part of state education leaders to provide … correct information” the committee itself was misinformed about “available options (and) discouraged … from taking the time to thoroughly explore all possible options.” 
The Minority Report faults the committee for not adequately engaging the community. It also faults the committee’s consultant (who was trained by the Vermont School Boards Association) with a bias toward a standardized unification. The consultant’s bias, argues the Minority Report, led to the committee’s embracing unification without adequately exploring alternatives.
In terms of Act 46 goals of equity and quality, the Minority Report claims that the proposed benefits of the official plan are largely unfounded and that insufficient attempts were made to look at how equity and quality are being achieved and could be further achieved under the current governance structure.
In terms of efficiency and sustainability, the Minority Report asserts that “the savings projected in the report ($140,237) are modest — only 0.058 percent of the combined FY 2017 budgets for ANeSU and its member school districts.” In part, states the report, this is because the district has already consolidated such services as special education, transportation, information technology and food service. So unlike other school districts, unification holds fewer benefits to ANeSU.
Perhaps most interesting to many property owners, the Minority Report argues that the tax impact of the official plan for unification would be minimal (see “Tax report: Unification would save towns money” in the Aug. 8 Independent). Using the example of a $200,000 home in Starksboro, the Minority Report points out that the first year of savings would be just $129 and that by the final year of state tax incentives this would diminish to $38:
“The authors of this Minority Report believe that these meager tax savings are not worth the cost of what will be lost with consolidation.”
Cornell, Fisher and Olson raise questions about:
•  Tax savings for households whose property taxes are calculated according to household income.
•  The tax impacts of debt from other towns coming into the new, unified school district.
•  Tax savings after the four years of incentives end.
The report also questions whether the tax incentives won’t ultimately come out of taxpayers’ pockets and thus in reality provide no tax savings at all.
States the report, “These incentives are not ‘free,’ because they are supported by statewide taxes. What is the tax burden required to raise state funds for these incentives? What is the net tax savings for residents when the additional tax burden is subtracted from tax incentives?”
The Minority Report makes a passionate defense of the “value of local control” and lays out an approach to meeting the goals and requirements of Act 46 within the current governance structure.
It concludes with recommendations to the Vermont Legislature, Agency of Education and Board of Education for ways to improve Act 46 itself.
VIABLE ALTERNATIVES?
Reached by the Independent, both Cornell and Fisher believe that fellow Act 46 committee members and the general public alike are misinformed about what’s actually possible within the law. From the dissenters’ point of view, many people feel they have no choice but to support the official unification proposal because there’s no other way.
But the dissenters strongly disagree.
“When you read the language of the legislation it clearly says on the face of it that communities can present to the board that they have met the goals of Act 46 by maintaining the current structure or by coming up with an alternative structure. Yet we were advised time and again that the best way or the only way was to go with the preferred structure,” said Fisher.
Talking about the supermajority vote on the official unification plan, Fisher reflected, “I don’t know how many of the yes votes are yes votes because committee members feel we have no choice and how many are yes votes because committee members feel like this is the best choice.”
Fisher did not fault Rep. David Sharpe, a Bristol Democrat who headed the House Education Committee that wrote Act 46.
“Many committee members articulated we have no choice; we have to do this or else it will be imposed upon us. And I just don’t accept that. I know that Dave Sharpe and others did not approach this with a Montpelier-knows-best one-size-fits-all solution. And I am very confident that Dave and other legislative leaders would push back very hard on the notion that that’s what this is. And yet many people describe it exactly in those terms: ‘If we don’t do exactly what they tell us to they’re going to make us do it.’
“That concept is in the air. It is not uncommon that people will say to me on the street, ‘Wow, you’re working hard against this. Don’t we have no choice?’”
Should ANeSU voters say no in November, there is still time, the three believe, to look more deeply at alternatives and find a solution that better preserves the current strengths of the district’s schools while making needed improvements.
Cornell feels that the Board of Education is beginning to show more willingness to consider alternative structures. The state board approved draft guidelines for alternative structures at its July 29 meeting and plans to consider a draft set of rules for schools looking to propose alternative structures at its meeting on Aug. 23 meeting. (See the related story).
MAJORITY REBUTTAL
According to Act 46 Study Committee Chair Jennifer Stanley, the “committee will prepare a rebuttal to the minority report, to be approved at our next meeting in late August.”
In the interim, Stanley responded with the statement: “Within our communities and our committee, people are passionate about providing a great education to our students. After much discussion, analysis, and advice from a variety of experts, the committee decided to pursue a unified supervisory district with the belief that this provides the greatest opportunities for both efficiency and educational opportunities for our students.
“Many of the concerns in the minority report were raised and discussed by our committee in our many meetings, and the committee determined what actions to take by our standard two-thirds majority decision rule.
“It is clear that the authors of the minority report do not support Act 46, but that doesn’t change the requirements of the law. While Act 46 is the reason we looked more seriously at unification, a supermajority of the committee believes that unifying provides important benefits for our students beyond the potential tax savings of Act 46.”
Committee members on both sides of the issue are unified in believing that what happens next is up to ANeSU voters.
“It is time to let the voters weigh in,” Stanley said.
Echoed Fisher: “The voters must ultimately make this decision. I know that there are many, many people who feel very, very strongly about our schools and about our communities’ relationships with our schools. And those people will engage to learn about the pros and cons of the proposal put before them.
“The Minority Report, I think, will provide a place to learn about some of those pros and cons.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at gaenm@addisonindependent.com.
To read the Minority Report, go to page 54 of the official report, “Act 46 Study Committee Final Report and Articles of Agreement,” found at www.anesu.org.

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