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Orwell likely to vote again on school governance plan

ORWELL — After rejecting the notion twice this year, Orwell voters are likely to get a third opportunity to weigh in on a proposal to merge their school governance with that of five nearby Rutland County communities.
The Addison-Rutland Supervisory Union (ARSU) has formed a new Act 46 Study Committee, charged with considering a school governance unification plan for Orwell, Hubbardton, West Haven, Benson, Fair Haven and Castleton. The 14-member panel — which includes two Orwell representatives — will spend the coming months determining how the six communities’ schools could be overseen by one board and financed through a single budget.
If the committee’s work results in a consolidation proposal, if would be put to voters before next July 1, the date on which some major financial incentives for unifying districts expire, noted ARSU Superintendent Ron Ryan. The new district could qualify for, among other things, property tax discounts during a four-year transition to unification. Those would amount to 8 cents in year one, 6 in year two, 4 in year three, and 2 in year four from the tax rates the district otherwise adopts.
Orwell voters have already defeated school unification proposals twice, first on April 12 (by a tally of 211 to 121), and then on June 21, by a count of 204 to 166. Orwell was the only community among the six to reject unification. And under terms of the “accelerated merger” process through Vermont’s Act 46, all six towns needed to endorse the measure in order for unification to proceed.
This time around, according to Ryan, the committee, formed on Aug. 10, would have the latitude to consider whether participation of the town of Orwell or any other town in the district is necessary — or merely “advisable” — in allowing the new Slate Valley Unified Union School District to be formed.
If Orwell’’s participation is not considered essential by the committee, the new district could potentially form with just the five Rutland County communities should a successful vote occur, according to Ryan. It would then be up to the Vermont Agency of Education to determine how Orwell could comply with ACT 46.
Orwell’s representatives on ARSU’s new Act 46 Study Committee are Glen Cousineau (who was an Orwell delegate on the previous Act 46 panel) and David Carpenter. Cousineau is also the current chairman of the Orwell School board.
State Rep. Alyson Eastman, I- Orwell, has decided not to return to the study committee this year, according to Ryan.
“I would like it known that she put a lot of hard work into the first process with the committee and we thank her for leadership, dedication and service as chair,” Ryan said of Eastman.
As was the case the first time around, membership on the ARSU Act 46 Study Committee is based on the participating communities’ equalized pupil counts. West Haven and Hubbardton have one member each, Benson and Orwell each have two, and Fair Haven and Castleton are each entitled to four.
Ryan said the committee was scheduled to have an initial meeting this past Wednesday, followed by another gathering in either late August or early September. He anticipates the committee will meet at least once per month.
“Ultimately, we’re trying to do what the law requires,” Cousineau said of the committee’s mission.
Cousineau acknowledged “some very vocal opposition” in Orwell to the notion of unification. Some local residents have expressed concerns that governance consolidation could lead to an erosion of local control and perhaps ultimately the closing of the town’s elementary school. ARSU officials have said that Orwell has solid enrollment numbers and is in no danger of seeing its school closed.
Cousineau added some local unification opponents seem convinced the state will ultimately repeal Act 46, and that it might be in Orwell’s best interest to hold out for such a decision. Cousineau does not agree with that strategy, and believes unification could net Orwell and other Vermont communities much more than potential property tax savings.
“I think in the end the one thing that got missed the first time around is educational equality,” Cousineau said. “Even in our district, we don’t have educational equality, to say nothing about compared to the rest of the state. I think this is probably the best bet toward achieving educational equality. There are some parts of (Act 46) that I don’t like, but the biggest picture you’ve got to look at is the child’s education.”
Locally, the Addison Central, Addison Northwest and Rutland Northeast supervisory unions have all approved school governance unification referenda. Addison Northeast voters will face an Act 46 referendum on Nov. 8.
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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