ANeSU unification will build community, superintendent says
BRISTOL — Addison Northeast Supervisory Union Superintendent Patrick Reen supports the potential unification of budgets and school governance in the five town area for a simple reason: It would be good for the kids.
“For me, the number one reason why this change is important is because it allows this organization to focus on what it wants to achieve for kids in a way that it hasn’t ever been able to do before,” Reen said.
The Vermont Board of Education last week approved the ANeSU’s Act 46 unification plan, paving the way for the proposal to be put before voters on Election Day, Nov. 8.
The Independent sat down with Reen to get his views on the plan
Unification “helps kids because it enables the organization to focus on helping kids. That’s really what it boils down to,” said Reen. “I think it benefits kids when everyone in the organization from the superintendent to their classroom teacher and the support staff in their buildings are focused, that we have a plan, that we know it will work, and we can focus on enacting that plan to improve outcomes for kids. That’s really what it’s about.”
He explained that the current governance structure of 34 school directors on seven boards (one for each elementary school, one for Mount Abe, and an overall ANeSU Board plus one executive committee) pulls the superintendent away from educational leadership.
“A huge portion of time on the superintendent’s part — and not just the superintendent’s but the business office’s part, my administrative assistant, a number of folks in central office, as well as some principals — so much of our time has had to be dedicated to preparing for board meetings and working with board members to create agendas and doing all of that work. That’s mostly just to kind of keep things going,” said Reen.
“So the energy it takes to really move forward is diminished because so much time is spent essentially keeping everybody informed about what’s happening.”
With a unified district and one board, Reen believes that ANeSU could instead focus on what it wants and how to get there.
Reen also outlined several other reasons he supports ANeSU unification:
• Educational equity and expanding what is meant by “our students.”
“For me the town you live in shouldn’t drive what your experience is like and how that impacts what your experience is when you get to Mount Abe. The students at Lincoln Community School and the students at Robinson Elementary are pretty much the same kind of students. There’s a fine line between Starksboro and Lincoln. A student can live 10 feet on this side of the line or 10 feet on that side of the line; it doesn’t make those students all that different. A third-grade boy over here and a third-grade boy over there have a lot more in common than they do different. And if they have something that’s different it’s not because they live in different town,” said Reen.
“When people speak of ‘our students,’ for the most part they’re talking about the students that live in their town. This would give us an opportunity to redefine ‘our students’ to the kids that live within Addison Northeast Supervisory Union.”
• Distinguishing between “local control” and “involvement in my school.”
ANeSU’s unification plan contains important
provisions to strengthen local involvement, Reen said. He points to Article 15, “Community Engagement and Input,” which calls for the creation of local advisory councils, or similar structures, for local input. Reen believes this provision is unique among unification plans in Vermont.
That article, said Reen, is “about wanting to capture that community members’ voice. That is really important.
“It’s really important that we have a sense from the community about what’s working well and what are some areas that could use improvement in each of our schools and, even bigger, in our school system — and not just once in a while but more of a continual loop. So the notion of having those advisory councils at the local level makes great sense to me.”
Reen points to the ways he used parent-principal coffees when he was principal at Middlebury Union Middle School.
“Those parents who came to my parent-principal coffees didn’t make the decision, but their input was really valued and it helped inform decisions going forward.”
• More protections against school closures than other districts.
While Act 46 itself stipulates that no school can be closed within the first four years of a unified district, the ANeSU plan requires two steps for any school closure. Both the governing board and the town itself must vote to close the school.
“Having that language in the article adds a huge sort of reassurance to folks that we’re only going to close a school if the majority of you that live in that town believe it ought to happen,” Reen said.
Reen notes that the idea of what’s a “small” school is often relative to other schools within a supervisory union. For example, New Haven’s Beeman Elementary, which is the smallest school within ANeSU would actually be the second-largest school in Addison Central. Moreover, Reen believes that unification will in fact help preserve the financial viability of smaller schools, because rejecting a unification plan means the loss of “Small School Grants” from the state.
“A vote against unification is perhaps a faster route to a small school closing. Losing the small schools grant is considerable in terms of keeping a school open.”
Beeman is the only ANeSU school that currently receives a small schools grant. That grant is around $70,000.
• Unification stabilizes the number of equalized pupils within a district, which stabilizes state funding, which is based on pupil numbers, and thus stabilizes school finances.
“A change in 10 kids in or out of a school has a pretty significant effect,” said Reen. “That’s 10 percent of Beeman … And with finances now being tied to equalized pupils that can produce pretty significant shifts within a school.”
Reen continued, “As a unified district, one budget, one number of equalized pupils creating one cost per pupil, we can absorb those shifts. If Beeman loses 10 or 15 students that 10 or 15 students is significant for Beeman. But in almost 1,500 students across the (supervisory union), it doesn’t make that much of an impact on our spending per equalized pupil.”
• Unification protects and promotes the ability of individual schools to do local fundraising.
“A number of our schools have money that they receive each year for a specific purpose, earmarked by some foundation or something,” Reen said. “All of those things can still happen, like the money that has been earmarked for the school’s band program by some generous donor years ago will still go to that school for its band program. PTOs can still operate. And we encourage them to continue to operate for those fundraising efforts for their schools.”
• District-wide Australian ballot for budgets.
Many Starksboro and Lincoln residents have raised concerns about losing the floor vote at town meeting at which they discuss, often revise, and reach agreement on the elementary school budget. For Reen, the switch to Australian ballot makes the most sense for the most voters.
“Currently I think something like 70 percent of the electorate in Addison Northeast votes by Australian ballot already. And currently everyone — including Starksboro and Lincoln — votes by Australian ballot for the Mount Abe budget vote,” said Reen. “There’s a lot of power and control in being able to vote from the floor, but it’s a lot of authority by a very small percentage of the electorate typically when you think about the folks who will actually physically be present at a town meeting to be able to make those decisions vs. the electorate that really are there in large.”
While Reen is still the new superintendent — he began on July 1 — he is also a familiar face to many. He and his family are longtime Bristol residents, Reen has two children in the ANeSU school system, and he began his career in education as a teacher at Bristol Elementary School.
“My interest in the passage of ANeSU’s unification plan goes beyond my role as superintendent. As someone with two children of my own in our schools, as well as two nephews and many children of close friends, I can’t imagine having any greater interest in making decisions that are best for our kids.
“With this perspective in mind it reassures me to think that a more efficient governance structure will enable the organization to have an increased focus on teaching and learning. As a parent, I am also intrigued to think about the possibility of enhancing the existing school-family-community partnership through local school advisory committees as described in Article 15 of the unification plan.
“As a taxpayer, the thought that we can increase the focus on teaching and learning and hopefully strengthen partnerships while also saving a few dollars in taxes makes a lot of sense to me.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is reached at [email protected].