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Opinion: ANeSU merger proposal is flawed

This week’s writer is Starksboro resident Herb Olson, a member of the Addison Northeast Supervisory Union (ANESU) Act 46 Study Committee and former member of the Mount Abraham Union High School Board.
 
On Election Day in November, residents of Bristol, Lincoln, Monkton, New Haven and Starksboro will be asked whether or not to approve a Proposed Merger of our local school districts. The Proposed Merger is the result of Act 46, which promised to lower education spending and property taxes, and to improve education equity and quality. As a member of the ANESU Act 46 Study Committee, I am convinced that the Proposed Merger will not achieve these laudable goals. Montpelier’s “one-size-fits all” approach is wrong for our students’ education.
School district centralization will not have a meaningful impact on education property taxes.
• The major factors driving local education spending, which in turn influence education property taxes, are (1) salaries and benefits, (2) school operational costs, and (3) administrative costs. The Proposed Merger will not affect salaries and benefits. ANESU schools are not anticipated to close, so the Proposed Merger will not affect the cost of operating our 6 schools. Nor will the Proposed Merger result in significant administrative efficiencies. The Proposed Merger report estimates an annual savings of only $140,237 on an overall annual combined budget of over $25 million. The small “efficiency” amount is no doubt because our schools have already taken steps to lower administrative costs, for example through joint purchasing and contracting.
• The estimated annual savings of $140,237 is a theoretical figure. These savings may not materialize. There is a lot of work involved in merging six school districts, and their respective collective bargaining agreements, policies and procedures into a single, new set of governing rules and documents. In fact, the Agency of Education has conceded that there will be “transition costs” associated with school district mergers.
• Act 46 promises tax incentives for schools that choose Montpelier’s “preferred model.” However, these tax incentives are quite minimal. The annual, average tax savings on a $150,000 home, due to incentives, are $127 in Bristol, $154 in Lincoln, $117 in Monkton, $128 in New Haven, and $64 in Starksboro. Savings for income-based taxpayers will be even less.
• These taxes incentives are temporary, and will end in four years. This means that at the end of the four-year period, either taxes will need to be raised, or programs will need to be cut.
• The Act 46 tax incentives are not “free.” They are funded by school taxes paid by for by all of us. This means that your taxes will increase to pay for the tax incentives. 
School district centralization is unlikely to improve education quality.
• Another purpose of Act 46 was to improve the quality and variety of educational opportunities statewide. This is an important goal for our five towns, situated as we are next to a Chittenden County district where fine educational opportunities are provided through per pupil spending lower than ours. For example, in FY 2014, Champlain Valley Union High School’s per pupil spending was $14,048, versus $15,543 at Mount Abraham Union High School.
• There is no persuasive evidence showing that school district centralization within our five towns will achieve the goal of statewide educational equity and quality for our children. Improvements in education quality are more likely to occur as a result of continuing hard work by leaders, teachers and parents.
• The main argument made by proponents of the Proposed Merger is that centralization will allow the superintendent to spend less time on school board meetings, and more time on education programs and leadership. This seems more of a management problem than a governance structure problem. Our new superintendent has already established a schedule of joint board meetings designed to make more efficient use of administrative and board time. Additional changes in management structure and schedule might be far more productive than a change that eliminates the community-governed element of our local schools.
There are no tangible or significant benefits to the Proposed Merger, but if we do centralize our school districts, we may lose valuable features of our community-governed schools, including a close connection between educators, parents and children, the sense of community ownership that supports a well-functioning school, close scrutiny of school budgets, and strong financial support for our schools when warranted.
I am not opposed to change, if change will improve our students’ education; but I am not willing to jettison our community-governed schools just because Montpelier says we should, and just because Montpelier has made promises on property taxes and education quality that are just that — “promises, promises.” We can do better!
For more information on why we should vote “no” on Act 46 school district centralization on Nov. 8, please visit our website: sites.google.com/site/votenoonanesumerger.

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