Orwell to field school unification vote for a third time
ORWELL — Orwell residents next March will be asked for a third time to merge their school governance with that of five nearby Rutland County towns to form a new Slate Valley Unified Union School District.
Voters in Orwell have already rejected such a move twice this year.
But this time around the new unified school district would be able to take shape even without Orwell’s participation under a “modified” union school district permitted under Vermont’s Act 46.
In such a case, Orwell would be required to manage its own pre-K through grade 8 population until it negotiates a separate educational setup with the state, or is required by the state to join a unified district.
The March 7 referendum will be put to the voters of the Addison-Rutland Supervisory Union towns of Orwell, Hubbardton, West Haven, Benson, Fair Haven and Castleton. If approved by all of the towns, the new Slate Valley Unified Union School District, or SVUUSD, would officially begin its existence on July 1, 2018, and be governed by a single board presiding over one budget for all the member schools.
As currently envisioned, the unified board would be made up of three people from each of the member communities. Plans call for that board membership to also be voted next March 7.
Orwell voters first rejected school governance consolidation on April 12 (by a tally of 211 to 121), and then on June 21, by 204 to 166. Orwell was the only town among the six to reject unification. 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.
Addison-Rutland Supervisory Union officials then put together a new, 14-member Act 46 Study Committee, this one chaired by Orwell resident Glen Cousineau. The panel — with representation from all of the six towns — reviewed a draft set of “articles of agreement” that would serve as a blueprint for an SVUUSD.
Cousineau and his colleagues would like to see the state Board of Education approve the articles of agreement when it meets on Jan. 17. But first, the committee will seek feedback from residents of the six towns at a series of public forums that will provide input for a final draft of the articles.
The Orwell forum is set for Tuesday, Dec. 6, at 7 p.m. at the town hall. A complete list of the forums and other information about the latest school governance effort in the Addison Rutland SU can be found at arsu.org.
Addison Rutland Supervisory Union Superintendent Ron Ryan hopes the process this time leads to positive votes in all six towns, an outcome that would avoid the need to create a modified union with fewer towns.
“The idea is to develop a plan that creates a unified union school district for all six towns,” Ryan said. “That would be the best scenario.”
But officials want to plan for every contingency, including a scenario in which one or two towns reject unification. If that happens, the “yes” communities would be able to merge in a modified union district and each of the “no” towns would be expected to:
• Continue to operate its existing elementary district as a “Non-Member Elementary District” and elect its own elementary school board, vote on its elementary budget, and pay its own elementary expenses.
• Become members of two districts, its existing elementary school district serving pre-K through grade 8, and that of the new modified district for grades 9-12.
• Elect its own representatives for the new modified district board. It should be noted that these members would only be able to vote on business relating to grades 9-12; the dissenting towns would have to recuse themselves on votes pertaining to union elementary business or building decisions.
• Pay a proportional share of expenses for students it sends to the district high school.
Any town that votes against the school governance merger will not be able to secure any of the financial incentives provided through Act 46. The new district would qualify for, among other things, property tax relief during a four-year transition to unification. That would amount to 8 cents off property taxes in year one, 6 in year two, 4 in year three, and 2 in year four.
After July 1, 2019, the “no” towns would only be able to retain their small schools grants if the Vermont Board of Education determines they are geographically isolated or can demonstrate academic excellence and operational efficiency without a merger. And after July 1, 2020, these dissenting districts will also lose 3.5 percent of Annual Daily Membership “hold-harmless” protection, if it applies. That protection softens the financial blow of declining enrollment.
A dissenting town could belatedly join the new modified district if it votes to do so before March 8, 2018. After that, it would require a positive vote in the dissenting town and in the union’s existing member-towns.
Like Ryan, Cousineau wants to see all six towns endorse unification this time around. In Orwell, that will mean answering the concerns of some residents who during past meetings voiced concerns that governance consolidation could lead to an erosion of local control and perhaps ultimately the closing of the local elementary school.
“You’ve got some very vocal opponents to this who are very influential and they just feel, ‘You know what, just tell the state that we’re not interested and we’re going to keep on going the way we’re going,’” Cousineau said. “But everything I’ve read, that doesn’t seem to be an option, long-term.”
ARSU officials have said that Orwell has solid enrollment numbers and is in no danger of seeing its school closed. In any case, the draft articles of agreement stipulate that no school could be closed for at least four years into the merger. After that, closing a school would require a positive vote from the host community and 75 percent of the votes of the 18-member unified school board.
Cousineau believes the state has set “such a high bar” for a town being allowed to set up an alternative educational structure that he doesn’t believe Orwell or other communities stand much of a chance following that route. So that could result in the Agency of Education assigning Orwell to a unified district anyway, Cousineau said.
The Act 46 Study Committee will work hard to convince opponents of the perceived benefits of governance unification, said Cousineau, who plans to stress improved programming and the more equitable educational opportunities through shared resources.
“The tax incentives are short-term,” he said of a previous, major selling point for unification.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].