ADDISON COUNTY — Voters across Addison County — and in many other parts of Vermont — approved big changes in the way we oversee and budget for our schools in 2016. The establishment of bigger school districts that unify governance of multi-town supervisory unions under a single board that will do a universal budget for all of the schools under their purview will lead to such a big change that we have made it our No. 1 story for 2016.
The changes were prompted by Act 46, a law that pushes school districts to coalesce into larger groupings to create efficiencies in shared services and spending. It was also hoped that students in smaller schools would get access to a broader range of educational and extracurricular offerings in a unified district.
While some of the pressure on legislators came from a desire to lower education taxes, lawmakers in the end said that was not a primary goal of Act 46. Nevertheless, the law offers financial incentives for towns to merge in multi-school districts by cutting school taxes by 10 cents in the first year, 8 cents in the second and so on for five years.
Voters in eight Brandon-area towns were the first to jump on the bandwagon. In January they voted overwhelmingly to merge their six school districts into two — only the second such merger at the time in the entire state. The new Otter Valley Unified Union School District was created to consolidate the Brandon, Goshen, Leicester, Whiting, Salisbury and Pittsford school districts. Mendon and Chittenden, the other two RNeSU towns, will operate a pre-K through sixth-grade Barstow Unified Union School District.
Then, on Town Meeting Day, Addison Central and Addison Northwest voters comfortably approved school governance consolidation mergers under Act 46. Both supervisory unions thus became consolidated school districts, each governed by a single board presiding over a single K-12 budget. Residents in the ACSU-member towns of Bridport, Cornwall, Middlebury, Ripton, Salisbury, Shoreham and Weybridge agreed to create an Addison Central School District. They also elected a 13-member ACSD board. Residents in Addison, Ferrisburgh, Panton, Vergennes and Waltham endorsed a new Addison Northwest School district, and picked a 12-person board to lead it.
Governance unification passed in Addison Central by a combined total of 3,404-792 in all seven towns.
In Addison Northwest, the plan passed, 2,223-691.
That left Orwell and the five towns in Addison Northeast as the only county towns west of the Green Mountains not operating in unified school districts.
Orwell residents took a crack at unification with the five other towns in the Addison Rutland Supervisory Union, but the town voted 211 to 121 against joining in the proposed Slate Valley Unified Union School District. A revote in June was closer — 204-166 — but the union was still off. It was the only town among the six to vote against the plan. The other towns discussed forming a unified union without Orwell, but that hasn’t come to pass.
Meanwhile, in the Bristol area, a report released in August by a committee looking at school governance unification showed that such a unification in Addison Northeast could save taxpayers close to $2.5 million over five years. But, three members of Act 46 Study Committee — Nancy Cornell, Herb Olson and Mike Fisher — authored a Minority Report dissenting unification within the official plan that was sent to the Agency of Education for review. The report named a flawed committee process and desired to keep local control as their main reasons for disapproval.
Still, when it came to a vote on Election Day in November, residents in Bristol, Starksboro, New Haven, Monkton and Lincoln approved a unification plan. The margins very close in two of the towns. The plan passed by 34 votes in Lincoln, 391-357, and by only 22 votes in Starksboro, 430-408. Residents in those towns still voted school budgets on the floor of town meeting and opposition to the unification plan was particularly heartfelt.
All of the school districts that voted for unification are now in transition, with the unified union taking full legal authority July 1, 2017, in the first three unions, and July 1, 2018, in Addison Northeast.
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