Orwell prepares for its third vote on school unification
MIDDLEBURY — Supporters of a plan to merge school governance in the six-town Addison Rutland Supervisory Union are hoping the third try will be the charm in getting support from the lone community that has consistently opposed the idea — Orwell.
Residents in the ARSU-member towns of Benson, Castleton, Fair Haven, Hubbardton, West Haven and Orwell will again vote on the measure — driven by Vermont’s Act 46 — by Australian ballot next Tuesday, March 7. If approved, all schools within the newly created Slate Valley Unified Union School District (SVUUSD) would be governed by one 18-member board that would preside over a single, K-12 budget.
Orwell voters rejected the merger idea twice last year; first by a 211-121 margin on April 12, then by a 204 to 166 count on June 21. Those votes were for an “accelerated” merger that required all six communities to approve the referendum.
But this time around, the ARSU stands a better chance of seeing some form of school governance consolidation — even if Orwell votes “no” again. If Orwell were to again reject the merger, but at least four of the remaining ARSU towns vote “yes,” those towns would be able to pursue a Slate Valley Modified Unified Union School District.
“Every town is ‘advisable’ this time, as opposed to ‘necessary,’” ARSU Superintendent Ron Ryan explained.
So if Orwell again votes against the proposal, it would be required to manage its own pre-K through grade 8 population until it negotiates a separate educational plan with the state, or is required by the state to join a unified district.
A town that is not a member of a unified union would also:
• Continue to operate their existing elementary district as a “Non-Member Elementary District.” It will continue to elect its own elementary school board, vote on its elementary budget, and pay its own elementary expenses.
• Become members of two districts: It’s existing elementary school district serving pre-K through grade 8, and that of the new modified union district for grades 9-12.
• Elect its own representatives for the new MUUSD board. It should be noted that these members would only be able to vote on modified union district 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 they send to the Fair Haven Union High School.
Any community that votes against the school governance merger will not be able to secure any of the financial incentives provided through Act 46. “Yes” towns would qualify for, among other things, property tax relief during a four-year transition to unification. That would amount to 8 cents of the town education tax rate in year one, 6 in year two, 4 in year three, and 2 in year four. Other advantages for the new district: The ability to keep its small schools grants from the state; a transition facilitation grant of $120,000, or 5 percent of the base education amount multiplied by the new district’s average daily membership, whichever is less; the ability to keep the 3.5 percent hold-harmless protection for declining enrollment, which will be eliminated in fiscal year 2021; and an exemption from the requirement to repay a portion of state construction aid upon sale of a school building.
“Our priority would be to have everyone move forward in a unified structure,” Ryan said.
The ARSU’s 14-member Act 46 Study Committee prepared the latest governance consolidation plan, which the Vermont Agency of Education approved last month. The panel took extra pains to make the plan more attractive to the six towns, according to Ryan.
For example, the panel has now made it tougher to close a local school within the unified district. At least 75 percent of the new Slate Valley unified board would need to vote for a school closing, in addition to a majority vote of the residents of the town in which the school is located. Those votes could not take place until four years after the governance merger vote is approved.
The new Act 46 committee also made sure the six towns would get equal representation (three members each) on the new SVUUSD board. Originally, the board was to have proportional representation from each town. This would have given a numerical advantage to the bigger communities. Orwell would have had two members in the original board setup, compared to seven for Castleton.
Efforts to reach Act 46 Study Committee Chairman Glen Cousineau were unsuccessful as the Independent went to press.
All of the SVUUSD board candidates are running at large for the new board on March 7. That means voters can cast ballots in all of the races in the six member communities. In Orwell, Peter Stone and Glen Cousineau are running unopposed for terms of one year and two years, respectively, on the new board. Orwell residents Andrea Ochs and David Carpenter are vying for the town’s three-year term on the panel.
School governance merger advocates believe the move would help smaller schools better weather declining enrollment and surging costs. They also believe such a merger would lead to increased (and more equitable) sharing of resources and personnel among schools, as well as more efficient operations.
Opponents of consolidation have voiced concern about, among other things, ceding control of local schools to a larger board representing the combined interests of six communities.
Ryan is stepping down as superintendent this June and confessed approval of the consolidation referendum by all six communities would be a perfect going-away present.
“It would be nice knowing they are consolidated and moving forward,” Ryan said. “It would be good for our district to do it.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
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