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Orwell rejects school unification, faces showdown with state

ORWELL — Orwell residents on Town Meeting Day again rejected a proposal to join a school governance merger with five nearby Rutland County communities, setting the stage for a potential showdown with the state under Vermont’s Act 46.
Orwell residents voted 219-137 against joining Benson, Castleton, Fair Haven, Hubbardton, and West Haven in forming a unified Slate Valley Unified Union School District that would have established one board to represent all of the member schools and create a single K-12 budget.
It was the third time Orwell has rejected the merger proposal. And this time, Orwell had company. Fair Haven voters rejected the plan by a slim, 220-208 tally. Fair Haven had originally OK’d the school governance consolidation proposal last April.
This means that Orwell and Fair Haven will need to prove to the Vermont Agency of Education that their individual school governance plans meet the objectives of Act 46, a state law designed to encourage efficiencies and shared resources among neighboring school districts. If they fail to make a convincing argument, the agency can place them in a unified school district.
“I do think that’s a tough case to make,” said Rep. Dave Sharpe, D-Bristol, who is one of the architects of Act 46.
Meanwhile, the communities of Castleton, West Haven, Hubbardton and Benson will be able to merge their school governance through a “Slate Valley Modified Unified Union School District.” Those four towns will receive, among other things, property tax relief during a four-year transition to unification. That will amount to 8 cents in year one, 6 in year two, 4 in year three, and 2 in year four. They will also be able to to keep their “small schools grants” from the state. They will receive 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.
Orwell and Fair Haven aren’t eligible for these Act 46 perks in the wake of their “no” votes. Orwell and Fair Haven could vote again on joining the four other towns if someone petitions revotes in those communities, according to Orwell resident Glen Cousineau, who chaired the ARSU’s Act 46 study committee.
“Unless there’s a petition for a revote, we will wait and let the state determine our fate,” Cousineau said.
Asked to explain Orwell’s consistent votes against the Act 46 initiative, Cousineau said “you’ve got a group that basically has drawn a line in the sand that the state is not going to tell them what to do. They were able to rally some support to get this defeated.”
But Cousineau believes opponents might have misjudged the political landscape in Montpelier.
“Their feeling last time was that, ‘We’re going to have a new governor, we’re going to have a new education secretary, and (Act 46) is going to go away,’” Cousineau said. “But the governor (Phil Scott) is in favor of Act 46, and he has reappointed (Education Secretary) Rebecca Holcombe. This is not going away. The Legislature is showing it has no intention of changing it much.”
Cousineau said he received an Agency of Education report last month indicating more than 50 percent of Vermont’s public school children are now served by unified school districts.
“Act 46 is not going to go away,” Cousineau said.
“It’s probably going to take the state to swing the hammer before things are going to change,” Cousineau added. “And unfortunately, the kids are the ones who lose out.”
MORE PALATABLE?
Officials said the ARSU Act 46 Committee made some extra efforts this time to make the unification plan more palatable to all six towns.
For example, the panel made it tougher to close a local school within the unified district. At least 75 percent of the new Slate Valley unified board would have been required 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 would not have been able to take place until four years after the governance merger was OK’d.
Organizers also gave the six towns equal representation (three members each) on the proposed SVUUSD board. Originally, the board was to have proportional representation based on each town’s population. 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.
As non-member districts, Orwell and Fair Haven will be expected to:
•  Continue to operate their existing elementary district as a “Non-Member Elementary District.” Each town 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.
Addison Rutland Supervisory Union Superintendent Ron Ryan was disappointed with, but resigned to, the results of Tuesday’s vote.
“The Orwell voters have spoken pretty clearly that they’re not interested in this (governance merger),” Ryan said. “The hope was that they would stay with this district, but that was never a guarantee.”
Ryan added the two dissenting communities will now “have to deal with what the state comes up with down the road.”
The unification process will be on hold for Benson, Hubbardton, Castleton and West Haven until the statutory timeline for a revote on the Act 46 question has passed, according to Ryan. He said it could be May before the four towns begin to merge their school governance.
Sharpe said the Legislature is looking at some possible tweaks to Act 46, but there is no move afoot to overhaul or repeal the law.
He believes Orwell and Fair Haven might regret not joining the other Slate Valley towns.
“I think communities like Orwell will find that in the long run, it’s going to be extraordinarily difficult to run a tiny school without being part of a larger family,” Sharpe said. “I think some of those towns around the state will end up closing their schools and giving vouchers to kids; others will decide to become part of the new larger school district. I don’t know which way Orwell will decide to go, but I suspect as time goes on … they are going to find it more and more difficult to maintain a tiny school.”
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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