Orwell to vote again on FHUHS budget

ORWELL — Orwell voters on May 9 will cast ballots on the same 2017-2018 Fair Haven Union High School spending proposal of $7,831,980 that they and other Addison Rutland Supervisory Union residents defeated by a combined 927-763 tally on Town Meeting Day.
And there will be even busier ballots in some of the other ARSU communities, which include Benson, Castleton, Fair Haven, Hubbardton, Orwell and West Haven.
Residents served by the Fair Haven town school and the Castleton-Hubbardton Union School District will vote on revised versions of those 2017-2018 elementary school spending proposals, which failed on March 7.
In addition, Fair Haven and Castleton voters will again be asked to support creating a Slate Valley Modified Unified Union School District (SVMUUSD) under Vermont’s Act 46. Addison Rutland Supervisory Union officials need at least four of the district’s six communities to support forming the SVMUUSD, which would govern its schools by a single board presiding over a single budget.
Communities that don’t choose to participate will have to negotiate the future of their governance with the Vermont Agency of Education. If they can’t develop governance plans that meet the consolidation goals of Act 46, the agency could place them in an already unified school district.
Orwell residents on March 7 voted 219-137 against joining the new Slate Valley unified district. It was the third time in two years that Orwell had defeated the Act 46 referendum, and no one in town filed a petition that would have required Orwell to participate in the May 9 reconsideration vote.
But residents in Castleton and Fair Haven did file revote petitions. Fair Haven voters rejected the Act 46 referendum on March 7 by a slim, 220-208 tally. Fair Haven had originally OK’d the school governance consolidation proposal in April 2016.
Castleton residents OK’d the Act 46 question by a 360-290 back on Town Meeting Day. But a resident successfully petitioned for reconsideration.
Losing Orwell, Castleton and Fair Haven would deal a major blow to the Addison Rutland SU’s efforts to comply with Act 46. Opponents have voiced concerns whether the unified district would result in the level of local control communities currently have with their individual school boards. Some critics of the plan have also asked whether governance unification might be a precursor to closing some of the smaller schools in the district.
The ARSU Act 46 committee tried to assuage those concerns by stipulating:
•  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 would not have been able to take place until four years after the governance merger was OK’d.
•  Each of the member towns would get equal (three members each) representation on the new unified board regardless of the town’s size. Originally, the board was to have had proportional representation, which would have given seven members to Castleton. Tom Spangenberg, chairman of the ARSU board, theorized the switch from proportional representation might have acted as the catalyst for the revote petition in Castleton.
“What they all have in common is the overall feeling that this one is another instance of the state trying to take local control from the schools,” Spangenberg said of those opposed to governance unification.
But he is concerned revote petitioners have not fully considered the potential consequences of eschewing Act 46.
“The next step (after rejection) is the state telling you where to go and what you’re going to do,” Spangenberg said. “I’d rather be driving the car than having someone drive it for me.”
He also noted some of the penalties that non-complying towns will have to absorb, such as the loss of the small schools grants, some property tax breaks and a “transition facilitation grant” of $120,000.
Locally, the Addison Central, Addison Northeast, Addison Northwest and Rutland Northeast supervisory unions have all passed Act 46 referenda and are in the process of consolidating their respective governance structures.
Addison Rutland Supervisory Union officials decided against making any changes to the 2017-2018 FHUHS budget proposal for the May 9 vote, noting it represents a 3.4-percent reduction ($279,130) in spending compared to this year.
Ron Ryan, ARSU superintendent, believes some voters might have lost sight of that overall spending decrease after seeing language on the budget warning indicating 9.75-percent increase in per-pupil spending. That increase, officials said, is in part due to a drop in student enrollment and a $718,885 decline in revenues for the high school.
State law now requires school districts to include, in their respective warnings, spending levels per equalized pupil and the percent change in in education spending per equalized pupil. But the warning does not tell the whole story, Ryan noted.
The district will soon be sending an informational flyer to district voters about the FHUHS budget. That flyer points out various impacts of the spending plan, including:
•  A per-pupil spending level of $14,881, which is “still substantially below the statewide union high school average of $15,380.”
•  A single “significant change,” in the form of $38,500 for a new phone system that would allow FHUHS to be E911-compliant.
School officials said FHUHS has averaged spending increases of 1 percent annually during the past 10 years.
District voters will have a chance to learn more about the FHUHS budget plan and ask questions at an informational meeting slated for Wednesday, May 3, at 7 p.m. at the high school.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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