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Orwell readies for Act 46 showdown; school could face forced merger

ORWELL — Orwell School directors will meet with the Vermont Board of Education on Wednesday, Aug. 15, in what could be the community’s last opportunity to argue against the proposed merger of the independent school with the recently created Slate Valley Modified Unified Union School District (SVMUUSD).
Orwell residents have on three occasions voted against joining the unified district, which refers to itself as SVMUUSD. The district includes five of the six former Addison-Rutland Supervisory Union communities: Castleton, Benson, Hubbardton, West Haven and Fair Haven. That new unified district governs all of the member-elementary schools, and Fair Haven Union High School, under a single PreK-12 budget.
The sixth former ARSU community — Orwell — wants to continue to finance and govern its own PreK- grade 8 program at the Orwell Village School. Those opposed to Orwell joining the SVMUUSD have argued, among other things, that such a move might make it less convenient for taxpayers to participate in school activities and it could reduce local control over education spending and programs.
Orwell is the only community left in Addison County that hasn’t opted for school governance consolidation, as stipulated by Vermont’s Act 46. The law provides financial incentives for school districts that consolidate their governance as a means of containing the rising costs of public education. Vermont’s public school population has been in decline for around two decades.
Glen Cousineau is chairman of the Orwell School Board. At the Aug. 15 meeting in Montpelier, he and his colleagues will be given 20 minutes before the state board to explain how Orwell can independently comply with the tenets of Act 46. The state board will be looking for new information, and not a recap of previous testimony the community has delivered on the subject.
And with less than two weeks to go before the big showdown, the board is not yet sure what kind of message it will present to Vermont’s top education officials. There are some of the complex and conflicting dynamics in play.
For one, then Acting Vermont Education Secretary Heather Bouchey on June 1 issued a report recommending that Orwell join the SVMUUSD. Bouchey’s conclusion, in part, reads: “No argument presented that maintaining its current structure is the ‘best’ means for Orwell to create a sustainable structure capable of meeting the Act 46 goals is convincing enough to overturn the Legislature’s presumption that a UUSD is the ‘preferred’ means of doing so.
“Absent compelling evidence to the contrary in this particular instance, the Secretary defers to the Legislature’s determination that a unified district is the structure most likely to meet or exceed the educational and fiscal goals of Act 46 in a sustainable manner.”
The state board will weigh Bouchey’s report and Orwell officials’ testimony and make its recommendation to the Legislature by Nov. 30, according to Cousineau.
But the Legislature alone can’t bring about Orwell’s inclusion into the SVMUUSD; the current member-communities in that unified district would have to vote to make it happen.
As an added wrinkle, Gov. Phil Scott on Thursday appointed Dan French to be Vermont Secretary of Education (click here to read more); there is no clear indication how or if this will bear on the Orwell consolidation question.
Another factor: Orwell school directors last Wednesday voted 3-2 in favor of a merger with the SVMUUD, which runs counter to the community’s three preceding votes not to join the district.
“We’re a split board,” Cousineau said during an Aug. 2 phone interview.
“I thought (a merger) was in the best interests of providing equitable education for our children,” he added in explaining his own vote.
He was not yet sure how the Orwell board would make its case on Aug. 15.
“I don’t like the idea of Montpelier dictating things, but as a school board member we’re supposed to look out for our children and enhance their education,” Cousineau said.
Orwell is already paying a price for its independence, Cousineau noted.
The community in March approved what Cousineau terms a “level-service” budget for the 2018-2019 academic year that will result in a residential education property tax of $1.535 per $100 in property value. That’s a 15-cent increase over the previous rate of $1.385, or an increase of $300 on a house valued at $200,000.
Some of that increase might be cause by the Common Level of Appraisal, an equalization ratio used to adjust the assessed value of property within a municipality to its estimated fair market value. Each municipality’s CLA is used to calculate its actual homestead and non-residential education property tax rates.
Orwell is also not reaping any of the financial incentives that merging school districts received through Act 46. Those incentives include a decrease of 10 cents on their education property tax rate during the first year of the governance merger, followed by 8 cents in year two; 6 cents in year three; 4 cents in year four; and finally, 2 cents in year five. Participating supervisory unions also receive a one-time “transition facilitation grant” of $150,000 and the ability to retain their Small Schools Grants. Orwell has not yet lost its Small School Grant, according to Cousineau.
Cousineau is hoping for an end result to the Act 46 matter that the entire Orwell community can live with.
“Right now, the decision is not in our hands,” he said.
Orwell officials are scheduled to address the state board on Aug. 15 at 11:25 a.m. in Room 11 of the Vermont Statehouse in Montpelier.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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