Orwell braces for new Act 46 vote, new fight

ORWELL — The multi-year saga of determining whether Orwell continues to independently govern its village school, or cedes that control to an 18-member district board, will likely be laid to rest by a referendum this November to be fielded by voters in the communities of Orwell, Castleton, Benson, Hubbardton, West Haven and Fair Haven.
But there are a few key hitches in this upcoming vote.
First, votes in that election will be comingled, and thus not allow Orwell residents to defeat the measure independently, as it has on three previous occasions.
Second, some Orwell residents are already indicating they might sue the state Board of Education if it forces Orwell to join Castleton, Benson, Hubbardton, West Haven and Fair Haven in the Slate Valley Modified Unified Union School District (SVMUUSD).
The SVMUUSD member-towns’ elementary schools and Fair Haven Union High School are all financed through a single budget and governed by a single district board.
A majority of Orwell residents have repeatedly voted against joining the 18-member SVMUUSD board, voicing concerns that — among other things — their three representatives could be out-voted on local educational priorities.
Still, state education officials and a slight majority of the Orwell School Board have been arguing in favor of joining the SVMUUSD as part of a process outlined in Vermont’s Act 46. That state law provides financial incentives for school districts to consolidate their governance as a means of containing the rising costs of public education in an era when Vermont’s student population has been on the decline.
Former Acting Vermont Education Secretary Heather Bouchey on June 1 issued a report recommending Orwell join the SVMUUSD, stating, “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.”
Orwell School board members appeared before the state Board of Education on Aug. 15 to express their views on the matter. The state board is expected to decide this November whether to endorse Bouchey’s call for Orwell to join the SVMUUSD, or maintain independence over its K-8 school. The older Orwell students, grades 9-12, attend Fair Haven Union High School.
Brooke Olsen-Farrell, SVMUUSD superintendent, confirmed plans for a Nov. 6 referendum on the issue of whether Orwell will be accepted into the consolidated district. But unlike the previous votes on this issue, ballots from all six communities will be co-mingled and counted in a single tally. Past votes saw each of the six towns vote independently on whether to join the SVMUUSD, which is how Orwell thus far has been able to avoid inclusion in the consolidated district.
So now, Orwell Act 46 opponents will have to hope a majority of the entire, six-town voting block decides against their community’s inclusion into the district, or the merger will move forward.
Steadfast supporters of an independent Orwell Village School raised concerns this week about the prospect of the Nov. 6 referendum undoing the results of the town’s three prior votes against joining the SVMUUSD.
“If this were to go forward, they would be saying the three votes of Orwell (against consolidation) didn’t matter, but now this vote does,” said Orwell resident Daniel Redondo.
“How will people in Orwell feel to know that other communities are now deciding our school’s fate?” he added. “Isn’t that what (Orwell residents) were afraid of to begin with?”
Orwell’s current three members on the 18-member SVMUUSD board are now only allowed to vote on matters pertaining to grades 9-12. Consolidation would mean Orwell grades K-8 would also fall under the oversight of the SVMUUSD panel, raising concerns among Redondo and other like-minded local residents that Orwell’s three board members could consistently be out-voted by a majority of their colleagues from other towns.
For example, Redondo noted the agreement spelling out the operation of the SVMUUSD gives the joint board power to shift grades and other resources among schools within the district.
“Our three (Orwell) representatives could be 100-percent opposed to a move, and there’d be nothing we could do to stop it,” Redondo said. “The reality is that our Principal could be assigned to a new school, or a teacher could be shifted to address a perceived shortcoming at another school, and there’d be nothing our three representatives could do to stop it.”
It should be noted that all six SVMUUSD communities each have three representatives on the joint board. Some unified districts — such as the Addison Central School District — give proportional representation to member-towns. Middlebury has seven members on the 13-person ACSD board, compared to one each for Bridport, Cornwall, Salisbury, Shoreham, Ripton and Salisbury.
Stephanie Wilbur and her husband currently have two children enrolled at the Orwell Village School, and a one-year-old who will attend in the future. The family moved to Orwell because of its charm, rural nature and reputation for delivering a quality education, according to Wilbur.
“I’ve really fallen in love with small-town life,” she said, giving kudos to Orwell’s “open and inviting school.”
“Orwell has been a perfect fit,” Wilbur said.
She’s come to appreciate the local school for what she said is a high-caliber staff and a historic commitment by the community to fund solid and innovative programming. And Wilbur believes consolidation into the SVMUUSD could pose a threat to that programming.
She noted the merged district must look after the best interests of all the member-schools through a single pot of money. She argued that Orwell — as part of a global budget and possessing only three voices on the 18-member board — would be hard pressed to secure the extra money that local residents have occasionally approved in the past to sustain or enhance programs and amenities for Orwell students.
“It all comes down to the bottom line, unfortunately,” Wilbur said. “Education is only going to get more expensive and budgets are only going to get tighter. We would then become a much smaller boat in a sea of opinions on what programs stay and what programs don’t stay.”
The SVMUUSD boardcan’t move to close any schools within its boundaries during its first four years of existence. Thereafter, it would take a unanimous vote of the board to close a school. Orwell has enjoyed steady student enrollment in recent years.
Wilbur and Redondo said they’ve heard little from Act 46 supporters about specific benefits Orwell children would get through consolidation. Proponents have said merged governance will lead to more shared resources among schools, including educators, which for example could expand foreign language classes to schools that in the past haven’t budgeted for that service.
“The reality is that the (Act 46) Study Committee refused to define education benefits to Orwell Village School when asked for specifics by voters at the community forums,” Redondo claimed. “They refused to identify areas where Orwell students needed improvements in curriculum, or afterschool activities, or time spent per subject. The study committee repeatedly deferred those questions as belonging to future school boards. Orwell voters plainly saw that the proposed benefits were empty rhetoric.”
“The answer was ‘merge’ and it’ll be OK,” Wilbur said.
Bryan Young is president of the First National Bank of Orwell. Generations of his family have called Orwell “home.” He’s been a vocal critic of Act 46.
“The driving factor is local control, and having as firm a say as possible in the future of our school,” Young said of his opposition, adding the potential of having three voices on an 18-member school board would make the town “the tail of the dog” when it comes to making local education decisions.
“We’d have no say in how the school is used, or how much it’s used,” Young said of the potential of Orwell being out-voted.
He added that having a regional board can reduce the enthusiasm among volunteers and substitute teachers who typically network with their local school directors and principals. He noted a few of Orwell’s substitute teachers recently decided to withdraw from the list when they were told to attend a mandatory all-day training session — to learn the various SVMUUSD policies — at Fair Haven Union High School.
“Community involvement in a school suffers when you have that district-wide model,” he said.
Redondo and Wilbur acknowledged Orwell is taking a financial gamble by not embracing Act 46 consolidation. In addition to foregoing five years of education property tax stabilization as part of the transition to a merged district, Orwell could lose its Vermont Small Schools Grant, which has been budgeted for $103,000 for the 2018-2019 academic year, according to Olsen-Farrell. That’s more than the average salary and benefits package for a teaching position.
Wilbur is confident Orwell could continue to effectively run its school independently without the state grant.
“If we lost it, we would figure something out,” she said. “That’s the really amazing thing about our town and the people who support it.”
Redondo believes the potential loss of the Small Schools Grant and other financial incentives through Act 46 would be offset by the fact that Orwell Village School wouldn’t be subject to future regulation and cuts through the SVMUUSD board.
“It’s not something that would change many people’s opinions on the value of local control,” Redondo said of the financial consequences of rejecting consolidation. “It’s not worth giving that (local control) up.”
So Orwell residents will now look to November, when the “merge, or not to merge” question will be decided.
Or will it?
Redondo believes legal action is likely if a merger vote is successful. He and other local voters object to the notion that voters in the other communities in the district will have the ability to decide on dissolving Orwell’s school board and conveying its educational assets to the larger district.
“It would represent a taking,” he said. “They’d be voting that organization out of existence, whether that organization wants to do it or not, and whether the town wants to do it or not.”
He predicted someone in Orwell will file a lawsuit if a consolidation referendum passes. Redondo said residents from other independent school districts also raised the prospect of lawsuits during their testimony to the state Board of Education on Aug. 15.
“The state Board of Education is now fully aware that it will be sued if they try (forced governance consolidation),” he said. “They would be sued by individuals in the towns, using private money.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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