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Orwell to vote again on school district merger

ORWELL — Orwell residents will have an extra reason to go to the polls on Tuesday, Nov. 6.
In addition to voting in federal, statewide and county elections, residents will be asked to weigh in yet again on whether Orwell should join five nearby Rutland County towns as part of the Slate Valley Modified Unified Union School District (SVMUUSD).
Castleton, Benson, Hubbardton, West Haven and Fair Haven have already formed SVMUUSD, in line with Act 46, Vermont’s school governance consolidation law. Member towns’ elementary schools and Fair Haven Union High School are now all financed through a single budget and governed by a single district board.
But a majority of Orwell residents have on three previous occasions voted against joining the consolidated district, voicing concerns that — among other things — their three representatives on the 18-member Slate Valley board could be outvoted on local educational priorities.
But state education officials and a slight majority of the Orwell School Board have been arguing in favor of joining SVMUUSD. Act 46 provides financial incentives for school districts to consolidate their governance as a means of containing rising education costs as Vermont’s student population continues to decline.
Former Acting Vermont Education Secretary Heather Bouchey last spring 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.”
On Oct. 17, the Vermont Board of Education (BOE) endorsed Bouchey’s recommendation on Orwell, in spite of the community’s repeated votes against a merger. State law gives the BOE final authority on most Act 46 matters. But in the case of a modified unified union school district, the additional step of a local vote is required to proceed with the merger, according to an informational flyer drafted by the Slate Valley district.
This means that all Slate Valley voters will have the final say on whether Orwell is admitted into the Slate Valley district.
On the previous three occasions, each of the six towns voted individually on whether to join the district. But on Nov. 6, the votes from all six towns will be commingled, meaning Orwell can’t on its own choose to stay out of the SVMUUSD.
If an overall majority agree to accept Orwell, the merger would take effect by July 1, 2019. Orwell’s K-12 education expenses would then be reflected in the overall SVMUUSD budget, beginning in the 2019-2020 academic year.
Some Orwell merger opponents have already hinted at legal action if the November referendum doesn’t go their way. Opponents object to the notion that voters in the other communities in the district would be able to dissolve Orwell’s school board and convey its educational assets to the larger district.
A majority “no” vote  on Nov. 6 would at least temporarily continue Orwell’s independent school district status for grades K-8. Orwell would also probably lose its annual Small Schools Grant from the state of Vermont, valued at around $100,000.
Orwell still sends its older students to Fair Haven Union High School. Three Orwell residents currently sit on the SVMUUSD board, but can only vote on matters pertaining to grades 9-12.
The Slate Valley informational flyer on the upcoming vote lists a series of benefits for Orwell if it joins the district. They include:
•  A decrease in local education spending. District officials said SVMUUSD-member towns are in line for a 6-cent reduction on their education property tax rate (an Act 46 merger incentive) during the 2019-2030 academic year — the first year of eligibility for Orwell.
Slate Valley is looking at an equalized education property tax rate of around $1.28 during the 2018-2019 school year, a figure that includes an 8-cent merger incentive from the state. A non-merged Orwell is looking at an equalized education property tax rate of $1.49 for its K-8 spending, according to district officials.
•  Cross-building sharing of staff and resources, including nursing, technology services, buildings and grounds).
•  Centralization of substitute teacher calling, district level bookkeeping and meal program applications.
•  Supervisory union office relocation to the high school.
•  Elementary health education.
•  Increased intervention supports.
•  Academic coaching for personalized learning.
•  Additional support for social/emotional learning.
•  Sharing in a School Resource Officer.
There’s another potential benefit for Orwell, according to SVMUUSD officials. Orwell is currently considering a town hall renovation project (school gym and cafeteria), financed through a bond. If Orwell joins the SVMUUSD, this project could by underwritten by all district-member taxpayers, as opposed to just Orwell residents.
“The Slate Valley board is in the process of looking at a bond for all of schools within (the district) to address deferred maintenance issues,” said SVMUUSD Superintendent Brooke Olsen-Farrell. “The gym/cafeteria project which is a definite need in Orwell could be part of the Slate Valley Bond proposal.”
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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