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Vote sends Orwell into Slate Valley school district

ORWELL — Orwell will be forced to join the Slate Valley Modified Unified Union School District (SVMUUSD), based on a combined 2,216 to 1,615 vote of residents in the six-town district on Tuesday.
So, barring a legal challenge, Orwell’s PreK-12 education system will be governed by the SVMUUSD board that currently oversees students and schools in the neighboring Rutland County communities of Castleton, Benson, Hubbardton, West Haven and Fair Haven, as well as Fair Haven Union High School. Orwell will send delegates to the consolidated board, which will prepare a single budget covering all educational expenses for the six member communities.
Tuesday’s vote appears to end Orwell’s vocal resistance to joining the Slate Valley district. The community on three previous occasions voted against joining the SVMUUSD, a move prescribed by Act 46, Vermont’s education governance consolidation law.
On the previous three occasions, each of the six towns voted individually on whether to join the Slate Valley district. But on Nov. 6, the votes from all six towns were comingled, meaning Orwell couldn’t unilaterally choose to maintain exclusive control over its PreK-8 Orwell Village School.
Orwell currently sends its grade 9-12 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. That will change as of July 1, 2019, when the governance merger is scheduled to take effect. Orwell’s K-12 education expenses will be reflected in the overall SVMUUSD budget, beginning in the 2019-2020 academic year.
Brooke Olsen-Farrell is superintendent of the SVMUUSD.
“I am pleased with the outcome of vote as I feel it is best for all our communities, staff and most importantly our students,” she told the Independent through an emailed statement. “I am looking forward to coming together as one entity and charting a new path forward as we begin to define the new Slate Valley Unified Union School District. The implementation of Act 46 has not been easy for our supervisory union from it’s inception, nearly four years ago. Last year was my first year as superintendent and coming on board in the midst of the merger I am fully aware of the passionate beliefs on both sides on issue. I am very hopeful that the Slate Valley Community can begin the healing process.”
Orwell Village School Board Chairman Glen Cousineau also voiced hope for a prompt and thorough healing process.
“I just hope we can move forward,” he said during a Wednesday morning phone interview, “and do what’s in the best interest of the children.”
Daniel Redondo was among the vocal opponents of the Orwell governance merger. While he’s disappointed to see the vote pass, he now wants to see the effort succeed — because he believes its failure will be devastating for Orwell students.
“My hope is that I will be proven wrong, and that the merger will be successful,” he said. “If it’s not successful, it leads the Orwell Village School down a road to closure.”
A Slate Valley informational flyer on the merger lists a series of benefits for Orwell for joining 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 2019-2020 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 than 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 of 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 (see related story). If Orwell joins the SVMUUSD, this project could by underwritten by all district-member taxpayers, as opposed to just Orwell residents.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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