MAUSD, ANWSD approve study of merger options

VERGENNES — The Addison Northwest School District board on Monday joined the Mount Abraham Unified School District board in backing a formal study committee to evaluate a possible future merger of the two districts. The MAUSD board had approved the study committee on Jan. 20.
ANWSD Board Chair John Stroup said the committee will follow the procedures outlined in state statutes governing creation of union school districts (16 VSA 706b).
The goal of the committee, Stroup said, will be to see if the two districts can work together to address what they have tried to do alone under an education financing system that penalizes them for higher per-pupil spending.
That per-pupil spending is rising because the districts’ enrollment is dropping at the same time costs  — some out of local districts’ control, such as health insurance benefits — continue to spike.
“It’s all about opportunities for students and trying to keep tax rates reasonable for our communities,” Stroup said.
Both districts have already wrestled internally with school consolidation questions in recent years. ANWSD repurposed Addison Central School into a special education hub without voter approval, as its articles of agreement allowed.
MAUSD has floated the idea of repurposing three of its elementary schools, and debate is ongoing about the legality of that move under its consolidation articles. That idea was proposed by Superintendent Patrick Reen as a Phase One of a two-step plan, Phase Two being a merger with ANWSD.
An outside consultancy firm hired by both districts also recommended both explore a merger in a report released last year.
In January, the MAUSD board approved, 8-3, a motion to form the study committee to evaluate such a merger. Per state guidelines, MAUSD will have a larger representation on the committee when it is formed because it would have more students in a merged district if it is created.
The MAUSD motion read:
“After considering and analyzing current assumptions and data the MAUSD board is concerned about projected future revenue decreases which will create a need to cut staff, academic programming, student resources and opportunities at the Elementary, Middle and High School levels.
“The Board is concerned contracting resources will create a situation where the Mount Abraham Unified School District will not be able to meet the academic or social and emotional needs of all MAUSD students or allow adherence or successful compliance to the MAUSD Ends Policy.
“This data includes continued declining student population over time which will decrease revenue and chronic stagnant academic achievement for students qualifying for free and reduced lunches and students on IEPs.
“In light of the aforementioned considerations, I make a motion that the MAUSD board invite the ANWSD board and any other possible interested School Districts to create a merger study committee. The hope for which is to clarify if a merger of Districts would positively benefit the students of MAUSD by avoiding the negative outcomes mentioned above and instead allow the creation of enhanced academic and social/emotional resources, supports … opportunities for students along with increased fiscal stability.”
Minutes were not available from Monday’s ANWSD meeting. The issue was discussed on March 8 and then voted upon on Monday after briefer discussion, according to Stroup.
Per the March 8 minutes, the board’s Monday approval meant the following
•  “(A) meeting on March 24 with MAUSD (designee group) to outline an agenda for a full board meeting including both MAUSD and ANWSD. Focus will be on: Charge, budget, size of committee and nature of committee (co-chairs/single chair), invitations, communication, timing goals, resources committee may need …
•  When committee work is done, individual boards must vote to warn a vote to each community by ballot and both communities would need it to succeed.
•  Note on process: If the study committee needs a budget of more $25,000, that will need to go to the community for approval.”
The minutes also listed a series of issues to be determined, including whether potential approval of a merger plan would ultimately require individual town or district-wide backing, and when and how any further “internal consolidation/future planning” would occur.
Stroup made it clear, as did ANWSD board member Laurie Childers in a letter to the Addison Independent (see Page 7A), that both boards would welcome the Addison Central School District if its board chose to join the effort.
Stroup said both boards’ motions specifically noted that other districts were welcome to come aboard, and that those motions constitute formal overtures to ACSD.
“ACSD knows they are welcome to join,” he said. “It is an open invitation.”
Stroup characterized exploring a potential merger as “a great opportunity.”
“These two communities have of their own free will determined it is in their interest to learn how we could collaborate, possibly even leading to a merger of districts,” he said. “There are many details to work out along the way, but this is something hopeful.”

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