Mt. Abe, ANWSD begin school merger talks
The committee’s work, ideally, will be completed within a timeframe that will allow a vote on a proposed plan by Town Meeting Day 2022.
— From the Study Committee charge
BRISTOL/VERGENNES — Addison County’s two northern unified school districts made it official on Monday night: They will pursue a formal study to look at whether they should merge.
At an unprecedented joint meeting, the Mount Abraham Unified and Addison Northwest school district boards unanimously approved a charge for a joint merger study committee.
If all goes according to an ambitious timeline the boards also backed, that committee could make a recommendation for a merger that residents in the two districts would vote on in March 2022.
Such a vote would require support from a majority of residents in each district, not approval in each district town, officials said at Monday’s three-and-a-half-hour meeting that was civil and carefully run.
If the committee does recommend a merger under the proposed timeline, and if there are yes votes in both districts in March 2022, the merger could take effect in July 2024, according to a timeline adopted by the two boards on Monday.
Board members said, however, the study committee could on its own amend the timeline if it needed more leeway to complete its work.
Board chairs Dawn Griswold of MAUSD and John Stroup of ANWSD struck hopeful tones in opening remarks.
“Our districts have a long track record of cooperation,” Stroup said. “We’ve built a lot of trust that’s necessary to achieve common goals together.”
Griswold gave a nod to many in both communities who gave feedback in forums and surveys, input that led to Monday’s meeting, and said she was grateful to board members for their efforts.
“As we are embarking on a path of learning and potentially finding a way for our schools to launch to the future, I just want to thank you all for taking the first steps as we continue on, and don’t ever forget the courage and hopes and worries that we all started with,” she said.
The merger study committee will operate under a charge that both boards adopted after discussion. It says the body will “analyze the advisability of forming a union school district.” Ideally, the committee’s work will be completed in time for a Town Meeting Day 2022 vote.
Before then, the Vermont Board of Education would have to approve a merger plan, requiring it be in that state board’s hands by January, tightening the timetable.
Discussion among members of both boards centered on whether the charge was inclusive enough of options that stopped short of a full merger, but that could still be beneficial for education of both districts’ students while creating savings.
Both districts are seeing declining enrollments — meaning less state funding under the current statewide education financing system — combined with rising costs of salaries; benefits, especially health insurance; transportation; energy; and more.
At the same time the districts have a history of cost-saving cooperation, notably on food service, athletics, the Addison Wayfarers’ Experience special education program, and employment of a joint pre-K coordinator.
MAUSD board member Brad Johnson said he was concerned the charge might “point the committee in a particular direction,” and fellow board member Steve Rooney said the committee should explore “other resource-sharing collaborative” approaches.
ANWSD board member Kristina MacKulin suggested an expanded charge might offer clarity “for the sake of the committee,” and fellow board member Chris Kayhart said original language that said “unified school district” might preclude a supervisory union as an option, and he also hoped the committee could seek other “cost-saving measures.”
Ultimately, the only substantive changes to the original proposal were suggested by Stroup, who offered to substitute “union” for unified to include supervisory unions as an option, and the addition of “ideally” into the timeline, at the suggestion of MAUSD Superintendent Patrick Reen.
Reen said that change would acknowledge the concern of some board members that the committee might not be able to complete its mission in the allotted time frame.
Those board members concerned the charge was not broad enough accepted the argument put forth by others that the study committee would naturally uncover and recommend other options during its process, even if it concludes a merger is not a good idea.
“The negative advisability would lead us to things we could do,” said ANWSD board member Mark Koenig.
The boards quickly reached agreement on a larger committee in order to have as many communities and stakeholders represented in the process as possible. They also concluded there should co-chairs, one from each district.
Stroup’s suggestion that appointments to the committee should “broadly reflect our communities” was well received.
A number of board members argued for a strong board member presence on the committee, especially those like Koenig and MAUSD board member Sarah LaPerle, who served on the study committees that recommended the creation of the existing unified districts.
They noted the workload would be challenging, and LaPerle said board members would be “effective” in supporting residents who volunteered for the task.
The board also readily approved $25,000 to fund a facilitator to help the study committee organize and operate its complex statutory mission, but debate ensued on how a facilitator should be hired.
It was the ANWSD board’s turn to go first on the hiring process, and it quickly approved a measure to allow Reen and ANSWD Superintendent Sheila Soule to go ahead and find a facilitator for the new committee, which officials hope can begin its work in June.
But most MAUSD board members were hesitant to take the same approach. Board member Dave Sharpe said there was a perception among some MAUSD residents that Reen, not the board, is running the district.
Therefore, Sharpe said from a perception point of view in MAUSD it would be better for the study committee to hire its facilitator.
Last December Reen proposed a two-phase plan — based on work done by a school board facilities committee and outside consultants — to repurpose three MAUSD elementary schools before a possible merger with ANWSD.
The consolidation plan is not universally popular in the district. Some have criticized Reen and the board for lack of transparency on some issues.
With that backdrop, other MAUSD board members agreed with Sharpe that the study committee should be seen as independent if its recommendations were to be accepted at face value.
Although Stroup noted that both superintendents are working toward an outcome that threatened their jobs, the two boards agreed not to have the superintendents hire a facilitator. Instead they will recommend candidates to the committee, leaving the final decision up to the new group.
The two boards also agreed that the boards would use their existing websites and community engagement committees to keep the districts’ residents informed on what both chairs described in introductory remarks as a historic effort.
Stroup pointed to the districts’ commonalities.
“Our children are friends. We work together. We worship together,” he said. “This is a good moment for us, I think. It’s an optimistic one, one that sets out a path to see what we can learn together through a merger study committee.”
Griswold said the outcome was unknown, but the journey should be rewarding.
“I just kept thinking about the expectation, the hope, and that this is an adventure,” she said. “This meeting happening here tonight is the beginning of our new adventure, something that we should all be proud of.”
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