ANWSD, MAUSD meet to talk about merger
VERGENNES — The ANWSD-MAUSD Merger Study Committee has begun its work.
The group, which was created to study the advisability of a merger between the Addison Northwest School District (Addison, Ferrisburgh, Panton, Vergennes, Waltham) and the Mount Abraham Unified School District (Bristol, Lincoln, Monkton, New Haven, Starksboro) gathered at Vergennes Union High School Monday night for the first of what promises to be many meetings over the next several months.
Like many school districts in Vermont ANWSD and MAUSD have been struggling to balance declining enrollment and reduced revenue with rising staff costs, especially health care. In April the districts formally agreed to explore the possibility of merging to provide more educational opportunities at a reduced cost.
The districts’ combined enrollment in April was 2,149, but officials project this will decline by 214 students, or 10%, to 1,935 by the 2025-26 school year.
They also project that if current trends continue without any change or intervention whatsoever, the districts, which employed 457 people as of April 2021, will need to eliminate 106 staff positions, or 23% of their combined workforce, to stay at the state-mandated spending threshold for the 2025-26 school year.
The districts have proposed and/or implemented several cost-cutting measures in recent years, most notably:
• In 2020 the ANWSD repurposed Addison Central School into a regional special education center — despite strong objections by Addison voters.
• Reen proposed a sweeping reorganization plan for the MAUSD in December, which included discontinuing elementary education in Lincoln, New Haven and Starksboro, as well as merging with the ANWSD. The plan has drawn sharp criticism and threats of legal action from some residents of Lincoln and Starksboro.
The study committee, which has a $25,000 budget, consists of six ANWSD and nine MAUSD residents for a total of 15 members. One committee member from each school district will act as co-chair.
MariKate Kelley of Monkton and Martha DeGraaf of Panton were selected for the jobs Monday night, but because the MAUSD did not properly warn the meeting to the public, a binding vote on the selections will have to wait until the next meeting, according to MAUSD Superintendent Patrick Reen.
The study committee also agreed, upon Reen’s recommendation, to hire educator and former Lamoille South Unified Union Superintendent Tracy Wrend as a facilitator to the group. That selection, too, will become official at the study committee’s next meeting.
In the absence of co-chairs, Reen and ANWSD Superintendent Sheila Soule conducted Monday night’s meeting. Neither is a member of the committee but both promised to make themselves and their central offices available in whatever ways might be needed.
The study committee’s work is laid out in the Vermont Statutes (16 VSA 706b). If it finds a merger is advisable it must issue a report that includes, among other things, the following information:
• the grades to be operated by the proposed merged district.
• a description and cost of any proposed new school buildings or building renovations.
• a plan for the proposed merged district’s first year of operation, including transportation of students, staff assignments and curriculum.
• how much ANWSD and/or MAUSD debt will be assumed by the proposed merger district.
• what property will be transferred to the new district and at what cost.
• the allocation of capital and operating expenses between the ANWSD and the MAUSD.
• how school board representation and term durations will be determined.
• when the proposal for a merged district will be submitted to the voters of the 10 towns.
• when the proposed merged district would begin operating schools.
A report does not seem to be required if the study committee rejects the merger idea, but Kevin Hanson of Bristol urged his colleagues to consider issuing one anyway, should it come to that.
Any proposed merger must be approved by a majority of voters in the ANWSD and a majority of the voters in the MAUSD, but not by a majority in any one district member town.
If a merger is advised, the ANWSD and MAUSD hope to put the question to a vote on Town Meeting Day 2022. This gives the study committee about six months to come to a decision, complete a report, obtain approval from the State Board of Education (SBE), and warn the vote.
One thing the study committee does not have to do is seek approval from the ANWSD and MAUSD boards, according to a Vermont Agency of Education document included with Monday night’s meeting agenda.
“Essentially, this committee is autonomous,” Reen said. “You have no obligation other than to submit findings and communicate to the (ANWSD and MAUSD) boards, but they don’t have positional authority, necessarily, over this group, which is important to note.”
This issue has provoked consternation among some MAUSD residents, especially in the smaller towns of Lincoln and Starksboro, who already face the possibility of losing their elementary schools and who now worry about the possibility of losing dearly held rights.
Unlike in the ANWSD and other neighboring districts, the MAUSD may not close any elementary school without voter approval from the town hosting that school.
But theoretically, some residents point out, the ANWSD-MAUSD Merger Study Committee could recommend the formation of a new district that does not preserve those rights, and the new district could be approved by an MAUSD majority consisting mostly of voters from the larger district towns of Bristol and Monkton, whose schools are not currently at risk of closing.
It’s not clear how many member towns each school district will have by the time a potential merger could take place.
Last week the town of Addison held a vote on withdrawing from the ANWSD, which was narrowly defeated. Days later the town of Lincoln announced it would hold a vote Aug. 24 to decide about withdrawing from the MAUSD.
At the same time, the MAUSD is also evaluating five long-range facilities proposals that were submitted to the school board in May by community members hoping to present alternatives to Reen’s repurposing plan.
The district has hired education consultant Nate Levenson for $95,000 to help flesh out and organize those proposals, so they can be compared on an apples-to-apples basis.
None of the five proposals explicitly promotes a merger with the ANWSD.
Some members of the ANWSD-MAUSD Merger Study Committee expressed concern about the implications of this parallel work in the MAUSD.
Troy Paradee of Bristol worried that the Merger Study Committee could end up doing a lot of work that would just end up being negated by whatever happens with the MAUSD community proposals, he said.
Dustin Corrigan of Bristol suggested the Merger Study Committee should complete its work and the districts should combine before any other decisions are made about schools.
The MAUSD views Merger Study Committee work and community proposals work as complementary, Reen said.
The ANWSD-MAUSD Merger Study Committee will meet next at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 17, in the large cafeteria of Mount Abraham Union High School. The group plans to meet twice a month and will explore options for having meetings recorded.
Reach Christopher Ross at email@example.com.
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