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Northern Addison County school merger committee clarifies deadline

BRISTOL — The ANWSD-MAUSD Merger Study Committee is not obligated to finish its work in time to warn a possible vote on Town Meeting Day, March, 1, 2022, and the committee made a point of repeating this fact several times during its second meeting on Tuesday night, Aug. 17.

“March isn’t the definite end point,” educational consultant Tracy Wrend told the committee, which met in the Mount Abraham Union High School cafeteria. “It’s up to you decide.”

The Merger Study Committee was formed in April by the boards of the Addison Northwest School District (serving Addison, Ferrisburgh, Panton, Vergennes and Waltham) and the Mount Abraham Unified School District (serving Bristol, Lincoln, Monkton, New Haven and Starksboro) to “analyze the advisability of forming a union school district.”

The 15-member committee consists of six ANWSD residents and nine MAUSD residents.

Their official charge suggests it would be “ideal” if they completed their work in time to allow for a Town Meeting Day vote, but this is not required.

That timeline is “ambitious,” Wrend said at the meeting.

The Merger Study Committee made a point of clarifying their deadline flexibility in part because some MAUSD residents, including school board members, have expressed concerns about the committee’s authority and schedule, suggesting that holding a potential merger vote on Town Meeting Day would lock their district into a process that would make it impossible to give fair consideration to the five community-authored long-range facilities plans now on the table in the MAUSD. None of those plans explicitly favors a merger with the ANWSD.

Some residents of Lincoln and Starksboro also worry that the MAUSD articles of agreement prohibiting school closure without voter approval from the town hosting that school would be overwritten by the Merger Study Committee.

That and other concerns have prompted a movement in Lincoln to withdraw from the MAUSD, and voters will decide that question on Tuesday, Aug. 24.

HELP

The Merger Study Committee has hired Wrend to help guide its work.

She served as the Superintendent of the Lamoille South Unified Union from 2007 to 2021 and has facilitated multiple merger studies, according to her bio.

Wrend opened her remarks Tuesday night by congratulating the committee for undertaking its work.

“From my observation point — I’m a little outside of this region — you are a leader in future thinking about your schools, and I believe it’s super-important to engage in that work, even though it’s really hard,” she said. Whatever unfolds over the next several months, it will not only help the districts improve outcomes for students, she continued, but it will also provide “the groundwork that allows schools, school systems and communities to pivot quickly and be nimble in times of challenge.”

Wrend shared with the committee an example workplan illustrating what would need to get done, and when, to wrap up by March, but the plan includes blank meeting dates that could be filled in through Election Day on Nov. 8.

The workplan looks something like this:

•  Meeting 3: Answer one question for hypothetical draft articles of agreement: Which districts would be “necessary” (ANWSD, MAUSD) and “advisable” (most likely none) for a potential merger?

•  Meeting 4: Answer two questions for hypothetical articles: (1) Which grades would be operated if the districts merged? (2) What would be the cost of any proposed building renovations, and what would be the cost and location of any proposed new schools if the districts merge?

•  Meeting 5: Answer three questions for hypothetical articles: (1) How much debt does each district have? (2) What is the value of each district’s property and how would it be conveyed to the new entity if a merger took place? (3) How is capital allocated and what are the operating expenses in each district?

•  Meeting 6: Answer three questions for hypothetical articles: (1) What would board representation look like in the event of a merger? (2) How long would board member terms be? (3) Would the annual operating budget of a merged entity be voted on by Australian ballot, and would other public questions also be voted on by Australian ballot?

•  Meeting 7: Answer four questions for hypothetical articles: (1) If the committee recommends a merger and its proposal is approved by the Vermont State Board of Education, when would residents vote on it? (2) If voters approve a new entity, when would it begin operating? (3) What would the first year of operation look like? (4) If the voter-approved merged entity is a unified union (UU), how long would the transition period last before the UU becomes operational?

•  Meeting 8: Prepare a draft of hypothetical articles of agreement and ask the Agency of Education if it thinks they’re OK.

•  Work items that must be completed but that have not yet been incorporated into the example workplan include (1) actually deciding if it would be advisable to create the entity the Merger Study Committee has been drawing a hypothetical picture of and (2) organizing community engagement and feedback.

•  Meeting 9: “Communications regarding board elections.”

•  Meeting 10: If the committee has decided it’s advisable to create a merged entity, it must write a report and submit it to the Agency of Education and to the ANWSD and MAUSD boards. If it advises against merging the committee may still create a report if it wants.

Every report Wrend has facilitated has included a narrative and rationale, including pros and cons of the committee’s recommendations, even if the committee advised against merging, she said. And all of that work ended up being “hugely valuable,” regardless of recommendation outcomes.

•  Meeting 11: If the committee has recommended pursuing a merger, “Consider feedback from local boards, if applicable” and “finalize prep for State Board meeting.” The ANWSD-MAUSD Merger Study Committee is not legally obligated to seek approval of or incorporate feedback from the school boards, but its proposal must pass muster with the Board of Education.

•  Meeting 12 (with the Vermont State Board of Education): Present findings and incorporate feedback. If approved, file the merger report with the ANWSD and MAUSD clerks.

•  Meeting 13: If the state has approved a merger plan, prepare for the public information meetings that are required before the vote.

Any proposed merger must be approved by a majority of ANWSD voters and also by a majority of MAUSD voters. If the proposal fails to win a majority of votes in either district, the proposal fails, according to Vermont statute.

At this time it is believed that Addison, Ferrisburgh, Panton, Vergennes and Waltham votes would be commingled and that Bristol, Lincoln, Monkton, New Haven and Starksboro votes would be commingled.

IN OTHER WORDS

“So our job, first of all, is to figure out the best possible proposal for a merger … and then to decide if we want that?” asked Erica Andrus, a committee member from Ferrisburgh.

Yes, Wrend said. “You have to have a model of something to evaluate the pros and cons of in order to compare it… So there is a delicate balance (in) creating something that you may not believe right now is a good idea. You almost need to suspend disbelief for a little bit and create the best thing you can. At the same time you’re evaluating pros and cons in relation to the values, criteria and the goals that you think are important for making your decision.”

The Merger Study Committee next meets on Tuesday, Aug. 31, then on Tuesday, Sept. 21, with locations to be announced. Beginning in October the committee will meet on the first Monday and third Tuesday of each month.

All meetings will begin at 6:30 p.m.

Reach Christopher Ross at christopherr@addisonindependent.com.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misquoted Erica Andrus and contained an error in the committee meeting schedule.

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