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ANWSD/MAUSD merger blueprint considers school closure

BRISTOL/VERGENNES — After 10 months of steady work, the ANWSD-MAUSD Merger Study Committee has completed draft articles of agreement that would serve as the founding document for a proposed merger between the school districts in the northern half of Addison County.

The draft considers the highly contentious issue of future school closures in part by requiring approval of a closure by a supermajority of merged district residents.

Now the committee is looking for public input.

The boards of the Addison Northwest and Mount Abraham Unified school districts will discuss the draft articles at a joint meeting on Monday, May 23, at 6 p.m. at Vergennes Union High School. The meeting will be available on Zoom, but registration is required.

The 15-member committee was formed in April 2021 by the ANWSD (serving Addison, Ferrisburgh, Panton, Vergennes and Waltham) and the MAUSD (serving Bristol, Lincoln, Monkton, New Haven and Starksboro) for the purpose of analyzing the feasibility of a potential merger.

Both districts have been struggling with declining enrollment and rising education costs for a number of years.

Since it began its work last July the merger committee and its paid consultant, Tracy Wrend, have written the merger document in a painstaking fashion, article by article, at meeting after meeting, and in doing so have considered a wide range of issues and governance models.

Completion of the document is a major milestone in a process that could culminate with a 10-town vote on Nov. 8.

BASICS

Many of the proposed articles cover routine but necessary legal topics and are more or less aligned with the founding documents of each district under Vermont’s Act 46.

If approved, the merger would essentially be a consolidation of consolidated districts. As such, the only two parties necessary to form the new district are the ANWSD and the MAUSD. The merger would require approval from a majority of ANWSD voters and a majority of MAUSD voters.

If proposed and approved this November, the new district, serving grades preK-12, would become operational on July 1, 2023. At that time, the MAUSD and ANWSD would cease operations. On Jan. 1, 2024, those districts would cease to exist.

The potential new district would assume the assets and debts of the forming districts and honor existing teaching contracts until they expire. No new buildings or major renovations are proposed for the merged district at this time.

As in the current districts, budgets and other public questions would be determined by Australian ballot.

‘WEIGHTED’ VOTING

District residents would vote to elect a new district school board at the same time as they voted on the merger proposal. If the merger is approved, new school board members would serve initial terms of varying lengths until it sugared out that members were all serving three-year terms and a third of the seats came up for election each year.

Once elected, the 15-member school board would have the authority to prepare the new district for operation on July 1.

Following the practice in the ANWSD and MAUSD, each member community in the proposed district (10, as it stands now, nine if Lincoln completes its withdrawal from the MAUSD) would get at least one representative on the board. The remaining seats (five or, if Lincoln leaves, six) would get divvied up among higher-population communities.

In an effort to achieve more accurate and thus more equitable representation, the Merger Study Committee has proposed that the new school board use “weighted voting,” something neither forming district has used.

Currently the vote of each member of the 12-member ANWSD and 13-member MAUSD boards counts as 1.0.

Voting on the new board would carry the weight of the population represented.

To use one of the examples in the proposed Articles of Agreement, an Addison representative’s vote in a 10-member district would weigh 7.47, whereas a Bristol representative’s vote would weigh 20.69.

Voting weights would get recalculated every 10 years when the new census comes around, or if the number of member communities changed.

TRANSPORTATION

If the district merger were approved on Nov. 8, transportation would continue to be provided to June 30, 2023, according to the contracts, policies and practices in place during the 2022-23 school year.

In drafting a transportation policy for the merged district’s first year of operation — likely the 2023-24 school year — the new school board would “consider routes and ride durations that are comparable to those in place” during the 2022-23 school year.

Starting on July 1, 2024, however, the board would simply “make all subsequent decisions relative to the operation of the new district consistent with state and federal laws and these Articles of Agreement.”

COMMUNITY SCHOOLS

School closure has been one of the most contentious topics the Merger Study Committee has had to address.

MAUSD’s 2016 Articles of Agreement prohibit the closure of a school without approval from voters in the town hosting that school.

Without that provision, which the school board bolstered with additional language in November, it’s widely believed that the MAUSD articles would not have been approved in Lincoln or Starksboro.

The widespread perception that the provision would not survive the transition to a merged district has triggered withdrawal campaigns in both towns. Lincoln has already voted to leave the MAUSD and this week got state approval to do so; last week Starksboro residents voted to leave unless the new merger rules give them the right to decide on closure of Robinson Elementary.

The ANWSD has no such provision in its articles and the school board has shown no appetite for including one in a future merged district.

Indeed, in July 2020, the ANWSD board terminated the elementary program at Addison Central School despite overwhelming voter opposition in that town. The ANWSD did not have the authority to “close” ACS without voter approval until July 2021, according to that district’s articles of agreement, but the school board sought and received legal advice suggesting it had the authority to reassign all of the children in the school and replace the elementary program with a special education program, which it did.

Keenly aware of the balancing act it needed to perform, the Merger Study Committee held several discussions on the matter of school closure, going over successive article drafts with a fine-tooth comb.

The articles, as they stand now, state that during the first four years of operation of the new proposed district, an elementary school (grades K-5) cannot be closed without voter approval in the town hosting that school.

After four years, a school can be closed if approved by:

  • two-thirds of a “quorum” of the school board and
  • two-thirds of the voters in the entire district.

The supermajority requirement sets a higher bar for school closure than do the Articles of Agreement of many unified school districts across Vermont.

However, it’s not likely lost on the residents of Lincoln and Starksboro that, according to 2020 U.S. Census figures, the two towns in such a scenario would have a combined voting power of less than 17%.

NEXT STEPS

According to a May 11 Front Porch Forum post by MAUSD board member Sandra Lee, “After considering stakeholder feedback, the (Merger Study) Committee will review the pros and cons of forming a union per the Articles of Agreement and will recommend, or not, that the question goes to the voters of ANWSD and MAUSD. If recommended, the Committee would anticipate sending its report and recommendation to the Vermont State Board of Education by July and scheduling a vote for Election Day, November 8, 2022.”

Reach Christopher Ross at christopherr@addisonindependent.com.

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