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ANwSU school district to revisit board unification plan

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By ANDY KIRKALDY

VERGENNES — Town Meeting Day votes in Vergennes, Panton and Waltham to end operations of those towns’ ID school boards in 2010 have set the stage for reconsideration of whether the four Addison Northwest Supervisory Union schools should be united under the control of one board.

After a lengthy study and many public meetings, ANwSU residents said no to that proposal in a pair of votes four years ago: The first was close, while the second went more decisively against the measure.

But now ANwSU Superintendent Tom O’Brien believes the time might be right. State laws have changed to pressure school districts to run lean and to penalize schools that exceed spending thresholds, he said, while the struggling economy has further compelled schools to make the most of funding.

“I think the climate has changed enough to make it a much more reasonable proposal in the eyes of many more people,” O’Brien said. “We already function in that fashion, and I believe, whether it’s an immediate or a long-term (benefit), there is an efficiency and an economy to doing it. The general state of (economic) affairs that surrounds all of us and impacts all of us, whether it’s schools or otherwise, speaks clearly to the need to do things differently.”

Meanwhile, he said, the biggest driver of a one-board system remains the same: Unifying the district would allow resources to be pooled at the ANwSU elementary school level to offer programs on a more cost-effective basis and better prepare all students for Vergennes Union High School.

“The proposal itself was intended to improve the quality of education in the district by providing equal opportunity for kids across the board,” O’Brien said.

For example, he said, an elementary school in a unified district could be a magnet for a special-needs or arts program that each individual ANwSU elementary school might not be able to afford on its own.

“Each of the schools can’t on an equal basis ... provide the same opportunities for its kids because of the costs,” said O’Brien. “A band in Addison might be eight kids. A band in Ferrisburgh might be 20 kids. And a band here (at Vergennes Union Elementary School) might be 40 kids. But if you had a band that would serve three elementary schools, you would have a workable number.”

O’Brien said ANwSU officials had always had it in the back of their minds that the one-board system, which would include representatives from each town, should be reconsidered at some point, but not until demand resurfaced. O’Brien said now it has.

“During this past year ... at board meetings, especially, or I’ll get a call out of the blue or somebody stopping by, the question has been, ‘When are we going to be talking about the unification?’” he said.

Then Vergennes, Panton and Waltham decided to consider dissolving their ID boards on Town Meeting Day. The ID boards are a holdover from the creation of VUES. The VUES board handles almost all the substantive elementary education business for the three towns. 

The ID boards do deal with busing and the preschool Elementary Early Education programs and have separate budgets; transportation and EEE cost are budgeted at $326,447 across the three budgets for the next school year. (Those expenses could go to the ANwSU or VUES budgets when the boards are dissolved next year, O’Brien said.)

In February, O’Brien and the ANwSU executive committee decided that if voters dissolved the ID boards last week, they would consider unification at the next full ANwSU board meeting.

On March 3, all three boards were dissolved, from the floors of meetings in Panton and Waltham and by a 178-153 vote in Vergennes. Unification is now on the agenda of the March 25 ANwSU meeting in the VUHS library; it begins at 6:30 p.m.

O’Brien said ANwSU officials will try to do a better job of answering the questions this time around. He said he still cannot point to immediate savings, but believe they will come in the long run. 

“You’ll have efficiencies on how you spend money. You’ll definitely have efficiencies on how you utilize time, and that time costs money,” he said.

Ownership of the elementary schools and the Vergennes recreation area proved to be a sticking point for some last time. ANwSU has approached the city about taking ownership of the pool and the surrounding improvements, a move that could resolve that issue.

O’Brien said plans would probably still call for the elementary schools, as VUHS is already, to be owned by ANwSU, with a $1 sale price and a promise of a return at the same price if the facilities are ever not needed.

Some objected that they did not want to pay for work needed to other towns’ schools, but with work recently done to Addison Central School and recently approved for VUES and Ferrisburgh Central School, O’Brien said the condition of the three schools would be similar by this time next year. And he noted that collective ownership reduces taxpayers’ risk in each town.

“If I have an $80,000 problem at Addison that I have to build into a budget in any particular year, that impacts the kids only at Addison, and an $80,000 impact there is significant,” he said. “If that building is one of my sites in a 1,200-student school district and costs me $80,000 spread out over the whole school district, the impact is diluted.”

O’Brien said there are no plans to close schools under anything resembling current conditions, and said a unified school district would create choice for families.

“The community schools would stay where they are. The majority of the kids at those schools would be the same kids who go there now,” he said, adding, “The other opportunity we would have ... is that kids could attend a school across a town line without having to pay tuition because they would be part of the single district. That’s a real opportunity for all the towns involved.”

O’Brien worked in the states of Maine and Washington before taking on two superintendencies in Vermont. In neither state, he said, is there anything like the number of districts there are in Vermont — he hopes ANwSU can start a trend.

“The notion that we can have ... 298 school districts in a state the size of Vermont doesn’t work,” O’Brien said. “There’s nobody, nobody, that you’ll talk to who’ll say that is an efficient system, that it doesn’t cost too much.”

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