MIDDLEBURY — The Addison Central Supervisory Union (ACSU) Board next Wednesday will begin reviewing a new report detailing the district’s current resources, and the discussion could be the first step in exploring school board consolidation in the seven-town union.
It was last fall that that the ACSU board commissioned a $5,000 so-called “governance study,” contracted through the Vermont School Boards Association (VSBA). The VSBA ultimately picked Ray Proulx, a retired Vermont school superintendent, to perform the study.
Proulx’s March 24 report will include a litany of data on the ACSU’s seven elementary schools, Middlebury Union Middle School (MUMS) and Middlebury Union High School (MUHS), including enrollment trends, class sizes, student-teacher ratios, facility capabilities and transportation services. In the short-term, this information is intended to give school directors a snapshot of the ACSU’s resources in this era of tighter budgets and smaller student counts.
“It’s for self-examination,” said ACSU Superintendent Lee Sease.
But the study may also become a precursor for what some ACSU officials believe is a logical next step — a consolidation of school boards and other resources within the union. It’s an approach that was endorsed this past Town Meeting Day by the five communities in the neighboring Addison Northwest Supervisory Union. That vote may soon be challenged through a reconsideration petition in one of the five ANwSU communities, however (see related story).
Sease stressed that Proulx will make no recommendations in his report; it will be up to school directors to determine what to do with the information. District administrators declined to release the report until members of the ACSU board had had a chance to review it.
But an “introduction” section of the report provided by Sease gives a sense of the future debate that the data is intended to stimulate among board members:
“The purpose of this report is to provide base-line data and explore options that will enable the ACSU school boards to make informed governance policy decisions that will map the future of the member schools,” Proulx writes. “In addition, the content of this report will prepare ACSU board members and administrators for possible statewide restructuring of schools.”
Proulx also noted in his introduction section that if any of the towns in the ACSU should consider consolidation agreements, they will have to conduct an additional study that is required by state statute.
“The contents of this report should help to inform and expedite the work of the subsequent study, if pursued,” Proulx wrote.
The ACSU member-towns are Bridport, Cornwall, Weybridge, Salisbury, Ripton, Middlebury and Shoreham. Each of those towns has its own local school and school board. The UD-3 board represents MUMS and MUHS, and the ACSU board — which draws its membership from all the district’s school boards — advocates for the interests of the entire union.
Some school directors are already on record as supporting the idea of reducing the number of school boards and promoting more shared resources among ACSU schools. Virtually all of the schools within the ACSU (and indeed, throughout Vermont) are seeing their student counts drop, particularly in Ripton and Weybridge.
Jerry Shedd, Ripton’s UD-3 board representative, was candid in stating where he hopes the Proulx report will lead.
“I hope it will result in (ACSU) doing what Addison Northwest did,” Shedd said. “That kind of unification is something that I advocate.”
Shedd believes one-board governance would, among other things, provide for more accountability and a more effective working climate for a superintendent, who would not have to divide his or her time between multiple boards.
“My motivation is getting a more efficient structure that will improve accountability,” said Shedd.
UD-3 board member Peter Conlon of Cornwall is also a fan of the notion of a streamlined ACSU.
“I’m definitely pro-consolidation,” said Conlon, who sees the Proulx study as “the first step in what will be a long period of discussion.
“The ACSU needs to start discussing the consolidation issue, especially in light of declining enrollment,” he said.
Conlon said he realizes the upcoming discussions may be difficult and emotionally charged.
“People are understandably concerned that governance consolidation can lead to school consolidation,” Conlon said. “But you can’t begin to talk about school consolidation without talking about governance consolidation first.”
Ripton school board member Willem Jewett is among those concerned about consolidation and what that could mean to his town’s small community school. Ripton school directors recently presented a 2010-2011 budget to voters that reflects a slight decrease in spending compared to this year. District officials are projecting Ripton’s elementary school enrollment to decline by four students, to a total of 43, this fall.
“We believe we provide an excellent education to our kids and want to continue to do that,” said Jewett, who is also a Vermont House representative. “We wouldn’t want consolidation to cast us as ‘extraneous.’”
Jewett said people should not jump to the conclusion that smaller schools can be easily cast aside.
“Thinking that we can solve our fiscal problems by just going to larger and larger schools — it’s not going to happen,” Jewett said. “The small schools have done their part (to trim costs), even with declining enrollment and even in these tough financial times.”
And Jewett added he believes talk of school governance in the ACSU is merely code for school consolidation.
“It’s the wolf in sheep’s clothing,” Jewett said. “I wasn’t born yesterday.”
John Flowers is at firstname.lastname@example.org.