MIDDLEBURY — The Addison Central Supervisory Union (ACSU) could potentially run its schools more efficiently and cost-effectively by consolidating the governance of its nine schools and by merging some of its smaller elementary school districts.
Those were some of the findings in a 101-page school governance study unveiled by ACSU officials this week. The ACSU board last year commissioned retired Barre schools superintendent Raymond Proulx to perform the study as a first step in determining what, if any changes should be made to streamline operations within the union.
The ACSU board was scheduled to meet on Wednesday evening to review the massive report after the deadline for this edition of the Addison Independent.
While the report makes no specific recommendations, it offers some interesting food for thought for ACSU board members who represent seven towns that are all dealing with declining student populations. That enrollment decline — which is a statewide phenomenon — is prompting school officials in the ACSU towns to at least explore the concept of joint governance and shared resources. Voters in the Addison Northwest Supervisory Union’s five towns approved a joint governance plan on Town Meeting Day.
School officials said the Proulx governance report is the first of what would need to be several steps to bring about governance consolidation in the ACSU.
Proulx said a unified governance structure for the ACSU would require a formal study, approval of the State Board of Education, and a positive vote by citizens in each of the seven member towns. As described in the report, a new union would dissolve all eight of the current school districts (including UD-3, which encompasses Middlebury Union high and middle schools) and their school boards and create a single governance body made up of members from each community. The number of school board members and the proportion of members from each community would be determined by a Union Study Committee, in accordance with Vermont statutes and federal Constitution calling for “one man, one vote.”
The new board would be responsible for the operations of all school buildings and entities within the union, including the central office. There would be one budget and a common cost-per-pupil across all communities. Under current law, the Common Level of Appraisal for each member community would remain separate and therefore tax rates would vary by town even though costs per equalized pupil would be the same.
A joint governance structure, according to Proulx, would also have the effect of reducing the number of meetings for school board members, administrators and staff. There are currently 60 “unduplicated” school board members in the ACSU (some belong to more than one board). A unified governance structure would reduce school board members to no more than 18, which is the maximum number allowed under Vermont’s unified union school district law.
School board members currently attend a combined total of 115 meetings per year, or 2.25 meetings per week. They represent the union-member towns of Bridport, Cornwall, Salisbury, Weybridge, Ripton, Middlebury and Shoreham. In addition to the regularly scheduled board meetings, there are planning meeting, sub-committee meetings and ad-hoc gatherings that require attendance by board members and administrator, according to Proulx. Governance consolidation could reduce that number of scheduled meetings to about 20 per year, according to the report.
Proulx added a single governing board could also have the potential for “streamlining school board and administrative work when it comes to policy development and adoption, budget building and accounting, state and federal reports, grant management, adoption of curriculum and programs and sharing of resources.”
Consolidating school governance could also lead to more flexible use of school facilities and more school choice, according to the report.
Proulx also noted the philosophical tug-of-war that enters the debate on governance consolidation.
“At the same time, (consolidation) has the greatest impact on dissolving the footprint of current school districts and all of the traditions and rituals that make a community,” Proulx wrote in his report. “The concept of community and how to honor it will have to be a topic of conversation if this potential initiative is to be pursued further.”
Proulx provided ACSU school officials with what he called some “baseline data” that will allow them to make “informed governance policy decisions that will map the future of member schools.”
Some of the most sobering information in the report relates to ACSU student population trends. The number of K-6 students in the member towns has decreased from approximately 998 in 2003 to 828 in 2010 (a 17 percent drop), according to Proulx. The number of students in those schools is anticipated to continue to decline by a little more than 1 percent annually during the next three to four years, according to the report.
All of the ACSU towns except Middlebury operate elementary schools with fewer than 100 students, according to Proulx. Those six ACSU communities are among 87 statewide that have fewer than 100 students. Of those 87, almost 35 percent operate their own elementary school and belong to a union high school. The majority either belong to a union elementary school, tuition their students or have found other alternatives.
Lee Sease, ACSU superintendent, noted the declining student numbers have a direct bearing on education financing.
“When our population drops, our per-pupil spending goes up as our smaller schools cannot make the corresponding budget adjustments,” Sease said. “Our schools are independent from each other and therefore must deal with their budget pressures independently from each other.”
The declining student numbers have created some considerable space vacancies in the seven ACSU elementary school buildings, according to the report. Proulx notes that, according to Vermont Department of Education standards, Mary Hogan Elementary in Middlebury could accommodate an additional 134 students, while Salisbury Community School could take in another 80. Meanwhile, MUHS and MUMS could take in another 132 and 71 students, respectively.
Proulx outlined four potential school merger scenarios that he said ACSU officials could consider in the future to cut costs and maximize current space. His calculations assume a student-teacher ratio of around 18-1 and that all current subjects and programs offered at the schools would continue to be available in each of the merger scenarios. Those scenarios also assume no change in teacher salaries and reflect added teachers at the expanded schools and deleted salaries at the closed schools.
The merger scenarios include:
• Joining Mary Hogan, Salisbury and Ripton into a unified K-6 school. This scenario, according to Proulx, would allow the three communities to consolidate operations under one roof, one budget and one school board. The union would allow the towns to trim a combined total of 18 full-time equivalent positions, according to the report. The merger would save money for taxpayers in all three towns, according to Proulx, with an estimated savings of $3,619 and $1,401 per pupil, respectively, for Ripton and Salisbury.
Proulx acknowledges that transportation costs within the new union would increase by $14,630, but he adds, “a review of the current transportation systems for these schools shows that an adequate number of buses already travel to and from Middlebury to accommodate K-12 students. It appears that there will not be a substantial impact on the school transportation system.”
• Joining the Bridport and Weybridge schools, with Bridport as the host. Proulx estimates the merger would allow the communities to employ a combined total of 6.68 fewer teachers, reduce the number of principals from two to one, and eliminate school operating costs at the Weybridge site. Proulx acknowledges that some additional renovations would need to be made at the Bridport Central School to accommodate the new students, costs that he said could be shared by both communities. The merger could save Bridport $758 per student and Weybridge $2,168 per student.
• Joining the Salisbury and Ripton schools, for a potential savings of $2,700 per student in Ripton and $481 per student in Salisbury. The merger would allow the towns to eliminate an estimated 2.9 teaching positions and approximately seven staff.
• Building a new school, or renovating one of the existing schools, to accommodate a union elementary district that would include Shoreham, Bridport, Weybridge and Cornwall. Proulx acknowledged that new building costs would reduce overall savings at the outset of the merger, but said the four towns could see some economies.
“(Proulx) also makes a link between size and educational opportunity, indicating that larger schools are better positioned to offer more educational opportunities to their students than smaller schools,” Sease said. “I believe there is merit in that statement.”
Click here to download the complete PDF copy of the ACSU governance report (5.2 MB).
Reporter John Flowers is at email@example.com.