FERRISBURGH — With a new Vermont law in place promising four years of tax breaks and a one-time cash bonus for school districts that consolidate, an Addison Northwest Supervisory Union board committee has begun holding public meetings to once again test one-board governance waters.
Legislators are trying to encourage school consolidation across Vermont through Act 153 as a cost-saving measure.
ANwSU unification proponents said consolidating oversight of three elementary schools and Vergennes Union High School under a single board would result in at least some savings in transportation, purchasing and meeting reductions, and that it would be easier to coordinate the education of union elementary students.
The unification committee — which has an eye on a possible March 2011 vote — is also studying how to tweak, if necessary, language in the unification Articles of Agreement that some opponents in past votes on the issue have found objectionable.
Since 2005, voters in ANwSU have twice considered a single school board for the five towns in the district. In 2005 they rejected it in three of the five towns, and in 2009 voters approved it but then rejected it on a petitioned revote.
The committee has so far held two lightly attended meetings, one at VUHS on Sept. 14 and one at Ferrisburgh Central School on Oct. 12.
Two more are set, the next at Addison Central School (ACS) this coming Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. and one at Vergennes Union Elementary School on Nov. 9.
Vermont Department of Education chief financial officer Bill Talbot will attend the ACS meeting next week to explain provisions of Act 153, including its financial incentives. Those include four years of tax decreases for unified union towns, starting at 8 cents the first year and declining by 2 cents a year until ending with a 2-cent break in the final year.
Act 153 also caps a property tax hike or decrease at 5 percent. Unification committee members at the meeting in Ferrisburgh said ANwSU towns might not enjoy the full 8-cent drop if that amount ended up being larger than 5 percent. They hoped Talbot could clarify that issue on Oct. 26 in Addison.
Committee member Jeffry Glassberg said he was confident there would be benefits to taxpayers in each town, including Vergennes, the only community that was projected to see a tax increase in the first year of the proposed 2009 unification.
“It will be different from the last round of voting ... There will be a decrease in Vergennes,” Glassberg said.
Act 153 also offers a $150,000 one-time payment to districts that unify. That incentive was in place when the five ANwSU towns voted overwhelmingly to unify in March 2009, a result that was then petitioned in Vergennes and Addison and overturned in Addison.
Some Addison opponents of unification have called for residents to vote to close ACS as a public school and re-open it as a publicly funded private “town academy,” which is permissible under Vermont law. They will hold a separate forum at ACS on Oct. 28 at 6:30 p.m. with representatives of The Mountain School in Winhall, the only such town academy in Vermont and the U.S. that serves a local elementary school population. A future Independent article will examine that possibility.
Act 153 required all school districts to discuss consolidation. In May the ANwSU board voted to reconsider the possibility and formed the committee, which decided over the summer to hold this fall’s meetings.
In Ferrisburgh, Glassberg said the committee wanted feedback on the unification Articles of Agreement.
“The purpose ... of the committee, and the reason you people are here, is to study these articles,” Glassberg said.
Many objections in Ferrisburgh and earlier at VUHS were raised by Addison’s Carol Kauffman, a town academy proponent and vocal unification opponent.
Kauffman asked that the Articles of Agreement be reviewed by town attorneys before a vote and be published in town reports, and that language be clarified to indicate the district did not plan to grow further in the future.
Committee members said review by towns’ attorneys would be unwieldy.
“It’s hard to get two lawyers to agree on anything, and now you’d have five lawyers looking at it,” said Addison’s Donald Jochum.
But they agreed they should give residents every chance to view the final articles, including providing them to towns for publication in reports.
“We have the obligation to create a schedule to allow that,” Glassberg said.
The expansion language in question cited by Kauffman stated that ANwSU did not foresee growing beyond the five towns “at this point.”
“Does it mean we’re going to grow this mega-district?” Kauffman said.
Committee members and Superintendent Tom O’Brien said any addition to the union would have to be approved by voters, and there had been no discussion of expansion.
“We wouldn’t just be trolling for districts,” O’Brien said.
Kauffman said the articles should therefore rule out expansion.
“At least the voters could look at it and say we defined it, we don’t want to be any larger,” she said.
QUESTION OF DEBT
Kauffman also raised the issue of Addison’s debt load. ACS has paid off all but $75,000 of its bond payments for projects at the school. Unification would mean Addison would accept roughly a fifth of the overall $2 million ANwSU elementary school construction debt.
ANwSU officials later said the annual $29,000 payment on that debt is a tiny fraction of the ACS annual budget of about $1.8 million, and that Addison’s yearly six-figure state penalty for excess per-pupil spending would be erased by unification.
Committee chairwoman Kristin Bristow said VUHS carries about $4.2 million of debt that Addison would still share regardless of unification’s outcome.
“The largest asset and the largest debt is already owned by the five towns,” Bristow said.
Kauffman also raised the sensitive issue of ACS closure. Act 153 forbids closing a school for four years, but unions could move to shut a school down afterward.
Committee members said it would require a public vote, not just a board-level decision, to make such a move, and agreed they should consider including that information in the articles.
Board members also agreed to discuss at the Tuesday Addison meeting how residents could choose among district elementary schools for their children, how educational equity could be achieved among the schools, what ANwSU enrollment projections are, how best to determine the value of each elementary school as it entered a full union, and how language could be clarified on how school buildings would be encumbered if towns bought them back from the union for $1.
The committee also decided to distribute a survey at November polling places that would measure ANwSU residents’ willingness to vote again and ask their views on a few issues. The committee hopes to have a draft ready by next week’s meeting.
“Everyone should think what would help us and help the voters,” said Bristow. “I just want something quick and easy.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.