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ACSU report portrays benefits, costs for school governance consolidation

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Posted on November 30, 2015 |
By John Flowers



acsu tax benefit chart.jpg

MIDDLEBURY — The Vermont Agency of Education on Dec. 15 will evaluate the Addison Central Supervisory Union’s plan to consolidate into a single school district. A nod from the agency and Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe would pave the way for ACSU residents to vote on the proposed merger on Town Meeting Day next March 1.

The 11-member Addison Central Supervisory Union Charter Committee last week finalized the 19-page final report and proposed “articles of agreement” that outlines the consolidation plan for the Middlebury-area schools.

The document lists many potential benefits of consolidating the ACSU’s current nine school boards into one 13-member panel that would oversee a single school district, the Addison Central School District, with a single budget. The report also presents financial savings for the ACSU towns that choose to participate in consolidation, as well as the enhanced educational opportunities that could come from more collaboration among district schools.

“Operating as a unified board would enable ACSU to develop systems that reflect our shared community beliefs in education and their role in the development of articulate, committed and successful citizens,” the report states. “Operating as a single unified governing board would enable the district to allocate and move resources where they are most needed. This increased flexibility would enable operational efficiencies, both in the sharing of resources as well as in the allocation of staffing.”

The ACSU is one of eight supervisory unions in Vermont that have officially informed the Agency of Education of their intentions to pursue an “accelerated merger” under Act 46. State lawmakers believe governance consolidation will provide long-term stability for public schools by promoting shared resources, reduced bureaucracy and a greater emphasis on classroom teaching. Supervisory unions that opt for “accelerated” mergers will receive financial advantages, including a decrease of 10 cents on the education property tax rate during the first year of the governance merger, followed by 8 cents in year two; 6 cents in year three; 4 cents in year four; and finally, 2 cents in year five. The participating SUs will also receive a one-time “transition facilitation grant” of $150,000 and retain their Small Schools Grants.

ACSU officials crunched some numbers on estimated cumulative education property tax savings for each of the seven towns. Based on state assistance and savings through combining resources, the towns will see reductions in their tax rates ranging from $2.13 in Weybridge to 2 cents in Middlebury, cumulatively over the five years following the merger (see chart). It should be noted that these estimates assume equivalent expense and revenue increases for all towns, generally level enrollments, and financial incentives and disincentives included in Act 46. The tax rate comparisons are also calculated prior to Common Level of Appraisal adjustments.

Peter Burrows, superintendent of the ACSU, said there would be some central office savings with unification.

“When we look at costs, at first there will be minimal savings,” Burrows said last week at an Act 46 hearing that featured Education Secretary Holcombe. Burrows specifically said the savings could be around $100,000 in year one for administration.

“There will be greater savings over time,” he added.

Burrows stressed unification is expected to help all schools, not just the larger ones.

“This whole process is designed to support all schools, not make some stronger and some weaker,” Burrows said.

Ruth Hardy of Middlebury chaired the ACSU Charter Committee. The panel has since late August conducted many meetings in multiple locations throughout the ACSU in carrying out its charge of mapping out the transition to a single, unified district. The volunteers did much of the heavy lifting on their own, with part of the process looking at past ACSU reports on governance consolidation and well as similar work performed recently in other supervisory unions.

Act 46 and Agency of Education officials conveyed what needed to be included in the governance consolidation report, and the ACSU Charter Committee complied, using a lot of public input from area educators, school board members and residents of the supervisory union’s seven communities of Bridport, Cornwall, Middlebury, Ripton, Salisbury, Shoreham and Weybridge. (See highlights of the report in a separate story in this edition.)

BENEFITS OF CONSOLIDATION

ACSU Charter Committee members were effusive in their description of the perceived advantages of school governance consolidation (see sidebar for specific passages from the report).

While a unified district makes sense to many ACSU officials, they realize that does not necessarily bode for an easy sell to voters. For example, committee members are hoping to assuage some voters’ belief that the end-game of the process might be closing schools. And some voters might be miffed with the numerical advantage that Middlebury would hold on the new ACSD board.

Hardy and her colleagues will spend the next three months explaining the proposed transition and the positive aspects of all the communities working together for the benefit of all district children.

“I think (unification) will create a better system for overseeing and progressing the education of all the children in all of the towns,” Hardy said. “The system we have is fairly scattershot and complex. Therefore, it’s challenging to move forward together, whether it’s a policy issue or a curricular issue, or professional development or a contract issue. It’s so complicated to get every board and every school on the same page in our current system. We will be creating a new system that will be more logical, more accessible and more effective in educating our children, communicating with the public and supporting our teachers.”

Hardy is confident that the district voters will eventually see public education as a regional, rather just a community, undertaking. Unification and the presence of Mary Hogan Elementary School as a stabilizing force, could extend the operation of some smaller schools currently struggling to survive, she said.

“Our small schools in many of our small towns are just not sustainable; they are not viable for more than the next few years because of the financial pressures, and systematic and social pressures that we are seeing,” Hardy said. “In order to be preserved for the near term and hopefully the long-term, we really need to join together. Middlebury is the anchor for a lot of these small schools and they need to understand they need an anchor in order to stay afloat.

“It’s not about schools and it’s not about towns; it’s about students,” Hardy added.

ACSU officials are organizing a series of community meetings leading up to next March. Proponents will also strive to get their message across via the press and social media. The ACSU Charter Committee meets every other Thursday, beginning at 6:30 p.m., in the Mary Hogan Elementary music room. The next meeting is scheduled for Dec. 3.

 “This is a leap of faith,” Hardy said of the consolidation effort. “We have to trust each other and we have to trust people in other communities and I think that a lot of the school board members who have been working on this for a number of years have grown to trust each other and have grown to understand the challenges that all of our towns and all of our school and all of our students and families are facing.

“I hope that we have other opportunities for (district residents) to build that trust during the next couple of months before we vote, because I think that’s the most important thing — that we all see some of the potential gains and the potential losses. What we need to really do is say, ‘OK, we’re all in this together and we all can take the leap of faith together for all of our kids in all of our communities.’”

Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]

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