VERGENNES — The five Addison Northwest Supervisory Union towns are headed toward another vote on one-board governance, almost certainly on Town Meeting Day this coming March.
Last Wednesday, the full ANwSU board met at Vergennes Union High School with the board subcommittee that this fall has been studying unification. The board then made a formal motion to approve what will be the fifth unification vote in six years.
ANwSU board chairwoman Laurie Gutowski said board members believe one-board governance will create some cost savings, allow the district more flexibility in transportation and personnel assignments, make it easier to share successful education efforts, and permit some students to attend schools closer to their homes than is now possible and others to choose which school to attend.
“We think it’s the best thing for the district. It makes the most sense,” Gutowski said. “It’s in the best interest to educate the students in our community.”
Almost all ANwSU board members favor a Town Meeting Day vote on a proposal that would dissolve the five boards that now govern the four union schools and replace them with one 12-member board.
That board would have four members each from Ferrisburgh and Vergennes, two from Addison, and one each from Panton and Waltham. All teachers would work for the district, not individual schools, under the terms of a recently signed contract.
Gutowski said that at Wednesday’s meeting there was some debate on the March vote date. If the one-board plan were approved then, it would take full effect in July 2012.
“There’s a small faction of folks that think it’s too fast, too soon, but we’re going to try to get all the information out,” she said. “It costs more money to do it on another day, and you get more people out (on Town Meeting Day).”
School officials said that despite some persistent criticism from Addison and some Vergennes residents at the series of fall meetings, most who attended seemed supportive.
ANwSU Superintendent Tom O’Brien also said the ANwSU board took into consideration the results of a survey that many November voters in Addison, Ferrisburgh, Vergennes and Waltham filled out. O’Brien noted that opinion favored unification by roughly a 2-to-1 margin.
Voters in the five towns defeated such a plan in a pair of 2005 votes. Although a small plurality favored the plan in a March vote that year, it passed only in Panton and Waltham, not all five communities, as is required for a union governance change. The second vote was more one-sided against unification.
In March 2009 residents in all five towns backed essentially the same plan by a collective 63-37 percent margin. But petitions in Addison and Vergennes challenged the result, and unification lost in the second go-round in Addison.
School officials say there were inaccuracies spread about the plan before that second vote, while opponents say that the town should be presented with other options, including conversion of Addison Central School into a private town academy.
Critics also say that the new board could choose to close ACS because of its declining enrollment. Officials say that ACS could be pressured to close without unification because the town now must pay a costly state penalty for excess per-pupil spending; unification would erase that penalty.
There will be changes for the 2011 vote. A 2010 state law says a newly created union cannot close a school for four years. It also offers a five-year reduction in the state property tax rate to districts that unify, beginning at up to an 8-cent drop in the first year and ending with a 2-cent drop. The law also awards a one-time payment of $150,000 to unified unions.
In the series of fall meetings, the subcommittee also agreed to make changes to the Articles of Agreement upon which the new union will be based.
Changes to the articles include:
• Making it clear no schools will be closed without a union-wide vote.
• Removing “at this time” from a section dealing with possible future union expansion, a move intended to clarify there are no plans to expand ANwSU.
• Adding language to clarify that if a school is closed and returned to town ownership, the only encumbrance that will be returned to the town would be the balance of the original debt that came to the union with the school.
The board subcommittee plans to meet on Dec. 7 to make final those articles, which must meet Vermont Department of Education approval before a vote.
Also before a vote, ANwSU officials also will send out another set of flyers and hold another series of meetings to explain the plan.
Gutowski said officials would try to answer concerns, many of which center around assumption of debt — Ferrisburgh has more than other towns, but as one board member noted also has a greater tax base — and ownership of buildings by the union.
Gutowski said she hopes people will show up and read flyers before they hit recycling bins.
“All we can do is have meetings and provide info to everybody,” she said. “The hardest thing to do is get people to come to the meetings.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.