VERGENNES — Addison residents on Tuesday reversed their Town Meeting Day stand and voted against the proposal to unify Addison Northwest Supervisory Union governance under one board, effectively stopping the unification plan.
Because all five towns in the union were required to back one-board governance, ANwSU will thus retain its current system of five boards — not including three minor boards that are being phased out this June — to operate Vergennes Union High School, Vergennes Union Elementary School, Ferrisburgh Central School and Addison Central School, as well as the supervisory union as a whole.
The Addison tally this time around in a petitioned revote was 191-148. On March 2, the town backed unification, 197-138, part of an overall 908-539 vote in the five ANwSU towns favoring the one-board plan.
Vergennes also cast ballots in a petitioned revote on Tuesday, and a majority said no to the governance switch, 139-127. But state law requires that in a revote the number of votes to change an outcome must equal at least two-thirds of the original opposing tally.
That threshold in Vergennes, where the where the original vote backing unification ran 232-142, stood at 155, and the Vergennes vote alone would not have dealt unification a setback.
Tuesday’s results cannot again be petitioned, but ANwSU Superintendent Tom O’Brien said ANwSU board members could, if they so chose, decide to raise the unification issue again, possibly next March. O’Brien stressed that it would be a decision made by elected school officials from the five ANwSU towns.
“It’s a board decision. It’s not mine,” he said.
Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, a unification supporter, also reported on Wednesday that the Legislature had passed a bill offering financial incentives for school districts that chose to consolidate.
O’Brien said the Addison vote would have the harshest impact on Addison Central School, which for the past three years has paid a tax penalty to the state because its per-pupil costs exceed the state average. The root cause of the penalty is the decline of the school’s student count from 140 eight years ago to a projected 104 next year.
In the budget for the upcoming year that penalty is $68,000, down from more than $100,000 in the current year after major cuts to several programs. ACS officials also did not ask for an infusion of money into three capital funds, as has been their practice in recent years.
Consolidation would have dropped Addison’s residential school tax rate from about $1.47 to $1.35 or even less under unification, according to ANwSU estimates.
O’Brien called the rejection of unification an unfortunate decision for Addison and its elementary school.
“It’s a sad moment for Addison Central School and the future of that school,” he said. “One of the primary reasons we looked at the unification and included all the schools was not only because they had a history together, but because it would allow them to have a future together.”
Prior to the Addison vote, opponents raised several concerns: that the town would have just two representatives on the proposed 12-member board, that the board would have the power to closes the doors at ACS, and that Addison would be assuming other towns’ debt. They also proposed considering converting ACS into a state-approved private school as an alternative.
One-board proponents said that board members would consider all children’s needs and would not discriminate against any town; that financial pressures ACS would face without unification would threaten its closure; that tax savings would offset any assumption of debt; and that the private school route was a long, disruptive process with an uncertain outcome.
O’Brien said board members were also concerned that some material put forth by opponents in Addison consisted of “misinformation and, in some cases, disinformation” that might have improperly influenced the vote.
For example, he said that contrary to opponents’ charges, unification articles of agreement were twice delivered to the Addison town clerk’s office; that increases in ANwSU office spending were due to board-approved assumption of the cost of student programs once funded by federal grants; and that one line from a long statement he made supporting unification was used out of context in a weekend flyer opposing unification.
In Vergennes, opponents had focused on whether taxpayers would face a five-cent tax increase if the measure passed, whether VUES might lose some programs if the city had to subsidize smaller ANwSU schools, and on debt from Ferrisburgh’s recent $1.5 million upgrade.
ANwSU officials said savings from unification would mean a smaller increase, if any; that no programs were at risk; and that debt loads would even out in the long run.
Voters in the five towns also rejected unification twice in 2005, although a slim majority favored it the first round of balloting. In that vote, only the towns of Waltham and Panton voted yes, however. In a revote, all five towns said no.
Now, moving forward, O’Brien said ANwSU boards would now face a tough challenge meeting a department of education request that 2011-2012 budgets decrease 2 percent over next year’s spending levels.
“It will be very difficult,” he said. “It will mean programs and people.”
And after Tuesday, he said, the challenge might be greatest in ANwSU’s single-town elementary schools in Addison and Ferrisburgh.
“One of the primary reasons for talking about a unified union was because ... the elementary schools cannot continue to stand on their own and provide the kind of programs they would like to provide,” O’Brien said. “We’ve got to do it a different way.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.