School board ballots expand in response to Act 46
MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury-area voters will see a lot more names than usual on their Town Meeting Day ballots this year. That’s because the Addison Central Supervisory Union is pursuing a unified school district under Act 46, which means a brand new, 13-member school board will need to be elected. And that’s in addition to positions on the current elementary and UD-3 school boards that will have to be filled to ensure a smooth transition for the new panel.
Town clerks from the ACSU-member towns of Bridport, Cornwall, Middlebury, Ripton, Salisbury, Shoreham and Weybridge are scheduled to meet this Thursday, Jan. 14, at 4:30 p.m. at the ACSU central office to train for the new wrinkles that Act 46 will present for the upcoming March 1 local elections.
Voters in the Addison Northwest Supervisory Union, which is also voting on an Act 46 unification plan, will similarly vote for a new unified board in addition to filling out current boards.
“This is quite complex,” Will Senning, director of elections with the Vermont Secretary of State’s Office, said of the process.
Here, in no particular order, are some of the more dramatic Act 46-related changes that ACSU voters will notice when they go to the polls on March 1:
• A referendum on creating the new unified district and unified school board. If approved, this would set into motion a transition from the ACSU’s current nine school boards to one panel overseeing a single, global spending plan for all seven district elementary schools, Middlebury Union Middle School and Middlebury Union High School.
If the unified district referendum fails in one or more of the seven communities, the ACSU will need to fashion a different route to governance consolidation that will come with fewer economic incentives from the state of Vermont. A successful, accelerated merger would allow the participating seven ACSU towns decreases of 10 cents on their education property tax rates 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.
Local officials also note districts that reject governance consolidation plans will eventually be assigned by the state to a unified district that could be less to their liking.
• A ballot to elect all 13 members of the new Addison Central School District board, and not just their own delegate(s). In other words, all 13 candidates will be elected at-large. So for example, Salisbury voters will vote on their own representative to the new board as well as on the candidates from the other six towns seeking to fill out the remaining 12 slots on the panel. ACSU officials agreed to make all of the positions at-large to, in part, acknowledge the substantial majority that Middlebury will enjoy on the new panel as a result of its much larger population. Composition of the board is based on proportionate representation in the district, so Middlebury is being allotted seven spots, while Bridport, Cornwall, Ripton, Salisbury, Shoreham and Weybridge are being allotted one each.
Ultimately, all terms on the new board will be for three years. But for this first election, terms will be staggered in the following fashion: Terms of one year for the Bridport and Salisbury seats; terms of two years for the Cornwall and Shoreham seats; a three-year term for the Ripton seat. In Middlebury, the ballot will feature two one-year terms; two two-year terms; and three three-year terms.
• Candidates for the unified board (and all other municipal and school positions) have until Jan. 25 to file nomination petitions with their town clerk. The petitions must bear the signatures of at least 1 percent of the registered voters within their respective communities. For example, that’s a minimum of five signatures in the town of Ripton.
• Candidates in this election may run for multiple school boards. So in addition to running for the new unified board, they may run for their local elementary school board and/or the UD-3 school board, which represents the interests of Middlebury Union middle and high schools. All of the ACSU’s local school boards and UD-3 board will go out of existence at the end of 2017, according to the accelerated merger provision of Act 46. In the meantime, the unified board will gradually take on such major tasks as putting together a single budget for the entire seven-town district, and teacher contract negotiations. The other boards during their remaining time will oversee such issues as student discipline and real estate matters, noted UD-3 Chairman Peter Conlon.
Conlon and members of the ACSU Charter Committee, co-chaired by Ruth Hardy and Suzanne Buck, have been explaining the intricacies of the voting process to area town clerks, candidates and residents. They will continue to do so during the weeks leading up to March 1. More information about the unified board and district can be found at unifyacsu.org.
Conlon said Middlebury-area residents seem to be embracing the touted advantages of a unified school district, which include greater administrative efficiency, more sharing of resources between schools, and fewer evening meetings for volunteer citizens and school officials.
“We are confident everyone will see the benefits of a unified school board, and we are currently getting the word out in as many different ways as possible,” Conlon said.
ALREADY ON THE BALLOT
A brief survey early this week of all seven ACSU own clerks revealed modest interest thus far in the 13 seats, though candidates still have time to circulate petitions prior to the Jan. 25 filing deadline.
In Middlebury, residents Lorraine Gonzalez Morse, John Rees, Ruth Hardy and Steve Orzech have thus far professed interest in running for Middlebury’s seven allotted seats, according to Town Clerk Ann Webster.
In Bridport, Rick Scott — current chairman of the ACSU board — has shown interest, as has Chris Eaton in Weybridge. In Cornwall, Conlon has taken out papers to run for the unified board. A race is looming for Ripton’s seat on the new panel, as longtime UD-3 board members Jerry Shedd and Ripton School board member Bryan Alexander are both interested.
There are no takers so far for the seats in Salisbury and Shoreham, according to town clerks in those towns.
Webster has not detected much confusion among prospective candidates and voters — at least, not yet.
“For the most part, it is not very confusing,” she said of the Act 46 election process. “To me, the more confusing part will be for the public, when they come in and find they are voting for three (school) boards.”
Webster expects Town Meeting Day election ballots will be finalized by mid-February.
Hardy, also chair of the ID-4 elementary school board, said she’s confident there will be enough candidates to fill out Middlebury’s seven seats.
“Currently, there are 14 Middlebury seats on the ID-4 and UD-3 boards combined, and for the past several years, the ID-4 seats up for election have been contested by multiple candidates,” Hardy said. “I know several people have already picked up petitions to run for seats on the new board, and I have been fielding questions from others who are interested. Voters in Middlebury value education and understand the importance of dedicated and thoughtful school board members.”
She noted town clerks, state Agency of Education officials and ACSU Charter Committee members have been spreading the word about the upcoming election. ACSU attorneys have drafted language for the Act 46 ballot items so they are consistent in all seven towns.
Like Conlon, Hardy senses support from local voters for the upcoming changes, but she knows more work needs to be done before March 1.
“I think the voters of the seven ACSU towns are supportive of efforts to provide quality education to all of our students, in all towns, grades pre-K through 12,” she said. “They want to understand the details of the unification plan, but they also want to do what’s right for the education of our children. It’s a huge change, so voters will have to spend time to wrap their head around it. As current school board members, we’ll have to do our best to ensure voters understand the proposal, and we’ll all have to embrace a broader definition of community in order to be able to sustain our quality educational system in the face of such drastic declining enrollment.”
The Independent will continue to report on the proposed Addison Central School District during the weeks leading up to Town Meeting Day.
Reporter John Flowers is at email@example.com.