ANwSU nearing call for unification vote
VERGENNES — The Addison Northwest Supervisory Union committee studying unification of the five-town district took no action at a Tuesday meeting, but reached a consensus that it will offer a positive review of potential one-board governance to the full ANwSU board on Nov. 17.
“It’s fair to say the committee is still very positive and feels that the unified union is a good match for our district,” said committee head Kristin Bristow after the evening meeting at Vergennes Union Elementary School.
About a dozen citizens joined about that many school officials in a VUES classroom for the final of four fall committee meetings on the topic. Those meetings doubled as chances for ANwSU residents to discuss the next one-board proposal, which could come as soon as Town Meeting Day in March.
“Doing these committee meetings open to the public and hearing these other views, we’ve certainly been listening,” Bristow said. “We definitely want to iron out some of those concerns if we move forward.”
On Tuesday committee members tweaked the Articles of Agreement that ANwSU voters backed in March before Addison residents overturned their approval later in the spring.
Since then, the Vermont Legislature passed a bill offering districts that consolidate financial incentives. Those include a $150,000 one-time payment to help with planning and five years of tax breaks for taxpayers, starting at up to 8 cents off the state education tax rate on the first year.
Changes to the ANwSU Articles of Agreement that will be suggested to the full board 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.
• 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.
Bristow said those changes will not satisfy all unification critics, including those who spoke on Tuesday and said towns should retain ownership of the schools and their debt, and who favor Addison opening a private town academy in its public school.
“They are attempts to address some of the concerns. I don’t know that we are going to take care of all the concerns people have,” Bristow said.
Committee members also discussed the issues of town debt and school choice, but did not make changes to those articles. Member Jeffry Glassberg suggested studying having towns each keep their debt before making that provision final.
The question of how to allow school choice provided no easy answer, other than it would exist in some form. Officials said children who lived closer to schools than they now attend — some in Panton live closer to Addison Central School than VUES, and students in West Ferrisburgh live nearer to VUES than Ferrisburgh Central School — would probably be allowed to choose, subject to space limits.
Superintendent Tom O’Brien said it would also be easier for children in “sensitive situations” who want to switch schools to do so; now, those children must be tuitioned.
Committee member Cheryl Brinkman said even limited choice would be an improvement.
“We’re thrilled it’s possible, even if it doesn’t mean you can go anywhere you want,” Brinkman said.
Board members also said they would not create long bus rides for young pupils by, for example, creating one kindergarten-through-second-grade school.
“Nobody is going to want a kindergartener on a bus two hours a day,” Brinkman said.
Committee members were also encouraged by results of an Election Day survey to which voters in Addison, Ferrisburgh, Vergennes and Waltham responded. Panton officials did not allow the survey to be distributed, and Vergennes officials did not allow it to be handed out, just left out to be picked up, and committee members said response was limited there.
But among respondents, residents in all four towns backed unification:
• In Addison, 130-55, or 58-24 percent, with 40 voters undecided.
• In Ferrisburgh, 275-117, or 56-24 percent, with 97 voters undecided.
• In Vergennes, 60-36, or 53-32 percent, with 17 voters undecided.
• In Waltham, 70-16, or 59-14 percent, with 32 voters undecided.
• Overall, 535-224, or 57-24 percent, with 186 voters undecided.
Still, not all are convinced. O’Brien read a letter from a state education official that he said made it clear that towns had to provide a school or pay tuition to another town to educate its students.
“I don’t think there is any provision anywhere in state law for leased public schools,” O’Brien said.
But Addison’s Paul Boivin said he saw nothing that precluded a school district from leasing a building, thus allowing town ownership of a school.
“Why not let the communities manage the buildings and lease them back from them ... Where is it in the law requiring the school district having to own a building?” Boivin said.
Addison resident Carol Kauffman suggested an attorney be allowed to review the law on Addison’s behalf, and after further discussion with Boivin and Kauffman, board members invited them, or Addison, to hire a lawyer.
Debate over the debt question also arose. Opponents of having all the debt being assumed by the unified union point to the disparity of Ferrisburgh’s $1.6 million debt and Addison’s $75,000, and say that it is unfair.
Boivin said it would be “human nature” for future boards to spend money on larger schools before Addison’s smaller building, and Ferrisburgh’s Tom Spencer, generally a backer of unification, said school officials had to address the issue with residents.
Committee member Rick Kirschner said the fact that residents of all five towns would be supporting projects at all three elementary schools would make debt assumption fair.
“The whole debt issue is glass half-full, glass half-empty,” Kirschner said. “If you look down the road 5, 6, 7 years, that’s when it evens out.”
Committee members also noted unification would erase Addison’s per-pupil spending penalty and reduce its tax rate. Glassberg pointed to another benefit Ferrisburgh would offer — its expensive lakefront property.
“Ferrisburgh is also paying almost 50 percent of the tax base,” Glassberg said.
Kauffman also plugged a town academy for Addison, and pointed to enrollment projections that showed ACS having just 87 students by 2014. She said the ANwSU board might be tempted to close the school and send its pupils to VUES in the future.
“By 2014, Addison could be thriving as a town academy,” she said.
Glassberg said ACS is now threatened by closure because of its declining enrollment and high per-pupil costs.
“The choice is not going to be between status quo and change,” Glassberg said. “There will be change if we don’t vote for a unified union.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.