Chittenden County towns set vote on school district merger

ESSEX JUNCTION — Three area towns are poised to be the first to vote on an accelerated school district merger under Act 46, the state’s recently passed education reform law.

Essex Junction, Essex Town and Westford will vote on forming a combined school district Nov. 3. A merger proposal from the three towns has already received approval from the Agency of Education and the State Board of Education.

The new district would reportedly be called the Essex Westford Educational Community Unified Union School District. Members of the study committee wanted to remove the Unified Union portion of the new name, but were given legal advice not to, according to a story in the Essex Reporter.

At a Wednesday forum to raise awareness about the vote, members of a study committee touted the benefits of a merger, noting that it will simplify school governance by consolidating five school boards in three towns to one school board and one school budget. That will make sharing resources and best practices much easier, they said.

The merger is also expected to save the three towns more than $1 million after three years on combined school spending that is currently $54 million annually. The 10 schools in the proposed unified district will save $40,000 on audits alone, according to the committee’s report.

Consolidating now will allow the three towns to reap the benefits of tax incentives created by Act 46, which provided an accelerated merger program under the purview of the state Agency of Education.

Under the agency’s accelerated merger program, local communities that vote by July 1, 2016, to merge town districts and implement them by 2017, will enjoy five years of education property tax breaks.

The tax breaks for accelerated mergers kick in at 10 cents off the statewide property tax rate, then are reduced annually by 2 cents, down to 8 cents, 6 cents, 4 cents and 2 cents. Tax breaks for “conventional” merger districts start at 8 cents, reduce by 2 cents each year, and end after the fourth year.

The new district will also receive $300,000 from the state to help it consolidate central office functions among the current district and supervisory union.

Members of the study committee told roughly 20 people gathered at Hiawatha Elementary School for Wednesday night’s forum that if the three towns wait, the state can mandate mergers in 2019 without any of the tax incentives or additional funding.

“If we do this now we do it ourselves,” said Linda Costello, a retired teacher and member of the study committee who has a grandchild in the school system. “If we wait two or three years, the state will tell us how to do it. We need to design our own school district and not let somebody in Montpelier do it.”

Costello dismissed concern about public access to the new unified school board. It doesn’t matter how many boards there are, she said, what matters is showing up to meetings and making your voice heard.

Still, the merger vote is likely to run into the most resistance in Westford, said Rep. Bob Bancroft, who represents the town. It’s the smallest of the three towns, and would be the most likely to see one of its schools close in the future if it were to join the new district.

Parents in Westford are also concerned they won’t be able to preserve school choice for their high schoolers, who can currently attend any high school in the state. The new unified school board would have four seats each for Essex Junction and Essex Town, and two seats, counting for only one vote, for Westford. The seats and votes are based on population, committee members said.

However, things are likely to change for the school system in Westford anyway, because Act 46 caps spending and does away with protections that have shielded smaller towns with declining student enrollment from having to bear the full cost of their per-pupil spending.

If Westford votes against the proposal on Nov. 3, Essex Junction and Essex Town can still move forward with a merger, but they won’t receive the higher accelerated merger tax incentives. The two larger towns would still be able to receive the “conventional” tax incentives.

Morgan True

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