ENOSBURGH —Franklin Northeast Supervisory Union (FNESU) staff has found that merger of Bakersfield, Berkshire, Enosburgh, Montgomery, and Richford schools would not only improve education but save taxpayers at least $3.1 million over six years.

That number does not include savings beyond those for administrative costs and high school tuition, said FNESU business manager Morgan Daybell

If voters in all five municipalities decide to merge into a single district by July 1, 2016, then taxpayers in all of them would be eligible for five years of tax incentives, in the form of reduced tax rates.

However, even after those incentives go away in year six, taxpayers would still save more than $500,000 in fiscal year 2023 compared to doing nothing, Daybell said Tuesday night.

Bakersfield taxpayers stand to save the most from a merger. Bakersfield’s projected tax rate for fiscal year 2018 year is $1.4992, with the merger it would drop to $1.2448. Over the first six years of the merger, a Bakersfield homeowner with a house valued at $150,000 would save a projected $2,401. Collectively, Bakersfield taxpayers would save an estimated $1.3 million over the first six years.

Savings, while still substantial, are less in each of the other communities. Below are the collective savings for each community and the savings for the owner of a $150,000, projected over the first six years of the merger:

• Berkshire $973,611 collectively and $1,736 per homeowner;

• Enosburgh $219,630 collectively and $303 per homeowner;

• Montgomery $343,342 collectively and $700 per homeowner;

• and Richford $268,063 collectively and $518 per homeowner.

Proposed changes

FNESU’s Act 46 study committee voted 8-1 last night to pursue unification rather than a two-district supervisory union, which would have combined Montgomery and Bakersfield into a single K-8 district and Berkshire, Enosburgh and Richford into a K-12 district. Four members of the committee were absent.

The committee also opted, under Act 46, to make Montgomery an “advisable” member rather than a “necessary” one to the school district merger. Montgomery sends more students to high schools outside of FNESU than the other two K-8 schools, Berkshire and Bakersfield.

Daybell began Tuesday night’s of a panel studying merger with a review of projected savings from the available list of alternatives: forming a unified district, forming two side-by-side districts, the state board of education combining the schools into two districts, and nothing changing.

To arrive at those numbers, Daybell assumed only the changes in administrative costs and tuition. No other potential savings, such as $250,000 in special education costs estimated by superintendent Jay Nichols, were included.

Daybell also assumed that all current trends in student numbers and school spending remained unchanged.

Eliminating tuition for students attending schools outside the district would save taxpayers $833,000 phased in over four years. Students who are attending schools outside of FNESU at the time of the merger would be allowed to graduate from those schools. They would not have to switch to one of the two FNESU high schools.

Administrative savings are projected at $145,000 from fewer board members and treasurers, consolidation of audits, and eliminating a currently vacant part-time position at the supervisory union.

Savings from a side-by-side district, which would continue to pay tuition for Bakersfield and Montgomery students, were considerably less. A side-by-side would produce $123,000 in administrative savings and $16,000 in tuition saved by Berkshire merging with Richford and Enosburgh.

“The unified district is still cheaper for everyone, and that’s a factor of these tuition payments going away,” said Daybell.

Although tuition payments would go away, high school choice would not. Students who wanted to attend high schools outside of FNESU could do so under Act 129. However, the act does not apply to schools outside of Vermont, so Montgomery students would no longer be able to receive taxpayer funds to attend private schools in Quebec or New York.

Jean-Marie Clark, a committee member from Bakersfield, said she is anxious to hold public meetings and hear from residents about unification and the change to high school choice. “How badly do you want to keep choice and are you willing to pay for it?” she asked

Better education

But money was not the only factor for committee members. “I favor unification because it offers more opportunities for Richford kids,” said committee member Wallace Steinhour.

Paul Hatch, of Berkshire, noted one of the biggest benefits for Berkshire would be for students whose families move during the school year. Since the beginning of the school year, almost 30 kids have moved into Berkshire, he said.

Many of those students’ families relocate between Enosburgh, Richford and Berkshire. Merger would allow them to remain in the school where they started the school year. According to the Government Accountability Office, students who move, regardless of socioeconomic status, are more likely to be behind their peers academically, to have behavioral problems, and to drop out.

Bakersfield principal Anissa Sequin also suggested a merged district would be better able to meet the needs of students as Vermont shifts to proficiency-based education. “School is going to be so different in a couple of years,” she said. “What these kids will have at their fingertips is going to be so different from what we had.”

Andrew Pond, an advisor to the group who is a board member in the unified Chittenden East district, concurred, saying, “As a single district you’re going to be more nimble, better able to react to changes.”

Nichols has previously spoken of the potential benefits for students such as being able to share teachers and other resources among schools. Last night, he also spoke of the benefits in freeing up administrators. With the supervisory union staff administering one budget instead of six, it would have more time to take on paperwork, grant applications, and other work currently being done by principals. The principals would then have more time to spend working with and supervising teachers.

Bakersfield Elementary Principal Anissa Sequin, who told the committee she’d spent all of Tuesday on paperwork, supported his comments.

Teachers who answered an anonymous online survey, supported unification over a side-by-side 63 percent to 32 percent. There are just fewer than 200 teachers in FNESU and 139 of them voted. The vote was taken after a presentation by Nichols explaining Act 46 and the options for the supervisory union.

The board decided to make Montgomery advisable rather than necessary to the merger because that way the other four communities could continue to merge even if Montgomery votes it down.

Bruce Mercy, chair of the Montgomery School Board, said he believes unification would pass in Montgomery because many taxpayers don’t have students in the schools. “If the taxpayers know what the savings are, they would probably vote ‘Yes,'” he said.

Steinhour pointed out that while Bakersfield and Montgomery would give up choice, Bakersfield stands to save far more money. “The only issue on the table for them is choice, whereas for Bakersfield it’s choice and financial savings,” he said.

Montgomery sends high school students to multiple schools, while most Bakersfield students attend either Enosburg Falls High School or Bellows Free Academy in St. Albans. All but one of Berkshire’s high school students attends either Richford or Enosburg high schools.

All students would still be able to take advantage of Act 129, which allows for high school choice for students who live in districts with a high school.