Riptonites lobby for preservation of their school

RIPTON — While area classrooms have gone silent for the summer, Addison Central School District officials continue to work on a facilities master plan that will guide future decisions on building repairs and possible school closures within the ACSD.

A group of Ripton residents want to make sure their elementary school doesn’t appear on a future closures list if the ACSD board chooses to take the consolidation route.

The ASCD board on Monday, July 15, is slated to decide whether to include in its facilities master plan an architectural study of the capacity of the district’s elementary and secondary schools. Then on July 29, the panel will discuss the prospect of floating a bond to fund major repairs to buildings that fit into the district’s long-term plans.

“It won’t be a decision to do the bond, it’s more to set a decision point in the future for the bond and where in the process that will come,” said Peter Conlon, ACSD board chair.

The ACSD includes elementary schools in Bridport, Cornwall, Middlebury, Ripton, Salisbury, Shoreham and Weybridge; and Middlebury Union middle and high schools. A consulting firm called ReArch recently estimated those nine buildings — seven elementary schools, Middlebury Union Middle School, and Middlebury Union High School — need a combined total of $61.5 million in basic repairs and upgrades.

Declining enrollment is a big reason district officials are scrutinizing school facilities prior to committing to major repair projects that could cost taxpayers millions. ACSD schools had a combined K-12 enrollment of 1,861 students in 2008. That number has dwindled to 1,711 students this year, and is projected to further erode to 1,650 by 2023 and 1,635 by 2026.

Six of the ACSD’s seven elementary schools have fewer than 100 students. Elementary enrollment figures for all seven, as of September 2018, were 58 in Bridport, 76 in Cornwall, 50 in Ripton, 90 in Salisbury, 81 in Shoreham, 55 in Weybridge, and 441 at Middlebury’s Mary Hogan School.

Classrooms at all nine ACSD schools are operating at less than 75 percent capacity, according to district statistics.

Scores of Middlebury-area residents attended a series of three “Building our Future” forums in April at which ACSD officials asked for helping in sorting out the district’s facilities priorities.

In addition to taking comments, the board unveiled four options for consolidating the district’s school facilities to reflect declining enrollment:

1)  Operate a single elementary school — likely an upgraded Mary Hogan building — to serve all the ACSD’s pre-K-6 students. This option, according to district officials, could save taxpayers around $2.4 million per year in operating costs.

2)  Maintain two elementary schools to serve district children. Those schools would likely include Mary Hogan and a new, centrally located school building, officials said. This would result savingsin around $2.1 million in yearly operating costs.

3)  Support three existing elementary schools, which could save the district $1.6 million each year.

4)  Maintain four to six elementary schools, producing an estimated $1.2 million in yearly operating costs.

Each of the four options would also require short- and long-term capital investments in ACSD school buildings.

CONCERNS IN RIPTON

Ripton residents are particularly concerned that their school might be targeted for closure because it has one of the lowest student counts in the district. A group of more than 20 people have formed a group to lobby for the school’s future. Members like Samantha Isenberger have been making their appeals at ACSD board meetings. They gathered at Middlebury’s Ilsley Public Library on July 9 to strategize and draft a letter to district officials.

“While our group’s aim is to save our small schools from closure and to keep our Vermont communities strong, we are also sensitive to the pressures you, ACSD board members, are under,” reads the letter addressed to the panel and ACSD Superintendent Peter Burrows. “We want to be part of the solution. We urge you to continue to explore options beyond school closures and to look at how school closures may not actually save money at all… As difficult as it would be to make the decision to close a school, it is the easy choice. How often in life is the easy choice the right one? Almost never.”

Group members also urged officials to also consider the impact a school closure would have on the greater Ripton community.

“Community impact absolutely stands shoulder to shoulder with individual student impact, right at the center of the discussion,” the letter states. “How can we consider what is best for our individual students without also considering what is best for the communities they come from? They are not separate entities. They are deeply connected co-organisms who need each other for survival. Our students will not thrive if the communities they go home to at the end of the day are weakened.”

The complete content of the letter can be found with this story online at addisonindependent.com.

Longtime Ripton Selectwoman Laurie Cox moved to Ripton 41 years ago. Her children attended the local school. She believes the Ripton Elementary School is a key uniting factor to a community that can feel isolated — on its mountain perch up Route 125 — from the rest of the district.

“I think one of the things that really drives this issue for Ripton is that we’re a more ‘contained’ community, geographically,” Cox said.

She noted several young families had recently settled in Ripton, some of them citing the small school as a magnet. Closure of the Ripton school, Cox fears, would give young families less incentive to come. Such a trend, in turn, could lower Ripton property values, Cox theorized.

“It would be bad for the community as a whole,” she said.

Cox noted the Ripton Elementary School building is one of the newest in the district.

“I think the whole idea of jettisoning functional buildings to make new buildings is in no one’s best financial interest,” she said.

Cox said she’s heard a wide range of Ripton residents speak on behalf of their school — including folks who have never had children or whose children have since grown up.

And parents with children currently at the school, such as Isenberger, are particularly passionate about the subject. Isenberger and her family moved to Ripton from Middlebury a few years ago in large part due to the community’s small school.

“For us, it’s a pretty big deal,” she said. “It’s an amazing school, and Ripton is an amazing community.”

Conlon said he and his colleagues will continue to listen to community concerns about the ACSD’s facilities planning.

“I think citizen input is always valuable,” he said. “This process will be a long one for laying out a vision that will hopefully guide the board for 10 years. We have no doubt any decision we make is going to draw comment from citizens.”

Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

Click on the links below to read the letters the Ripton group has authored.

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