SALISBURY/LEICESTER — The Salisbury Community School board has voted to end discussions of consolidation between Leicester and Salisbury’s elementary schools.
The Nov. 12 decision brought a definitive end to Leicester’s latest bid to solve ongoing concerns about the future of its K-6 elementary school. Faced with an aging building and rising maintenance costs, as well as a relatively small student population, Leicester has been pursuing consolidation options for several years.
After talks to form some sort of union with schools in Whiting and Sudbury fell through early this year, Leicester and Salisbury began discussing consolidation this past June, forming study committees to examine the possibility.
The arrangement would have had several potential benefits. One, according to Connie Carroll, chair of Leicester’s study committee, was school size. The committee found that the ideal size for an elementary school is projected to be between 140 and 150 students.
“That is both academically and financially,” said Carroll. “So there were some strong reasons to consider (consolidating).”
Leicester Central School educates 59 students. Salisbury educates about 107 students in its 10-year-old building, which is currently about 70 students under capacity. Combining the schools would have brought the school closer to capacity, which would also have decreased the per-student spending for the schools.
The two supervisory unions in which Salisbury and Leicester fall — Addison Central Supervisory Union (ACSU) and Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union (RNESU) — projected the budget for one of several possible consolidation strategies. If the two school districts were to consolidate, forming one district and a unified budget, ACSU estimated that the annual cost per student would decrease by around $650, leading to a decrease in tax rates in Salisbury.
But with the budget projections and the findings of the study committees in hand, the Salisbury school board opted to cease discussions rather than form an official study committee, which would have required more time and more funding.
“There were a lot of factors,” said Salisbury school board chair John Nuceder last Friday. “Class size was always a big one. This would ultimately mean a potential addition (onto the building), a change of septic — factors that our board felt that we weren’t comfortable going in front of the town with.”
Bureaucracy also came into play in the consolidation discussions. A joint school would be governed by a school board with proportional representation from Leicester and Salisbury, but it would also fall into the jurisdiction of both ACSU and RNESU.
Nuceder explained that making the two different systems work together would have raised challenges — for example, RNESU funds special education programs from a pool, while ACSU funds them for each student in the program.
“The fact that it would have crossed two supervisory unions was an issue that needed to be worked on,” Carroll acknowledged. “But we had assurances from the state that they would do whatever they could to help us through the process.
Ultimately, however, the added bureaucratic complexity made the deal less attractive for Salisbury.
“If it wasn’t across districts, the conversation might have gone better,” said Nuceder.
Now that consolidation talks are officially off, both schools have future plans to consider — managing budgets, applying for education grants and raising operating and maintenance funds on their own.
And while Leicester was the party that stood to benefit most from a consolidation, Salisbury is not free from budgetary concerns. And for all small schools in Vermont, finding the money to operate may become a more difficult task: the state recently said it would consider doing away with small school grants to save money, which would increase the financial burden on the towns and taxpayers.
“I think that we’ll always have to consider (consolidation),” said Nuceder of Salisbury’s future plans. “We do have a new school and we are under capacity. It’ll just be a lot cleaner within supervisory union boundaries.”
But after three rounds of consolidation negotiations in Leicester, school board chair Hannah Sessions said the school is ready to pursue other fund-raising routes.
“It’s been two years that we’ve been in discussions with neighboring schools,” she said. “Now we’re ready to roll up our sleeves and make the best school we can with what we have.”
An unexpected benefit of the negotiations, said Sessions, has been an increase in the dialog about education in the community, which has been accompanied by the development of a very active parents’ group at Leicester Central. This, she said, is one of the school’s best hopes for raising money now.
“If we want these small schools to survive, it’s got to be a community effort,” she said. “Small schools are going to have to be really creative if they’re going to be at the same level as they were in the past.”
Sessions said that the succession of consolidation talks have taught her how difficult it is to change the way things work, but that it is best to keep moving when one plan falls through.
“It’s water under the bridge, and we need to move forward,” said Sessions.