Declining enrollments put schools in a bind

WEYBRIDGE — Weybridge and Ripton education leaders are joining a growing statewide conversation about declining student enrollment and how to maintain vibrant local schools in the face of graying demographics.
Weybridge Elementary School currently serves around 70 students this year, a number thankfully bolstered by 10 new enrollees who joined the ranks this fall, noted school board Chairman Steve Reigle. But that number could decline to a total of around 30 students by the 2012-2013 academic year, officials said.
Meanwhile, Ripton Elementary’s enrollment — which recently was as high as 72 students — has dropped below 50 and the general outlook is for numbers to gradually shrink further.
“It’s been a recurring work item, to keep trying to talk about this,” Ripton school board member Willem Jewett said of declining enrollment. “Our goal is to keep delivering (elementary) education here in town, but we have to ask, ‘How do we do that?’”
It’s a question that an increasing number of Vermont communities — including some in Addison County — have been fielding these days. Vermont’s school-age population was estimated at 107,000 students in 1998; by 2013, that number is expected to drop below 90,000, according to Vermont Department of Education statistics provided by Addison Central Supervisory Union Superintendent Lee Sease.
Vermont Education Commissioner Armando Villaseca has suggested consolidating schools and reducing administration, among other things, in response to declining enrollment. Locally, Granville and Hancock merged their two school districts in 2004, but last spring opted to tuition their students to schools in other towns. In the past few years, proposed school consolidations involving Salisbury and Leicester; and Whiting, Sudbury Leicester, both failed to gain enough support.
“I think we are going to see a big conversation about the future of governance of our schools and how we run our schools,” Sease said.
Weybridge school directors recently began discussing possible solutions to declining enrollment, with the goal of presenting their findings to, and asking for additional ideas from, the community.
Weybridge’s menu of potential options include talking consolidation with a neighboring school district (such as Cornwall); determining whether a single principal could administer two district schools (including Weybridge); or closing the school and sending students to another community, such as Mary Hogan Elementary in Middlebury.
“It is better to discuss this now than in 2012,” said Reigle, the Weybridge school board chairman. “We want to educate ourselves on the options right now. Then, there will probably be a series of discussions where the town will participate.
“Anything we would do would require a town vote,” he stressed.
Weybridge Elementary Principal Christina Johnston agreed that it is to the community’s advantage to bring its citizens into the enrollment conversation at an early stage.
“Putting people’s thinking together puts them in a position of problem solving, rather than anxiousness,” she said.
Reigle noted the ACSU has asked the Vermont School Boards Association to conduct a “governance study” for the entire district to get a broad picture of the enrollment picture and options.
Johnston noted that the school now has a large group of 25 fourth-graders moving through. It is their departure that will contribute to the big decline in local student numbers in 2012.
But Weybridge officials stressed that enrollment in small towns can be volatile. A few large families moving into town could suddenly change the enrollment dynamics of the school for several years.
“In the blink of an eye, it can change,” Reigle said.
Meanwhile, in Ripton, school directors also expect student numbers to remain a prime conversation topic. Ideally, the school would like to have around 60 students, Jewett said. He noted that by virtue of its geography and population, Ripton really doesn’t have a convenient neighbor with which to consolidate school operations.
Ripton is paying off its school building debt this year. With that in mind, Jewett said it would be very ironic if the town were to ultimately conclude that a local school was no longer viable.
“It would feel odd to pay off the bond and then take such a direction,” Jewett said.

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