Addison forum looks at education options
ADDISON — A Thursday meeting called by an Addison resident and opponent of Addison Northwest Supervisory Union unification drew 16 other town residents to Addison Central School, but most who attended said they backed unification and were skeptical of the other options, a private town academy and/or a voucher system.
The headmaster of The Mountain School at Winhall, Daren Houck, also said on Friday that some statements in the flyer promoting the meeting and made at the meeting by organizer Carol Kauffman about the intentions of Mountain School officials were inaccurate.
Still, most attendees agreed they would be willing to come to another forum about the town academy option that would have as presenters officials of The Mountain School, a town academy in southern Vermont, as long as the benefits of public schools were also presented at the same time.
Kauffman said she had met with the Mountain School principal and board chairman, and they said they would consider sharing curriculum and business costs with a school in this area.
“I said, ‘Would you create a sister school here,’ and they are interested,” she said.
Resident Dick Catlin said he was skeptical about the town academy option, but would attend a forum with Mountain School representatives, assuming “state school board officials” also presented the other side of the story.
Others expressed even stronger doubt. Several noted that private schools, including the Mountain School, are run by non-elected boards that would mean Addison residents would have little say about school operations.
Resident Jack Miller noted the Mountain School board is “self-selected and self-perpetuating.” Resident Peter Jensen gave public education a vote of confidence. He said through voting on boards and budgets and public meetings residents could have feedback on all aspects of the town’s school.
“With a public school I have more control over all of these areas than any other options discussed,” Jensen said. “What I don’t want to lose is control.”
Kauffman called the meeting with a flyer sent to many Addison residents. In it she quoted Houck and Mountain School board chairman Chuck Scranton. The flyer focused on the long-term future of education in Addison, ANwSU unification and the town academy option, and called for a “local grassroots effort to consider our town’s interest while reforming education.”
In an interview Friday, Houck applauded Addison for making the effort to evaluate what is best for its children, and said Mountain School officials wanted solely to provide information about one option that might work for the town.
“We respect the sovereignty of Addison,” said the Mountain School headmaster. “We are in no way trying to intervene.”
Houck took issue with several of Kauffman’s statements. He pointed to one in the flyer, signed by Kauffman, that stated, “Daren and his board are interested in partnering with us, maybe creating our own RED (Regional Educational District, a first step toward an independent private school).”
First, Houck said only the town and its residents can create a RED, but more importantly the Mountain School board has not only never considered a partnership with Addison, it has never heard of it. Scranton and Houck met with Kauffman in September, he said, and talked in general terms, and Scranton described the process to her then.
“This is another misquote … She talked to one individual (on the board). The board is not interested because the board has not taken up the conversation … He made it very clear that it is a trustee issue. We would need to meet. We would need to plan,” he said. “Our trustees would need to do all kinds of investigation … He made it clear that it is a very detailed process.”
Houck said that Kauffman’s statement at the end of Thursday’s meeting that the Mountain School would share its curriculum, business manager and cost savings through an insurance program was also misleading.
“Those were responses to her question to how you could save money. Those were hypothetical questions,” he said.
Houck also said the flyer had inaccurately characterized the purpose of his visit late last year to Addison to discuss the Mountain School. The flyer stated, “Because of union opposition that night, Daren was not able to delve into a conversation about the possibility of a town academy opening in Addison.”
Houck said: “That wasn’t my purpose. I was just asked to speak about what a town academy is … That was the purpose of my presentation, and I did achieve my purpose.
“I would applaud (Addison) for looking at every option they are looking at. I personally agree with the town academy model … but it’s your town and your choice,” he added.
Still, Houck is willing to return to Addison to share his belief in the benefits of school choice and independent schools, but said only “…as a paid consultant.”
“I would not come as a representative of the Mountain School,” he said.
Other attendees described the transition to a town academy, which would involve closing ACS, as too risky. Others noted the Mountain School and the town of Winhall, which funds that school’s transportation and special education costs and educational vouchers for town residents, has run up a debt variously described on Thursday as $550,000 or $600,000.
Kauffman said Winhall, near the Stratton Mountain resort, has many second homes. Owners of those homes have claimed residency, she said, and been awarded vouchers, pushing costs up; better start-up rules in Addison could answer that problem.
Others, like Miller and Catlin, objected to a board running the school that was not chosen by townwide vote.
Resident Elizabeth Armstrong said the financial and representation issues could be resolved with a different approach in Addison.
“We need to look at their mistakes (in Winhall) and not make them again,” Armstrong said.
Debate on unification broke on similar lines as at other meetings in the past year-and-a-half. Addison farmer Paul Boivin urged those present to consider that Addison’s school is in better condition than the other ANwSU elementary schools and carries a much lower debt load.
Because unification calls for surrender of school ownership to the union, he opposes the move.
“The problem I have with unification is that fact we have taken care of the infrastructure, and the infrastructure is completely paid for,” he said. “It’s not just about the education. It’s about the assets of the town.”
Boivin, who also suggested consolidating supervisory unions instead of internal operations within unions, also argued for a step back to find a fresh, long-term approach to education in Addison.
“We’ve only looked at that box, at unification, and not all the options,” he said.
Elizabeth Wojciechowski, who has two children in Addison Central, worried that unification would mean the certain closure of ACS.
“If I wanted my kids to go to school in Vergennes, I would have bought in Vergennes,” Wojciechowski said.
ACS board member Jill Bourgeois pointed out that the new law (Act 153) encouraging school unification and consolidation forbids any school closings for the first four years of unification, and that Wojciechowski’s children would never go to elementary school in Vergennes.
ANwSU officials also say they have no intention of closing ACS, but that unification would help the school stay open by cutting costs there, and by allowing nearby residents of Panton to attend. A per-pupil spending penalty now being imposed on Addison would disappear under unification, and lower taxes under Act 153 would help ACS reverse the trend of staff and spending cuts.
“Addison kids are losing services every years,” said resident Peter Reynolds, also the Vergennes Union High School co-principal.
Kauffman said school choice in the form of vouchers would be a better answer.
“That’s what the entire United States is struggling with,” she said. “Why shouldn’t parents choose their kids’ school?”
ACS board member Michelle Kelly responded shortly afterward.
“Without a viable public school in Addison, there is no choice,” she said.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.