Time quickly dwindling for local school boards: Final 10-month terms lack takers

MIDDLEBURY — Town Meeting Day business is most often about beginnings — the start of a political career, the minting of a new budget or the launching of a new program.
But Town Meeting Day ballots in the seven Addison Central School District (ACSD) towns on Tuesday will signal an end of what has been, in some cases, a centuries-old tradition of local school boards.
In short, residents in the ACSD towns of Bridport, Cornwall, Middlebury, Ripton, Salisbury, Shoreham and Weybridge will be asked to support candidates running for the last 10 months in the history of their local elementary school boards, along with the UD-3 school board that has governed Middlebury Union middle and high schools.
Come July 1, the newly unified ACSD board will officially assume all functions now the duty of the local boards. This transition in school governance is spelled out in Vermont’s Act 46, which has been embraced by all Addison County communities except Orwell at this point — and Orwell is considering the measure again on Tuesday.
Based on advice from legal counsel, the local Addison Central boards will stop meeting by the end of June. They’ll spend the next four months tending to such things as student discipline, employee complaints, and a final audit. After that, the boards will remain constituted until Dec. 31, in case they are needed to tie up any legal loose ends.
“There is the sense of the end of an era,” said Ripton Elementary School board member Bryan Alexander.
While he has every confidence the ACSD board will represent Ripton’s educational interests, Alexander and his counterparts on other local panels said it will seem strange to no longer be meeting monthly at the town’s elementary school to deal with education matters at the grassroots level.
“I’ll miss that,” he said.
Alexander hopes Ripton residents will remain just as vocal and invested in their school through the unified board.
“I have a persistent concern this shift … could reduce the amount of local input, control and involvement in the school,” Alexander said. “I have a lot of confidence in the new ACSD board and have hopes for them, but (local involvement) is a long-term concern.”
Alexander and other local school board members shared their thoughts as they prepare to become the last in a long line of school directors in their communities. Consolidation is the watchword these days in Vermont public schools, in the interest of efficiency and in light of declining enrollment.
Sixty years ago, the conversation in Vermont was about closing multiple one-room schoolhouses in each community in favor of single, central elementary school in each town.
Now, with Act 46, it’s about merging education governance to encourage shared resources and global budgeting in an effort to contain rising school costs.
Needless to say, the final 10-month, lame-duck terms on the local boards have not drawn much interest among candidates. For example, all three positions up for grabs on the UD-3 board have no takers. Folks just aren’t keen on signing up for a post that will offer little more than a historical footnote.
Peter Conlon, chairman of the UD-3 board, said the panel’s only possible actions before June 30 will revolve around student discipline, school property issues and labor-related inquiries.
Conlon also chairs the unified ACSD board — which he believes is the wave of the future.
“While this change is bittersweet as it marks the end of the local school budget meeting, it is ushering in an era when we think of our school kids as part of a bigger learning community, just as we do for our older students,” he said. “It has also created a much more nimble school governance system that makes improvement and innovation easier and faster.”
Ruth Hardy chairs Middlebury’s Mary Hogan Elementary School board, also known as the ID-4 board. Middlebury has had a local school board for 151 years, according to Hardy. The board — which once made pivotal budget, programming and personnel decisions — is now meeting every other month with less rigorous duties.
Recent meetings have included staff presentations on current school programs, along with talks about the transition to the unified ACSD board.
Hardy, also a member of the ACSD board, continues to believe that school governance unification is the right move for Middlebury-area schools. But she acknowledged she will feel a sense of loss when the ID-4 board sunsets.
“There’s kind of a bittersweet feeling,” Hardy said. “We know this should happen and it’s a good thing … but it’s also sad.”
She noted the ID-4 board has provided an important vehicle for women to make inroads in local elected positions.
“It’s been a source of civic leadership for women in our community,”  Hardy said. “The ID-4 board has been chaired by a woman for at least three-and-a-half decades. Our other boards in town — the UD-3 board and the selectboard — I don’t know if they have ever had a female chair. I think the ID-4 board has played this important role for women’s leadership in our community. I see myself as part of that tradition, and I feel honored to think about the women who came before me.”
The ID-4 board was scheduled to hold its final annual meeting on Sunday, March 5, at which members planned to thank area residents who made substantial contributions to the Mary Hogan School over the years.
Carol Ford has been a Ripton school director since 1985. There were times she thought about stepping down, but community members kept urging her to extend her stay.
“Quite honestly, I love the Ripton school,” Ford said. “Staying on has been an easy decision.”
Now that decision is out of her hands — and she’s fine with that. Ford said she has faith in the ACSD board and administration to represent the best interest of Ripton students. Ford also hopes the ACSD board will reach out to Ripton citizens.
“It’s important for the ACSD board to get community input so they are not operating in a vacuum” she said.
Suzanne Buck is vice chairwoman of the Bridport Central School board, and is also her community’s representative on the ACSD board. She and her colleagues are committed to phasing out the Bridport school board and helping local residents understand how their school will be managed by the ACSD panel.
“We meet, and sometimes we don’t have a lot of business, but we enjoy each others’ company and educational conversations that we have,” Buck said. “That something I have always held dear and I will miss come December when our board stops meeting.”
Sarah Kemp chairs Cornwall’s Bingham Memorial School board. She and her colleagues are completing various projects they started, knowing their timeline is short. But Kemp is confident Cornwall’s educational interests will be well represented by the ACSD board.
“I think this is a huge step, but I believe because of the people we have elected to put in place, it will be positive,” Kemp said.
“It will be hard in some ways for people to get used to not being so closely connected in the way we have been connected, but I also think a lot has been put in motion so we can be connected in other ways,” Kemp said, citing the parent-teacher organizations as an example.
“I think there is definitely a sense of this chapter coming to a close, but we also have some big things to finish up,” Kemp said. “There have been things to keep us busy.”
No elected board members in Addison Central will be more affected by school governance consolidation than Lorraine Morse of Middlebury. The breadth of her public service during the past decade is mind-boggling. She serves simultaneously on the ID-4, UD-3, Addison Central SU and Patricia Hannaford Career Center boards.
Oh, and by the way, she also serves on the new ACSD board.
Morse will have some additional free nights, as her ID-4, UD-3 and ACSU board commitments will soon end.
“I think it is bittersweet, especially for the people who have been on these boards for a while,” Morse said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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