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OVUU board advises against merger of Neshobe, Lothrop schools

BRANDON — The Otter Valley Unified Union School Board’s Finance Committee has recommended that the district abandon the idea of merging the Neshobe and Lothrop elementary schools.
Rutland Northeast Superintendent Jeanne Collins said in an interview Monday that the committee made its recommendation at a regular meeting on Dec. 6.
“The OVUU Finance Committee recommended not to pursue the Lothrop/Neshobe merger idea and they want more information about Idea No. 1,” Collins said. “They want me to bring back more ideas, so I will. I warned them, though, that more ideas means death by 1,000 cuts.”
By that, Collins said it means possible cuts to services and extracurricular activities.
Idea No. 1 is a proposal to merge and reconfigure the district’s three smaller schools, Sudbury, Whiting and Leicester.
Idea No. 2 regarding Neshobe School in Brandon and Lothrop Elementary School in Pittsford would have split kindergarten through third grade to one school and fourth through sixth to the other. It was one of the two “Big Ideas” discussed at two public meetings in the Otter Valley Unified School District recently.
Faced with a $1.6 million budget shortfall for the 2017-18 school budget and a 12-cent local tax hike, Collins proposed the ideas in order to cut $769,000 from the OVUU budget, at the RNeSU board’s request.
But there was significant resistance among those in attendance at the first meeting regarding the Neshobe/Lothrop merger idea. Parents and teachers alike were concerned about increased travel time on buses for the district’s youngest students who would be bused to a school farther away from home.
There was also widespread sentiment that the savings incurred from the Neshobe/Lothrop merger idea — losing three staff positions and adding a $55,000 increase in transportation costs for additional busing — would be negligible compared to the upheaval such a merger would cause in the local educational landscape.
Collins said now the OVUU Board is focused on the small school idea, as well as an ancillary option to create multi-age classrooms at Lothrop Elementary. Unlike the Neshobe School, where student enrollment is steady, numbers at Lothrop, like so many schools in Vermont, have been steadily declining. Class sizes are small, and Collins said creating multiage classrooms would save $170,000.
“It would result in the reduction of one classroom teacher at Lothrop and partial savings by having integrated arts teachers,” she said.
In addition, reconfiguring the three small schools would save an additional $210,000, for total savings between the two plans of $380,000.
None of the schools would close, Collins said. Under the Act 46 merger legislation that created the OVUU district two years ago in order to access tax credits, small schools cannot close for at least four years from the date of the merger.
The OVUU Finance Committee will bring its next set of recommendations to the OVUU Board at a regular meeting on Dec. 20 at 6 p.m. in the OV library.
More than 80 people attended the first public meeting on the proposed budget cuts, and Collins said that the Finance Committee based its recommendation to abandon the Neshobe/Lothrop merger idea based on public feedback received at those meetings. Collins said she was heartened by the turnout and hopes some of the ideas will move forward.
“I was pleased that many people were engaged and I’m hopeful that people will stay engaged,” she said. “So, we have to keep looking, but the small school idea values small schools and keeps them open in our communities. It would be hard if (taxpayers) rejected that idea.”

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