Editorial: Can’t ignore the issue

It’s not news that Vermont’s demographics show a loss of young people along with an aging population. It’s been trending that way for years. What should be shocking, however, is to vocalize the extent of that swing. Between 2000 and 2017, Vermont witnessed a 23 percent drop in school age children. We now have 30,000 fewer K-12 students than the state did 20 years ago. 
We’ve all heard Gov. Phil Scott recite the numbers, as did Gov. Jim Douglas when he warned about this demographic trend a decade ago. But we’ve nodded our heads, said, “yeah but what can we do about it,” and then gone on to the next topic.
We need to do more. We need to internalize what it means and make it local.
In Addison County, the demographic swing has been even more dramatic.
As a story reported in last Monday’s Addison Independent, Addison County saw a 31 percent drop in school age children from 2000-2017, while the county also saw a 73 percent gain in seniors over 65.
The breakout by school district was also instructive: Addison Central School District (the seven towns flowing into Middlebury Union High School) lost 22 percent; Addison Northwest (Vergennes Union High School) saw a drop of 35 percent; and while numbers were not available at Mount Abe (Bristol and the Five-Town area), simple math suggests the loss has to be close to 30 percent or higher. 
That’s no trifling matter, and the hope in publishing this information in front page stories is to prod a more concerted response from our local communities. What we know by now is we can’t sit idly by hoping the state will miraculously do something to stem the tide and encourage a younger demographic to call Addison County home. As school districts and within each of our 23 communities, it’s up to us to make constructive moves.
Where should we start? Here are a few ideas: 
• Let’s organize around school districts to develop three-or-four (Otter Valley could be included) working groups to focus on one thing: making sure Addison County schools are the top performing in the state. Why? Because if you offer a quality public education, you can attract families; if your schools are low-performing, no matter what else you try to do, you’re toast.
• Let use those same multi-town discussion groups to rethink how we integrate those 65 and over into the community in the most productive way possible. If we have a 73 gain in those over 65 who have moved to Addison County because they find the intellectual, arts and outdoor recreational opportunities exciting, they’re not here to sit idly by. They are active people and would likely leap at the opportunity (at least for a few years) to help the community thrive in any way they could — mentorships (academic, business start-ups, or professional). There are hundreds of ways to use their talents to improve the well-being of the county and we’re remiss not to pursue that in a more productive way.
Similarly, we live in a college community and benefit greatly from the interaction with those students. As businesses we should be open to internships and other ways to engage those students and give them a taste of working in Addison County and Vermont. 
While the task of stemming the loss of that school age demographic is intimidating, there are solutions and hope. In last Thursday’s second part of this three-part series, reporter Sarah Asch (a January intern from Middlebury College), reached out to students, colleges and statewide business groups — and she reports on good things already happening. Young people do want to stay here, if good jobs can be found. Colleges and business groups encourage internships, though not enough are offered.
And most recently at the Legislature, Sen. Ruth Hardy, D-Addison County, is a cosponsor of a new bill to provide Vermont high school graduates with up to 10 semesters of in-state college tuition free. “We have one of the lowest investments in higher education in the country,” Hardy said. “I’m hoping that if we reduce the cost of attending college, and reduce the debt load of attending college, more students will choose not only to stay in Vermont but go to college in the first place.” It’s a great idea, if the state can afford it, because we know that 80 percent of in-state students who go on to college stay in Vermont; that’s a darn good return on investment.
And that’s just for starters. 
What we can’t afford to do (as communities) is ignore the problem — and that’s what we’ve done for the past several years. We can’t expect the state alone to solve the problem. We need community leaders to understand that market forces alone won’t create the momentum needed for a rebirth — a good part of the solution will depend on how proactively we use the resources (human and natural) around us. 

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