How many schools do we need? ACSD considers the future
MIDDLEBURY — Almost 100 Addison Central School District residents turned out at an April 17 forum in Middlebury to help shape a long-range plan for the district’s many buildings. The plan could ultimately recommend closure of one or more schools within the ACSD in order to reflect declining enrollment and the rising costs of public education.
It was the third of three “Building our Future” forums at which ACSD officials asked their constituents for help in deciding which of the district’s nine school buildings merit ongoing investment. A consulting firm called ReArch recently estimated those nine buildings — seven elementary schools, Middlebury Union Middle School, and Middlebury Union High School — need a combined total of $61.5 million in basic repairs and upgrades.
But before pitching a bond to start whittling away at the buildings’ capital needs, the ACSD board wants a facilities master plan in place to make sure the financial request is tailored to structures best positioned to serve Bridport, Cornwall, Middlebury, Ripton, Salisbury, Shoreham and Weybridge students during the next decade and beyond.
“The status quo of just continuing on as we are was unsustainable, from a bunch of different directions: economic, declining enrollment, per-pupil costs and taxes,” ACSD board Chairman Peter Conlon told the crowd at the MUHS auditorium.
District officials gave forum participants four potential options for whittling down the ACSD’s capital resources. Those options ranged from maintaining a single elementary school to serve all ACSD children, to keeping up to six of the current seven elementary buildings.
Conlon called the facilities review a commitment by the ACSD to “being stronger, together.” He likened the current facilities master planning process to that which led to the district consolidating its governance and budgeting system under Act 46, back in 2017. The ACSD is governed by a lone board that oversees a single, pre-K-12 education budget for all Middlebury-area schools. The ACSD used to be made up of nine separate school boards and budgets.
Soon after unification, the ACSD board looked at the prospect of sending the district’s 6th-graders to MUMS, to join grades 7 and 8. Officials believed such a move would lead to operational efficiencies, level the learning playing field for all 6th graders, and help the ACSD’s transition to an International Baccalaureate program.
While district officials chose not to proceed with the 6th-grade-to-MUMS idea, the study prompted them to take a closer look all ACSD facilities.
“We decided we needed to look at the (6th grade) question in a bigger context… and come up with a plan that addresses not only the needs of our 6th graders, but the needs of our schools and school buildings,” Conlon said.
The ACSD appointed a steering committee to help advance an ACSD facilities master plan.
“The idea would be to take a look at what we have and start thinking about what direction we could take for 10 years in the future,” Conlon said. “Rather than reacting to, ‘Next year, a family of four is leaving our town,’ or, ‘Our school roof needs to be replaced,’ we should really be thinking about how to create a system that plans for declining enrollment, the facilities needs we have for all of our buildings, and make decisions that are proactive, rather than reactive.”
Conlon shared a wealth of data on ACSD enrollment trends and on the current state of district buildings. Here are some highlights:
•ACSD schools had a combined K-12 enrollment of 1,861 students in 2008. That number has dwindled to 1,711 students this year, and is projected to further erode to 1,650 by 2023 and 1,635 by 2026.
“We are among the high spending districts, in terms of per-pupil costs, and that challenge will only continue — especially if we stay the way we are,” Conlon said.
•A 2017 analysis of each ACSD school building’s maintenance needs revealed MUHS has a backlog of around $7.3 million in work — more than any other school in the district. Mary Hogan Elementary is second on the list with around $5.8 million in deferred maintenance, followed by MUMS (around $1.9 million). (Click here to read our story on the upkeep needed at MUHS and MUMS.)
The Salisbury and Ripton schools need the fewest repairs, at $439,580 and $541,899, respectively. Both of those schools are less than 30 years old.
•Classrooms at all nine ACSD schools are operating at less than 75 percent capacity, according to district statistics. Bridport Central classrooms are operating at less than 25 percent capacity, according to district figures.
•Six of the ACSD’s seven elementary schools have fewer than 100 students. Elementary enrollment figures for all seven, as of September of 2018, were 58 in Bridport, 76 in Cornwall, 50 in Ripton, 90 in Salisbury, 81 in Shoreham, 55 in Weybridge, and 441 at Middlebury’s Mary Hogan school.
“We know that a bond will have to come for our district within several years in order to address some of these needs, so part of the reason for this master plan is to say, ‘OK, how can we best use the taxpayers’ money to not only be efficient, but also give our students the best possible experience we can for the money?’” Conlon said.
The district last November held an initial series of three community dialogues on the facilities subject. The board discussed that citizen feedback during a couple of retreats this past February, according to Conlon, and followed that up with the three public forums that wrapped up on April 17.
Plans call for the board to review the most recent public input and incorporate it in a facilities master plan that could be ready as soon as this summer.
OPTIONS TO CONSIDER
Participants at the April 17 forum spent much of their time divided into small groups to discuss the pros and cons of the four options they were asked to consider.
Here are the four options, and some of the pros and cons offered by forum participants:
1) Operate a single elementary school — likely an upgraded Mary Hogan building — to serve all the ACSD’s pre-K-6 students. This option, according to district officials, could save taxpayers around $2.4 million per year in operating costs.
Pros: Levels the educational playing field for all elementary students, leads to effective collaborations among teachers, saves resources.
Cons: Results in loss of six community schools, might contribute to larger class sizes, and could exacerbate morning and afternoon traffic in Middlebury. Also barring a creative transportation strategy, it could result in students from the more distant rural towns spending an hour or more on the school bus.
2) Maintain two elementary schools to serve district children. Those schools would likely include Mary Hogan and a new, centrally located school building, officials said. This would result in around $2.1 million in yearly operating costs.
Pros: Achieves administrative efficiencies, offers more than one school choice, creates a new modern school.
Cons: Requires investing in a new building, doesn’t guarantee equity in education for all elementary students.
3) Support three existing elementary schools, which could save the district $1.6 million each year.
4) Maintain four to six elementary schools, producing an estimated $1.2 million in yearly operating costs.
Those rating options three and four highest said they liked the idea of preserving more elementary schools, though they conceded those scenarios would produce the least savings for taxpayers.
It should be noted that each of the four options would still require short- and long-term capital investments in ACSD school buildings. For example, Option 3 would require an outlay of $1.3 million for immediate repairs, followed by a long-term (bond) commitment of $19 million-$22 million, according the ACSD.
Folks most opposed to the notion of closing schools warned it would be costly to reopen a school. They also voiced concerns about the loss of community — and property values — in towns in which local schools are shuttered.
The Independent asked three participants at the April 17 meeting to share their views on the future of ACSD schools.
Carol Ford served many years on the Ripton School Board, including several as its chairperson. Like many folks in Ripton, Ford is proud of her community’s school and is concerned that it — as one of the smallest in the district — might find itself on the chopping block.
“It’s in good shape,” she said of the Ripton School, adding she believes local enrollment is stabilizing. She’s noticed more young families moving in who are citing the presence of the local school as a major reason for their settlement choice.
“Schools are the community center,” she said.
Ford wonders if the steep climb up Route 125 from Middlebury to Ripton might unduly influence planners, in terms of the perceived value of the school.
“For some reason, the five miles up the hill seems twice as long as the 10 miles to Shoreham,” she said.
Tim Hanson has served Ripton in many civic capacities, including as its former town clerk. His daughter attended Ripton Elementary, and he hopes his two grandchildren will someday.
“We have a strong emotional attachment (to the school),” Hanson said.
Ultimately, he said the district will have to come to grips with how much it would be willing to spend to keep elementary schools — such as Ripton’s — open. The ACSD has an annual budget of around $35 million.
“For $1 million more, are we going to disrupt the communities?” he asked.
While he agrees student enrollment is in decline, he recalled projections during the 1990s that Ripton School would have “80-100 students” at this point.
“Predicting the future is a fool’s game,” Hanson said.
Like Ford, he’s concerned the loss of the local school might send a bad message to prospective young residents.
Meanwhile, Middlebury resident Kurt Broderson has no worries about Mary Hogan Elementary closing, but he can relate to concerns expressed by other ACSD residents.
“I’ve certainly heard and understand the worries in the small towns about their schools closing,” he said. “It’s an emotional issue.”
Broderson originally hails from New Jersey, where he said a school of 400 is still considered very small. He sees the advantages of consolidating elementary grades into a couple of schools — perhaps K-2 in one, and grades 3-6 in another.
“If you have all of one grade at a single school, you can have equity,” he said.
While this round of “Building our Future” forums is over, the ACSD is still accepting comments and questions by email at [email protected] Also, for more information visit the acsdvt.org website.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]
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