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Editorial: Will we seek changes in our school district or fight for the status quo?

Over the past several months the Addison Central School District has held a series of public forums at which district residents have discussed the future use of its nine school buildings. Specifically, whether the district should continue to maintain and use all seven of its elementary school buildings along with its middle and high schools, or reduce the number of elementary schools.
On the immediate horizon is the need for $61.5 million for basic repairs and upgrades to those nine buildings, if all are kept in use. But before the unified school board dove into such a maintenance plan, it asked district residents if keeping all the schools in use was the most cost-effective approach that also best served students.
That has been a wise move, not because the district is any closer to answering the question, but because it brings district residents head-on into a discussion about needed change.
Here’s the reality: as property taxes in the district keep rising, it limits the number of young families who can afford to move into the district; as student numbers fall, state aid falls, which again means property taxes rise. It’s the economic effect of a downward spiral that is difficult to reverse. Not to mention that as student numbers fall in smaller schools, the cost effectiveness is substantially diminished. And as programs are subject to cost cutting or dropped from a lack of attendance, student performance can decline.
That’s a tough row to hoe for much longer. As a story in Monday’s Addison Independent reported, among the seven elementary school buildings most are underutilized. Middlebury’s Mary Hogan elementary school is highest at about 70 percent capacity, while Bridport Elementary is lowest at less than 25 percent, with most of the other elementary schools operating at 50-55 percent capacity.
Meanwhile, as school board chairman Peter Conlon said at the third of three public forums held last week: “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.”
Translation: The status quo is not an appealing option.
The downside, which is the 800-pound gorilla in the room, is the impact to the community if its elementary school closes.
That possibility was front and center when more than 100 district residents considered these four options presented by the board last week: consolidate all elementary schools into one (probably at Mary Hogan, currently at 441 students); maintain two elementary schools (Mary Hogan and one other); maintain three elementary schools; and finally, maintain four to six elementary schools.
The arguments opposed were as expected: there’s worry about the amount of time students might spend on buses, and there’s the loss to the community’s identity and cohesiveness. “Schools are the community center,” said Carol Ford, who has spent many years on the Ripton School Board. Added Ripton resident Tim Hanson: “We have a strong emotional attachment to the school… For $1 million more, are we going to disrupt the communities.”
That million dollars more is per year, by the way, and comes from estimates provided for the four options. Savings by consolidating all six schools into Mary Hogan was estimated to save $2.4 million in annual operational costs; moving into two elementary schools would save $2.1 million; $1.6 million would be saved moving into three schools and $1.2 million annually if the district maintained four to six elementary schools. That doesn’t include upfront costs to make that happen. If all students moved into Mary Hogan Elementary, for example, that would create a school of about 850 students in a facility designed (at one time) for about 650. Additional space would obviously have to be built.
Then there is the foreboding matter of what towns would do with the current school facilities if they are not used for their current purpose.
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But this is a gloomy forecast only if we want it to be, only if we can’t imagine something better.
What if a combination of school mergers yielded an annual, long-term operational savings of $2.1 million? What if, the district used that savings for the first five-10 years to repurpose the school buildings that were vacated into productive community and/or educational centers? That’s $10 million to $20 million that could conceivably be put into those community facilities to create state-of-art tech centers for adult education, for example, or a child care facility combined with a tele-commuter hub that attracts new families to town? New legislation might have to be considered to give districts such leeway, but those are options to consider.
And what if the larger elementary schools offered more class options, including languages, more science and math and computer programming—giving our students a needed boost in a world that we know will demand more advanced tech learning each and every year?
And what if taxes stabilized and stopped their upward march?
When confronted with the status quo—schools facing declining enrollments, cuts to programs, diminished student outcomes, and higher and higher taxes—surely we can imagine a world in which school mergers occur and yet our towns remain vibrant and even more prosperous.
In change there is opportunity. The question is, will we seek it or fight its coming?
Angelo Lynn

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