Editorial: Howls of protest, rightly made

The outpouring of support for the smaller elementary schools within the Addison Central Supervisory Union this past couple of weeks is not unexpected. The district school board surely anticipated the howls of protest and, perhaps, would have been concerned had the angst been more subdued.
As we stated in a previous editorial, the board deserves kudos for putting the issue on the table in a thoughtful way. They did that by appointing a steering committee last November and hiring a consultant to develop a district-wide facilities master plan, and then holding three public forums this spring that drew large crowds.
In that study, the board learned that it would need about $61.5 million in basic repairs and upgrades to keep the district’s nine buildings — seven elementary schools, a middle school and high school — in good repair. The board could have decided to barge ahead, specify the needed improvements and try to pass a bond in that amount. But, wisely, they agreed they should first assess whether it was the wisest move to retain all nine buildings since enrollment was on the decline.
To that end, the consultant and the steering committee devised four scenarios in which one or more of the district’s smaller elementary schools would be closed. (Click here to read our story.) It was the news needed to spark a call to action, as demonstrated by public protests and numerous thoughtful and passionate letters to the editor.
Residents of those smaller towns are right to be on edge. Looking at schools from an economic and academic perspective, the determining objectives can be boiled down to: 1) cost of operation and, 2) student performance; that is, how much does it cost to educate each student and how does that student’s performance compare to others.
Those are also the metrics that should most matter to taxpayers and parents of students.
No one questions that elementary schools are the heart and souls of most rural towns, and that’s certainly the case in the ACSU district. Shutting down any one school would be a substantial loss for that community. But, like it or not, economic efficiency is a determining factor. Consider Whiting, Granville or Hancock, all towns that have closed their one-or-two room schoolhouses in recent years. Granville closed its school in 2009 with 22 kids K-4, while Hancock closed in 2005 with 24 students K-5. Reality is, at some point there will be a number at which the school isn’t serving either the community or the students well.
The ACSU board’s purpose in broaching the issue now is to act pro-actively, and not have that discussion at the last minute should that day come.
To that end, the board will meet with its consultant on May 28 to outline a path for developing the master facilities plan. Such mapping, ACSD board chairman Peter Conlon said, would be based on “decision points,” which will focus on school capacity, school choice, a facilities improvement bond, how to best accommodate district 6th graders, and how to evaluate ACSD buildings, among other factors. Residents should also know that any decision on closing a school is a year or more away. There is time to discuss viable courses of action, but the time to start is now.
It’s also true that where there’s difficulty, there’s opportunity — and that’s the case with the district’s small towns. One opportunity is to actively advocate for growth, and especially seek young families with school age kids.
In several letters to the editor and comments in stories, residents claim that smaller schools provide a superior education for certain families, and that these towns are the very places that can woo families from other locales to live a charmed life. We wholeheartedly agree.
The challenge is to prove the point. What’s interesting is that towns like Middlebury have expended substantial tax dollars, and effort, to try to lure new businesses and new families to the area; and those residents pay for the infrastructure (town water and wastewater treatment facilities) to make the town attractive to new growth — or, at least, try to keep from losing families to other locales. But the district’s smaller towns rarely do. What these towns have to grasp is they have a partial responsibility to fill their schools. Zoning ordinances might need to be tweaked to encourage new building, subtle initiatives could be started to market their charms to the right audiences; a welcome committee could be formed to meet prospective homeowners.
It wouldn’t be hard. There is ample charm, there’s a regional economic development corporation to help any town in the county put its name and assets on the roster for those in the market, and there are town residents with the passion to drive such initiatives. And a few families — just five to 10 — could make a huge difference.
The issue, don’t forget, is that some of these elementary schools have seen their enrollments decline so they are no longer cost efficient. There’s a big difference between 76 students 20 years ago and 50 students today, especially when one factors in the state aid that is lost as enrollment declines. Simply put, the best solution is to fill each school to capacity.
That’s easier said than done, of course, but the challenge is at least partly theirs.
As long as we’re talking about best-case scenarios, the school board should give credence to the desirability of having a school district of seven elementary schools filled to capacity. Such a district provides a range of options for families who might want to live in a town with a small school in the mountains, or a small school in the western plains, or a larger school like Middlebury’s Mary Hogan. That may not be the most cost-efficient way to run a school district, but a wide range of options could draw the most newcomers and be the best model for the district’s overall economic vitality.
Given the demographic trends, that’s not in the cards anytime soon, but it once was and could be again. The district should also recognize that closing a school likely eliminates a community’s ability to grow or retain its vibrancy. It is, then, not a move to be taken lightly.
There are other ways to keep these elementary schools from closing. Consolidation could mean combining classes to a suitable teacher-pupil ratio, and using the vacant parts of the school building for pre-school and/or infant care. In some elementary schools in Vermont, senior centers share space in the same building, which allows for a healthy mix of generations to great advantage to both.
The worst-case scenario is simply to shutter a school building, but that can be avoided in many ways with just a smidgeon of imagination.
Angelo Lynn

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