Smaller towns rally behind their schools as ACSD weighs future

MIDDLEBURY — Addison Central School District (ACSD) directors on Monday heard more pleas from area residents opposed to the notion of school consolidations. And board members served notice that any decision to close one or more of the district’s seven elementary schools won’t come this year.
More than 30 people — ranging from toddlers to septuagenarians — gathered in front of Mary Hogan Elementary School Monday evening to send a unified message to ACSD board members as they entered the building for their meeting: Don’t close any of the district’s rural schools.
Several of those assembled were from Ripton, home to one of the smallest (50 students) of the member elementary schools. ACSD also encompasses elementary schools in Bridport, Cornwall, Middlebury, Ripton, Salisbury, Shoreham and Weybridge. Attendees conveyed their sentiments, in part, through a variety of signs.
“Our school is the heart of our community,” read one sign.
“Invest in our children,” read another.
“When will our kids come first?” and “Bigger doesn’t equal better” were among other messages emblazoned on poster boards held aloft for the massed to see.
Around a dozen of the protesters joined the school board meeting to continue their lobbying efforts in a debate that will likely spill into next year, according to ACSD officials. The school board has set a goal of completing a facilities master plan this summer, a document that will inventory ACSD’s many buildings and recommend which of those assets should be improved and which could be shuttered to meet the district’s public education priorities during the next decade.
The ACSD board in April held three public meetings to explain the district’s shrinking enrollment and financial challenges and get feedback on the concept of closing one or more rural schools in order to consolidate the smaller student population into fewer buildings as a way to save resources.
Board members, with the aid of a consultant, pitched four consolidation concepts, including:
•Operating a single elementary school — likely an upgraded Mary Hogan building — to serve all the ACSD’s pre-K-6 students.
•Maintaining two elementary schools to serve district children. Those schools would likely include Mary Hogan and a new, centrally-located school building, officials said.
•Supporting three existing elementary schools.
•Preserving four to six elementary schools.
Officials said closing one or more of the seven ACSD elementary schools could save taxpayers millions, but they also acknowledged consequences — including increased traffic at consolidated schools, and more complicated (and lengthy) bus rides for some students. Some residents also look upon their local school as a community hub for more than just education.
Regardless of how the consolidation debate plays out, district officials served notice that taxpayers will field a school improvement bond issue in the near future.
As a Middlebury resident, Angela Scavo isn’t facing the prospect of seeing her local elementary school (Mary Hogan) close. But she believes parents and children in surrounding communities would be negatively affected by school consolidations.
“I’m here in solidarity,” Scavo said on Monday. “I think our small schools are an asset. I think this is a matter of money, and our kids should take priority over budget.”
Scavo believes district taxpayers would be willing to pay extra to keep the ACSD’s rural schools open. She also urged school directors to look for budget savings — as opposed to property tax increases — as a way to help keep buildings open.
“I think our towns are going to suffer if they keep losing their schools,” she said.
As a Mary Hogan parent, Scavo is concerned about the potential for increased class sizes if the school is asked to absorb a lot of students from surrounding towns.
“I do worry about Mary Hogan getting bigger and not be able, capacity-wise, to hold those kids,” she said. “But it’s also a matter of quality of education.”
Ripton resident Wendy Leeds warned ACSD directors that closing elementary schools could be a shortsighted move. She noted the district’s current transition to the International Baccalaureate program. The ACSD will be the first pre-K-12 public school district in Vermont to adopt an IB curriculum, and that status could pull more families into the district, according to Leeds.
“One could argue it would make us extremely attractive,” she said of IB certification. “I wonder if people might end up moving into this area to have that be an option for their children… I hope that’s taken into consideration when we’re thinking about so-called declining enrollment.”
Leeds also urged district officials to cultivate pre-K programs as a way of filling unused elementary school space.
“There aren’t that many schools offering pre-K programs, and I think if we were to look at that, that would be another way to get numbers up,” Leeds said.
She joined other Ripton residents in noting Ripton Elementary is one of the newer and best-maintained school buildings in the ACSD. Abandoning such an asset wouldn’t be a wise move, according to Leeds.
“The idea of closing some schools where people have worked hard to make sure the buildings have stayed in good shape, in favor of buildings that maybe aren’t in that situation for whatever reasons, feels like something that needs to be said,” Leeds said.
Leeds invited school directors to tour Ripton Elementary on May 23, when the school will host a community lunch that will include student performances.
Student Elias Pike, a recent graduate of Ripton Elementary, urged the board to keep his former school open.
“In large schools, kids are spread out more, and don’t really get a chance to know each other,” Pike said. “I think in small schools, where kids are closer together, they can form better relationships with each other.”
Lindsey Hescock is the parent of a Mary Hogan student. She urged the ACSD board to hold additional public meetings before any vote to close a school, if the panel chooses to go that route. Hescock also encouraged the board to further define the four possible closure scenarios it released last month.
The ACSD board has the power to close a school, after holding public hearings on such a proposal.
“Thank you for being so thoughtful and plan-ful about the process,” Hescock told the board. “I hope you’re going to listen to the people here tonight, as you have been doing all along. Not everyone will be happy, but I think we can come up with a solution that will meet the needs of our students.”
Ripton resident Laura McIntosh attended one of last month’s public forums on the ACSD facilities master plan. She said a Middlebury resident at that meeting told her he didn’t want to pay extra taxes to keep smaller schools — like Ripton’s — open. That comment, she said, made her question that ACSD’s motto for the future of its schools: “Stronger together.”
“Is this what ‘stronger together’ means?” she said. “It feels like we’re pitting towns against each other.”
McIntosh touted the good condition of Ripton’s school and its long menu of educational offerings — including foreign languages.
“Please slow down the process of school closures,” she told the board.
Former ACSD board member Steve Orzech of Middlebury said his former colleagues are in a difficult position. They’re hearing from people who don’t want their local schools closed, while folks who say their property taxes are too high are also weighing in.
“There are some cold, hard numbers out there and these people are trying their best to stay within those guidelines,” Orzech said of the school board. “If you think this protest is large, wait until that hits double-taxes and see how many people come out.”
ACSD staff recently finished sorting out the many public comments received at the previous facilities master plan meetings. A steering committee will now begin to distill and organize that information for the board.
The board on May 28 will meet with its consultant to chart a path for developing the master plan this summer.
“It will be mapping out ‘decision points,’” said ACSD board chairman Peter Conlon.
School capacity, school choice, a facilities improvement bond, how to best accommodate district 6th graders, and how to evaluate ACSD buildings will be among the many issues the board will need to sort out during the coming weeks, according to Conlon.
“It’s going to be a long process, but boy that time will go quickly,” Conlon said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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