Letter to the editor: Small schools are nice but tax burden is high

Unfortunately, the question is not how many schools we need, but how many we can afford.
Firstly, I wish to state that I am no great advocate of closing schools. As an educator myself, I certainly do not wish to have schools close and teachers lose their jobs.
Nonetheless, I wish to note that of all the towns in the ACSD, the rate of Middlebury’s education taxes is by far the highest. Since tax rates are calculated by the overall number of students in each town, and the surrounding towns have much smaller student populations, it follows that their tax rate is lower. However, it costs more per pupil to operate the small schools than it does to operate a school like Mary Hogan.
Maintaining a building and hiring a staff for a school of 50 is inherently more expensive than doing the same for a school of 440. Because we have a unified district budget, the taxes that I pay (at a higher rate) will go to support the students in Ripton just as much as my own children here in Middlebury. This becomes more frustrating when considering the fact that Mary Hogan is one of the schools most in need of repairs.
To add to that frustration further, several of these communities are more affluent than Middlebury yet continue to pay lower tax rates. These include Cornwall, Weybridge, and Ripton, which all have higher median household incomes than Middlebury. Their schools are also ranked quite highly, especially Cornwall and Weybridge (by those sites that rank things like elementary school performance).
These rankings match the higher achievement on standardized tests, showing higher proficiencies in reading and math. Again, these rankings and test scores are logical given the studies that have proven that smaller schools are beneficial for elementary students.
Additionally, students who are economically disadvantaged tend to score lower than their wealthier counterparts. This too supports the Weybridge and Cornwall high achievement data given that the percentage of students on free and reduced lunch in both these schools is 20 percent or under, while at Mary Hogan, it is 40 percent. So we have small, expensive, yet high performing schools. I can see why no one would want to consider closing them.
However, another factor in this discussion needs to be educational equity. This concept is hinted at in Peter Conlon’s quote, “How can we […] give our students the best possible experience we can for the money?” I challenge the school board, the district, and above all, those protesting the closures of small schools to answer this question with a solution that would provide “the best possible experience” for all of our students.
The small schools are undeniably successful and valuable to their communities. But I would like those who are committed to keeping those small schools to take a good look at the experiences of other students in the district and think about what equity truly means. After all, not everyone can afford to buy a home in Cornwall. Not everyone can access Ripton if they don’t have a car. How can we extend these wonderful educational opportunities to all students, not just those whose families can afford it? And how can we continue to provide such educational opportunities without it being at the expense of someone else?
While the issues we face here in Vermont are not as stark as the current racial segregation of New York City’s public schools, we do still need to face up to and confront the challenges of our socio-economic diversity. I feel that some of the arguments being put forth in favor of maintaining the small schools do not adequately consider the perspectives and needs of those who are not economically powerful in our community.
In closing, I wish to stress that I do feel a great deal of empathy for those fighting against the closing of their small community schools. What I ask is that they in turn try to feel some empathy for those on the other side of this debate.
Claire M. Groby

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