Letter to the editor: Make better use of our schools
There are problems besetting our community schools. We have an educational infrastructure that is oversized for the student population, as it continues to contract. Costs per pupil continue to rise while the number of tax-payers continues to fall. In my own school district (MAUSD), there are currently five distributed school buildings whose entire student body could be consolidated into two. Closing educational facilities will only accelerate the collapse of the smaller towns in our region, as schools are the beating hearts of their civic lives. Slashing teaching positions and busing children for hours a day is a fool’s solution; it is pouring gasoline on a destructive fire that will increase costs and accelerate decline.
I do not believe closing schools is a good option. I would prefer, instead, to see us redefine the notion of “school” into a broader concept of “community center.” I see an opportunity to address a number of these issues with the same solution.
Let’s treat the excess of space in our school buildings as an asset.
A list of desirable co-tenant candidates includes:
• Sports clubs and organizations that exist county-wide that would benefit from access to school resources of gymnasia, training facilities and sports fields.
• Municipal offices and meeting space for town and village governmental functions.
• Office space for District operations, some of which are currently being rented from private landlords.
• Law enforcement entities that could use office space and a more defined location than a phone number.
• Housing for teachers, especially teachers with families that have primary school education amongst their family needs.
• Housing for school support staff, including food workers, janitorial and grounds-keeping employees and even bus drivers.
Such co-tenancies could provide rental income, whether subsidized or not, and turn expensive empty space into productive real estate. In the case of housing, the result would be around-the-clock and calendar occupancy, reducing the risks of fire that bedevil public buildings that are empty overnight and subject to vandalism through the months of vacations and school breaks. With such a policy in place, the costs and distractions of maintaining unused school space could be lifted from the District’s shoulders, student populations could start to grow and long-term community decline could gradually start to slow, maybe even reverse.
There are roadblocks to such a logical approach that only the Vermont legislature can remove. We need laws to encourage the creative use of taxpayer money to support distributed education and the whole notion of a Community Center. But this is Vermont, we can make this happen. What have we got to lose, except everything we have worked so hard and paid so dearly to establish?
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