Otter Valley Union High plans for fewer students

BRANDON — After holding 27 meetings since January of 2018, and sifting through 90 pages of district data, the Otter Valley Unified Union (OVUU) Planning Task Force has come up with a road map for future planning in the school district that includes Brandon, Leicester, Whiting, Goshen, Sudbury and Pittsford.
Faced with continuing decline in the number of students, the task force settled on identifying triggers that would prompt changes to be made in the makeup of the school district. Among those triggers are the current and projected enrollments in the schools, budgetary limitations the district may face and legislation that may be handed down from Montpelier.
“We are proposing a series of actions that the board can take, some immediate and some farther down the road,” task force communications consultant Alyson Popa said at a June 5 meeting of the OVUU board at the Neshobe Elementary School in Brandon.
The actions would include setting limits — upper and lower — for the size of district schools, redistributing students within the existing elementary schools by moving internal district lines, and possibly moving grades 5 and 6 into the existing grades 7-8 middle school in Brandon, perhaps in a new or expanded building.
The first proposed action would begin immediately, if the board approves it. That action would consist of increasing community awareness regarding school choice, which allows students to attend any of the district’s schools. The board would also communicate proactive messages on anticipated changes that may happen in the district as well as increasing the board’s visibility in the towns, with a focus on better communication with selectboards.
The last part of that action would be to develop guidelines for school viability for proactive planning purposes. This would mean setting upper and lower limits of student enrollment over a two-year revolving time frame.
“People would know they aren’t going to get the rug pulled out from under them,” Popa said. “It won’t be a sudden change and people would know change might happen if there were guidelines that we are communicating effectively to them.”
The second proposed action would be tentatively scheduled for 2021, and would consist of moving school lines within the district to redistribute enrollment numbers in the schools. That idea has already sparked controversy and concern with some parents worried their children might be forced to move to a new school and having to leave a network of friendships.
“It’s their peer relationships I’m worried about,” Jennifer Buswell told the board, adding that her house is right on the line for Lothrop and Neshobe and her children were likely to be affected. “Will my fourth grader be the only one plucked out of school and moved after they’ve already formed a group of friends?” she asked board members.
The board assured Buswell that committees would be formed to look at the impact of moving children and determine the best way to do that with as little harm as possible to the students.
The third action, scheduled for 2023 to 2025, would be to determine the viability of building a separate middle school (grades 5 to 8) onto the high school. Whether that means adding a new building on the grounds or adding floors to the existing building has not been determined.
“We really want this to be a completely separate experience for these kids,” Task Force chair Greg Bernhardt said, “complete with different entrances than the high school and very little interaction with the older kids.”
To explore the possibility of adding a middle school to the high school, the board would need to hire an architect to draw up plans and come up with an estimated price.
The task force looked at using some of the current buildings for a middle school, such as the Lothrop School building, but all of those would also need added construction to make them work as a middle school. Lothrop would need a new gym built, for example.
“A new building for the middle school may cost quite a bit, but procrastination costs a lot more,” said Brandon Selectman Doug Bailey, who was in the audience. “Just look at the Segment 6 project we’re doing now. They studied that for years and there was an estimated price of $16 to $18 million for that project. They put it off and with no changes to the project, just time and waiting, it eventually cost $25 million.”
Bailey added he thought more outreach was needed.
“I have talked to several teachers, and very few of them have knowledge of what is going on,” he said. “You have a lot of teachers out there that could then reach out to parents and community members and help spread the word.”
The board agreed that more outreach among the teachers and staff would need to occur after the summer.
Judi Pulsifer, Neshobe Elementary principal, thought the added input could help improve upon the plan. “They may have insights into things you might not have considered as you go through this process,” she said.
But the main problem the board faces is the tough reality of a declining student population.
“In our county, we are expected to see a decline of 33 percent in the population of 15- to 19-year-olds between 2010 and 2030,” Bernhardt said, adding there was also a projected increase of over 100 percent in the population of those over 60.
This means that a bond, which would likely be needed to build a middle school, would need to be supported by a large part of the community that might not have children in school.
In addition, the board has decided on a middle school model of fifth through eighth grades. If they were able to get a bond approved to build a middle school, they would need to pull out the fifth and sixth grade students at Neshobe, Lothrop and Sudbury. Lothrop is already on the small side in some classes and Sudbury is only a fifth and sixth grade school. The board was not ready to address what would happen to those schools if a middle school were to be built.
“We’ve talked about it, but we don’t have any definitive plans at this point,” said Laurie Bertrand, OVUU board chair.
“With the completion of each of these steps, it changes the landscape and as you do that, you revisit,” Barry Varian, board member, said. “You’re talking a long timeline… when you get closer to the end of that timeline you have to kind of relook at those conditions in that space, at that time.”
Using the district’s anticipated enrollment numbers for 2023 that were in the annual report, around 164 fifth and sixth grade students would be pulled out of the three schools — 42 from Lothrop, 20 from Sudbury, and 102 from Neshobe. These would be added to the projected 159 students who would be entering the seventh and eighth grades that year, bringing the total middle school population to 323.
After much discussion, the board decided to continue talks at the next meeting on Wednesday, June 19, at the Whiting School at 6 p.m.

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