Letter to the editor: Small towns need schools

The ACSD School Board seems to be moving quickly in the direction of closing town schools. I strongly urge everyone from all towns to pay attention and become involved.
Below is an edited version of the letter I wrote to our school board when they solicited public comments this past spring:
“I am very upset that closing schools is the direction in which the board seems to want to move. Please reconsider and change directions. We should instead be working to strengthen ALL of our schools.
“It seems to me that my opposition to school closures has often been minimized, as some feel I am overly concerned with what is good for the communities and not focused enough on what is good for the students. But to me, this is a false dichotomy; what is good for communities is good for students and vice versa. The stronger the communities are, the better our students will do in school and beyond.
“If a school is closed and children are bused to another location, we all suffer. Many families with the means to do so will move away or send their students to private schools and new families will not choose to move to towns without their own schools. The students and families who remain will always be disadvantaged — having to travel long distances, always being known as outsiders, having a handicap in terms of being able to be involved in the school, and so much more.
“The ‘opportunity gap’ is one of our most pressing issues and closing schools will just further exacerbate this disparity. We live in a time of huge challenges (addiction, generational poverty, social media, unstable housing and food availability, transiency, fractured families, etc.). If you have not spent time in our schools recently you may not realize the amount of trauma and adversity many of our children and families face. We need to build up communities to prevent and deal with these problems and their effects on our children. We need more local connections and more local community to counter these pressures.
“I also question how moving towards closing schools can be justified when we are barely three years out from consolidating school districts — a move that was promoted with the goal of ‘strengthening our rural schools’?
“How have we had time to achieve the savings that were talked about?
“Similarly, we are only a few years into implementing International Baccalaureate. We were told an aim of this investment was to increase equity (and to attract families to the area). Again, how could we possibly yet have seen the full effects of this very expensive investment?
“This also brings me to another concern. The proposed closing of schools is obviously financially motivated. Firstly, it has not been proven that we cannot afford the schools we have. School budgets have been and continue to be passed by large margins. Secondly, it has also not been shown that closing schools would save a significant amount of money. Transportation costs for one would be huge and it does not appear that these cost analyses have been well thought through.
“Further, so much of this discussion has been predicated on “declining” enrollments. However, many of our elementary schools are not currently declining (from data provided by ACSD Central Office). Shoreham enrollment has gone up over 30 percent in the past four years (from 69 in Dec. 2015 to 91 in Aug. 2019, as per Central Office)! Enrollment projection data has not been well researched. In small areas, populations do fluctuate, but I truly believe we have the potential to thrive and grow if we keep our school.
“I write as a 36-year-old who has lived my entire life in Addison County. I attended, and adored, Lincoln Elementary — an example of a small town that is growing and thriving. From what I can tell much of ACSD is also moving in this direction, with elementary schools that are beginning to draw people to the towns.
“I had many challenges in my home life, but the school and community were my lifelines. My experiences in a small town were so positive that I hope to give something similar to my children. I moved to Shoreham while attending Saint Michael’s College and am raising my three children here — one will be starting at MUMS in the fall, and one is at Shoreham Elementary School. My children’s father and I have built four houses in Shoreham, which have housed a number of young families. We hope to build and invest more in this community. If the school were to close, we would move and find a new town — with a school. To me the school-community connection is that important.
“It is also important to remember that we are at a turning point. Shoreham was an agricultural community and that way of life is changing. For example, we now are beginning to draw more and more telecommuters who come here for the way of life and solid school system. We are just starting to find ourselves in this new reality. If our school is closed, we may likely become a ghost town made up of families in poverty and retirees.
“Give our community a chance to develop its strengths, including our school, and find ourselves — and to grow and thrive in this new reality!
“In recent years we have learned to value local food and local stores. Local schools should be similarly valued as an essential part of our personal and communal ecosystem.
“Really this is a decision of whether we want to have small towns anymore.”
Ruth Bernstein

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