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Governor Scott weighs in on small schools

GOV. PHIL SCOTT listens to Jesse Brooks, director of prevention for the United Way of Addison County, during a discussion of substance-use issues with local kids at the Bristol Hub Teen Center on Monday.

Closing their own school is a very difficult decision for any community to make; nobody wants to do it. But the reality is, we have 30,000 (more than 20 percent) fewer kids than we did 20 years ago, so it just comes down to math.
— Gov. Phil Scott

MIDDLEBURY — Gov. Phil Scott on Monday urged school officials to think more creatively about sharing resources — including school consolidations — amid declining student numbers and rising public education expenses.
Scott addressed the prospect of public school closings, the plight of the homeless, water quality and other issues during an interview at the Addison Independent that included several of his top cabinet members, including Education Secretary Daniel French, Natural Resources Secretary Julie Moore and Agency of Human Services Secretary Michael Smith. Scott and his entourage made the interview part of a daylong “Capital for a Day” in Addison County, during which they visited local school children, businesses and nonprofits.
The prospect of public school closures has been the hot-button topic in Addison County during the past year — particularly in the Addison Northwest School District. Voters there on Nov. 5 resoundingly defeated proposals to close both the Addison and Ferrisburgh elementary schools and transfer those students to Vergennes Union Elementary School as part of a larger plan. Addison Central School District directors are preparing a facilities master plan that could lead to school consolidation recommendations. And the Mount Abraham Union School District has been holding a series of community meetings to help inform its future operations and facilities.
Scott acknowledged the difficult choices that Vermonters will need to make about the future of their schools. But he believes the status quo is no longer an option, given demographic and financial realities in the Green Mountain State.
“Closing their own school is a very difficult decision for any community to make; nobody wants to do it,” Scott said. “But the reality is, we have 30,000 (more than 20 percent) fewer kids than we did 20 years ago, so it just comes down to math.”
It’s a struggle that’s been playing out in higher education for a few years now, according to Scott.
“When you look at Green Mountain College, Marlborough, Southern Vermont — they aren’t closing because they’re doing well; their business model isn’t working,” he said. “They don’t have the enrollment they need to survive. In our state, we have a different formula, one in which you pretty much send a bill in and we fulfill that by raising taxes in order to pay the bills. There’s a tipping point, and I believe we have to do things differently. I’ve been talking about that for a while.”
That said, Scott wasn’t surprised by the opposition to school closings in Addison and Ferrisburgh. Those schools have been around for generations and have served as community hubs.
“I totally respect and understand the voters that decided not to do what some would say is inevitable,” he said. “But we have to think about the kids when we’re making these decisions.”
There comes a point when enrollment is so low that it does a disservice to students to keep a school open, according to Scott.
“If we have a small classroom size, the school isn’t able to offer some of the educational programs that are essential for the future, whether it’s theater, music, industrial arts, or whatever it is that they might need, they don’t have the numbers to support it,” he said. “So we have to make sure we’re giving the kids the best educational opportunities we can.”
In a perfect world, Vermont schools would be bursting with students, Scott said.
“I wish we didn’t have to close a single school,” he said. “I wish we were building schools, with an influx of families and kids. But that’s not going to turn around overnight. We didn’t get into this overnight and we’re not going to turn it around overnight.
“Hopefully in the next 20 years, we’ll be able to transition to some positive growth,” he concluded.

LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
But in the meantime, he believes taxpayers will find it difficult to sustain the smallest schools.
He and French urged local school leaders to think outside the box in delivering education to a smaller student base. That might mean repurposing vacant school space, combining grades and other ways of maximizing resources.
French last year wrote a white paper titled “Designing the Future,” in which he floated the notion of a single school district covering the state. He acknowledged “folks aren’t ready for that,” but said changes will be needed in order to deliver quality education to a shrinking number of pupils.
French stressed new ideas are especially needed at the many K-8 schools still operating in Vermont. He’s particularly concerned about the education being delivered to dwindling middle-schoolers (grades 5-8) in those schools.
“When those enrollments start to decline, it’s very hard to say you’re offering what the middle school students need, when there are only 11 middle-level students enrolled at the school,” he said.
“There’s going to have to be, I think, a significant grade reconfiguration at some point if this trend continues,” he added. “So we need to start acknowledging that middle-level students in particular need to be exposed to far more rich and diverse curriculum than they’re getting in some places.”
Consequently, French plans to encourage investment in those middle grades, as well as early childhood development.
“If we look at it from an educational standpoint, we have to get students off to the right start,” he said. “The front-end of education is where we need to be making investments, in terms of early learning and care.”
In line with that thinking, he believes it would make sense for school directors to consider inviting early learning and care facilities to fill vacancies in public school buildings.
He stressed any repurposing of school space must preserve student safety.
“Obviously, the security of students is important, so we have to be careful,” French said. “It is challenging in some rural communities, where they use a school library as the town library, and the comings and goings of community members has to be monitored closely relative to the close proximity of students. But I think it’s important to acknowledge that we have existing infrastructure in the rural landscape and I think we’re going to have to start looking across the silos of education and social services in particular to see how we leverage that infrastructure.”
Scott toured Middlebury’s Stone Mill building in Frog Hollow prior to his interview at the Independent offices. He was impressed with the manner in which the historic building — most recently a learning space for Middlebury College students — had been repurposed by new owners for a combination of retail, office, dining and lodging.
He suggested school spaces could also embrace new uses for their vacant spaces.
“We have the infrastructure; we just don’t have the volume (of students),” he said. “And that’s leading to more costs.”
French believes Addison County is well-positioned to transition to a consolidated, regional education system — if that’s something its population chooses to embrace in the future. He imagines Middlebury as the hub of a revamped system, with Middlebury Union High School and the Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center as major players.
“Some of our counties have several population centers, and the resources and assets are dispersed,” French said. “I’m anxious to see how the school districts collaborate around the region to address some of these issues, and I think you’re poised to do really well in Addison County.”
Other topics fielded by Scott and his staff included:
• Water quality efforts.
Natural Resources Secretary Moore explained Vermont has earmarked roughly $20 million in annual general fund revenues for cleaning up the state’s waterways. That’s amount is reinforced each year with approximately $13 million from the state’s capital bill, largely for wastewater treatment plant improvements and manure management upgrades on farms. Vermont’s investment allows it to draw down another $15 million-$25 million in federal funding for its cleanup efforts.
“We’ve got all of the pieces in place,” Moore said.
• Homelessness.
Smith has been on the job for less than a month, but with winter weather raging of late, he’s been reviewing state programs that help the homeless. He said the Agency of Human Services is committed to meeting the needs of homeless shelters, while de-emphasizing the practice of handing out motel and hotel vouchers to get people out of the cold.
“We got to start thinking anew, in terms of how we’re (helping the homeless,” he said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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