Op/Ed

Greg Dennis: Should we close some of our schools?

When I was a little 15-year-old, the powers-that-be in my small town decided to consolidate our schools. It caused a lot of anguish for many parents, who were suddenly faced with seeing their children schooled in a different building in a different town.
Consolidation also prompted students to scream. Those of us on the basketball team didn’t want to exchange our proud blue-and-white uniforms for purple-and-gold, and neither did the cheerleaders. (No girls’ teams in those days.)
But the financial arguments prevailed, and we went from being Blue Devils to Golden Eagles. Goodbye Clyde Central School (“Let’s go, CCS!”), hello Clyde-Savannah. It was a tough transition for everybody.
I’ve been reminded of that experience as our county’s multi-town school boards contemplate the possibility of consolidation and closing one or more schools.
The motherhood-and-apple-pie response is to simply say no — to take a flat, “Keep your hands off our locals schools” approach.
But when you look at the political and budget realities, it’s not that simple.
The reporters and editors at this paper have done an excellent job of covering the issue, so I won’t try to encapsulate all the options and complexities here. But I’ll offer a few observations.
–There are no “bad guys.” School board members serve because they are dedicated to providing students with the best possible education. And the folks urging school boards not to close any schools have an admirable dedication to the best interests of their kids and towns.
–Vermont once had 105,000 schoolchildren. We now have fewer than 80,000 — yet school costs and taxes continue to rise.
–It’s helpful to look at the history. The politics that gave us Act 46 — and created new financial pressures to slow school spending — dates back to at least 2014. In that year a whopping 34 Vermont school budgets went down to defeat on Town Meeting Day.
Republicans had been talking for years about the tax load of our convoluted educational system. But the 34 loser budgets gave Democrats a long-overdue wake-up call.
The Dems belatedly realized that if they didn’t get ahead of things and offer solutions, they were in grave political danger. They passed Act 46 and then-Gov. Peter Shumlin signed it.
Pretty much everybody thought it seemed like a good idea at the time.
–Annually rising healthcare insurance costs are a huge factor largely out of the control of school boards.
–Earlier this year, Addison Northwest school officials feared the district (Vergennes, Addison, Ferrisburgh, Panton and Waltham) would be facing a huge, state-mandated tax penalty. So the school board rushed to the ballot with a proposal to close the elementary schools in Addison and Ferrisburgh.
That half-baked idea went down to overwhelming defeat, with only 19% of voters supporting the closures.
–In the wake of those votes, a citizens group is now proposing major charter changes in the district. But in their zeal. this group is hurrying petitions before voters perhaps before all issues are considered.
–What about that state-mandated tax penalty? It’s there to keep per-pupil costs in line. Unless and until the state eases that penalty, some local jurisdictions could see school taxes rise by 25% or more in just a couple years.
And if you think people are screaming now about potential school closings, just wait until they see tax increases of that amount. It’ll make the current situation look like a love-in.
–It’s a perennial claim of school board critics that the way to make the budget work is to “cut the bureaucracy.” They forget Act 46 was designed to do exactly that. Moreover, there just isn’t that much bureaucracy to cut.
–Closing a school, if it comes to that, is not the same as bulldozing it. It could go back to the town at no charge and could be used for other activities.
–In some communities such as Ripton, citizens have paid extra to keep their school local. By doing so they have helped to unite the community. That cohesion around a school would be a very hard thing to lose.
–With climate change bearing down upon us, part of the remedy is to relocalize and look closer to home for support and resources. Closing a nearby school and busing kids for an hour each way runs directly counter to that strategy.
–At some point soon, school boards and voters are going to have to make some very hard choices. To simplify them a bit:
Can we avoid the school closings that no one wants? Will classes and services have to be drastically cut?
Or are the county’s voters willing to pay ever more to keep schools close by and preserve classes and services at current levels — even as enrollments continue to decline?
–For some perspective on today’s struggles, a friend sent me this excerpt from “Let Me Show You Vermont,” a book by Charles Edward Crane:
“There is no consolidation movement in Vermont… for our hills and our cold winters and deep snows make such consolidation rather impracticable… (but) there are consolidations in the sense that shifts in population require two small schools into one, and such changes have been considerable … Little by little the expensive modern progressive schools have tended to reproduce in a costly, elaborate and artificial way, some of the things which the good, ungraded one-room school does.”
Crane’s book was published in 1937.
Gregory Dennis’s column appears here every other Thursday and is archived on his blog at gregdennis.wordpress.com. Email: gregdennisvt@yahoo.com. Twitter: @greengregdennis.

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