Op/Ed

Letter to the editor: Respect all as ACSD decides

Dear ACSD Friends and Neighbors,
About 18 months ago I volunteered to join the Steering Committee for the Addison Central School District Facilities Master Planning Process — the committee formed to help the school board engage the public about the challenges facing our district, and the choices the board must make about investment in our schools. This committee includes a variety of folks representing different perspectives in the district: a few members from the board and district administration, faculty and staff, community members and parents, and a few high school students.
At our first meeting, we were asked to consider what success and/or failure might look like for our new committee. And though we all brought our own concerns and opinions to the facilities issue itself, we all generally agreed that our committee would be successful if we fostered a robust, respectful dialogue about the challenges we face in light of ACSD’s shifting demographics and economic constraints. If we could help the ACSD community recognize the need for change, maybe we could even motivate folks to work together to envision that change. Failure, on the other hand, looked like kicking the can down the road. Failure looked like maintaining the status quo after a fruitless attempt to convey the urgency of the district’s predicament, or even worse: destroying relationships in the process.
The Steering Committee helped the board host a total of six community forums to present data and gather feedback — three in Fall 2018, and three in Spring 2019 — information from which the Board identified three critical “lenses” through which we should be evaluating our options moving forward: Student success, equity, and financial responsibility. In the immediate wake of that work, I felt heartened by the tone of the discussion.
Most folks seemed to recognize the economic un-sustainability of maintaining our status quo; many offered ideas and suggestions, and seemed willing to re-imagine school boundaries or entertain reconfiguration of ACSD’s schools in some manner, as long as it offered some positive change for all affected families. But lately —perhaps in the contentious atmosphere of other districts struggling with the same issues — there seems to be a hardening of pre-existing positions, some without regard to equity or financial responsibility, nor the facts that have been shared.
Positions, of course, are grounded in emotion, and matters involving the education of our children are perhaps the most emotional of all. Conflict is bound to arise. Many residents of small towns feel the vulnerability of their low-population schools, and fear what closure could mean for their children, and the character and long-term livability of the communities they love.
Meanwhile, Middlebury elementary school parents and teachers simmer in their resentments about crowded classrooms fraught with social/emotional challenges and the smallest dollar-per-pupil investment in the district. Then there are parents and teachers of students in MUMS and MUHS (like myself), wondering why the conversation isn’t equally focused on the full extent of our children’s educational experience — why discussion about the needs of these older students has been eclipsed by the elementary school controversy, when MUMS and MUHS are the two schools that educate all of our kids.
I’m troubled, for instance, by the fact that despite everyone acknowledging “student success” as a top priority for the district, nobody upset by the consolidation question seems to be looking at the long view, nor the impacts of our budget woes on the success of our middle- and high-school students. Nobody ever mentions the roughly 20% of kids who don’t graduate from MUHS (compared to the nearly 90% high school graduation rate in Vermont), and how we as a district should be showing up for them. I sometimes wonder if our current configuration and inequities across the district have anything to do with that.
Here’s the thing: all of the issues that have come up during the public forums are completely valid concerns, and if we are to ever move beyond this tension, we need to acknowledge and discuss the things — both perceived and real — that are rooting folks in their respective positions. Problem solving is a messy enterprise, and I think the ACSD Board and administration (and with thanks to the Addison Independent) are doing their best to provide a platform for these difficult conversations. I would encourage people to continue engaging in the process, continue sharing ideas and concerns.
But I also think it’s important to remember that the mission and responsibility of the ACSD is — first and foremost — the education of our students. The only options the board can seriously consider are ones that both support the ACSD’s mission and land favorably with respect to student success, equity and financial responsibility. While I truly believe it possible to find creative solutions to mitigate concerns about things like educational environment and student-teacher ratios, town character, tradition and sense of community, it does not seem reasonable to expect the board to take seriously any options offered at the expense of those three critical factors.
The challenges our district faces are significant and can no longer be ignored. The ACSD has more educational square footage than it needs and can sustain for the number of students it serves, and nearly all of its buildings have urgent maintenance issues. Further complicating the matter is the fact that several of the district’s elementary schools fail to provide dedicated spaces for key elements of the IB curriculum that voters in our district approved: art, music, foreign language, technology, etc. The board is looking for the best path forward and is asking for our help to envision a solution to this problem.
That’s where we come in. I have never lived in a place where folks support one another as they do across the towns of our district. The people of our seven towns —Bridport, Cornwall, Middlebury, Ripton, Salisbury, Shoreham and Weybridge — we show up for one another, whether in tragedy or celebration. This is one of those times. We need to show up for each other’s kids. We have an opportunity to create something great, something collaborative across our towns, something that transcends the way it’s always been.
So please consider: Showing up for our kids may mean looking at things differently. It may mean viewing our community more broadly than our town boundaries. It may mean investing in your children’s future peers because in the long run, that’s good for your children, too. It may mean opening your doors and hearts to families beyond those served by your current elementary schools.
With gratitude and respect,
Mary Heather Noble
Middlebury

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