Op/Ed

Letter to the editor: ACSD must change, or face woeful cuts

An open letter to parents of the ACSD Community:
First of all, I feel you. You have every right to be frustrated and concerned — having to expend emotional energy on the facilities master plan/school consolidation issue yet again, even though we are in the middle of a pandemic and are already saddled with 1) trying to feel safe sending our masked children off to school, 2) trying to understand the expectations and technical details of their remote learning platforms, 3) navigating childcare or lack thereof, and 4) otherwise attempting domestic and professional normalcy with the threat of serious illness looming overhead. It’s hard enough work to advocate for your child in school, let alone feeling the need to advocate for your child’s school itself. It’s a lot to manage and —let’s face it— you feel what you feel.
— Which is what I mean to say when I share how I first felt upon encountering the petition to delay forward movement on the Facilities Master Plan, or when I heard of plans that some parents in one community are exploring options to secede from the district if their school is marked to close. I will be honest: It needled me, in part because I think these opinions tend to gather and congeal in positions of privilege. Of course a delay is desired from those who perceive their children to benefit from maintaining the status quo. Tiny classes, even blended ones may seem ideal, but students are undoubtedly affected by the limited social opportunities and altered curriculum of blended classrooms (and not all families can afford to supplement their children’s days with additional enrichment like sports and other activities). Students have not been arriving to MUMS equally prepared, and the burden of leveling the playing field routinely falls on middle school teachers. And once again, the needs of students and teachers of MUMS and MUHS are completely overshadowed by this elementary school fight. But if I’m being really candid, I will also admit that it needled me because I recognized myself in those opinions. I, like all of these folks, am the type of parent who will go to bat for my kids’ school — and they, like me, are simply doing what they think is best for their families.
True story: My children were young elementary school students at our former home in Oregon in the time of Sandy Hook. Our elementary school was twice the size of Mary Hogan, and responded with new security policies that prohibited parent entry at drop-off and required everyone to completely vacate the premises at the end of the day. Gone were the days of walking my girls to their classrooms, no more catching up with neighbors after school while our kids played on the playground.
Those of us who were active and volunteered in the school felt insulted by the sudden exclusion, and as families who lived in that very neighborhood, we felt unwelcome in our own place. I was one of several parents who resisted this change —the more parents on campus, the safer the school, I figured—and the conflict grew until the principal called a forum so we could discuss it as a group. It took a teacher’s quivering voice for me to realize how very scared they really were, for me to remember that this was not just my school. We were able to negotiate a solution that felt reasonable to most, but my point is this: what our educators needed from us in that moment was our support to address a stark new reality.
My husband and I recently hosted an ACSD Porch Conversation, during which I posed the question of urgency: How dire is ACSD’s budget situation? How does that translate into loss of staff, programs and services if we kick the can further down the road? We have heard this information in school board meetings before, but it bears repeating here: ACSD was already at the state spending threshold before the pandemic. It will only get worse from here, because all the sources of revenue that our district receives from the state have been hit hard by COVID-19. And because a significant portion of the budget is used to cover the cost of staff salary and benefits, balancing the budget over the next new fiscal years will require staffing cuts, whether we like it or not.
In other words, this is not a drill.
I understand that the idea of school consolidation is unsavory, and I don’t think that any member of the school board entered their term with a desire to close schools. But the fiscal problem insists itself, and unfortunately this is our stark new reality. If we do nothing to provide a comprehensive plan that involves intentional consolidation of schools and staffing resources to some degree, the district will be forced to cut deeply every year for the next several years. As in, cuts to enrichment programs, more blended classrooms, and even more shared administrators, special educators, nurses, and specialists between schools — none of which is consistent with the ACSD’s vision. And I fear that we are at risk of burning out and losing some of ACSD’s most gifted and experienced staff the longer we prolong the inequitable distribution of resources.
So while some of you may feel compelled to drag this process out in an effort to save our smaller schools, I urge you to consider the broader impacts of such rigidity on our learning community over the long haul — impacts to your children’s peers and what that means for your children’s future learning environment, and impacts to both the staffing and infrastructure of the middle school and high school. We have an opportunity to create an elementary school model with intention — one that can provide teachers for every grade level, with enough special educators and support staff for every school. These are the kinds of things that can either attract families to, or repel families from settling in our broader community. If we entrust ACSD to teach our children from Pre-K through graduation from high school, our educators should be able to count on our support for the entirety of their education.
Mary Heather Noble
Middlebury

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