Op/Ed

Letter to the editor: MAUSD should hit pause on school closure talks

Editor’s note: The writers sent this letter to the Mount Abraham Unified School District board and cc’d the Independent.
Dear MAUSD School Board Members,
It has become painfully clear that our district schools are in a tough place financially. We hear you. We share your concerns, and very much appreciate both your commitment to kids and your earnest sense of urgency in seeking solutions. At the same time, we have come to believe there may be steps we can take that will enable our six schools to survive and flourish. With this in mind, we request that you put on hold any plans (including plans to warn votes) to close MAUSD schools, or to give the board the authority to close schools — at least for now, while we work to explore and implement an array of promising alternate solutions.
We cannot think of a possibly worse time to be asking the 5-Town community to think about closing schools. The instability that our neighbors’ families are living with due to the coronavirus, due to the social political moment we are in, and due to the serious economic stressors make this the absolutely worst time for engagement as well as for reasoned decisions. When there is so much instability in our lives, we need the institutions in our communities that have always been dependable more than ever. Talking about closing those institutions at this time will serve to create even more stress in our families. 
At the very least, we owe it to ourselves to see this political season out. There is at least a possibility that with some change in leadership on the Federal level there will be more acceptance of the importance of robust economic support for our schools and our communities. 
Even if we were not in the midst of a pandemic and a moment of political, social and economic upheaval, at this time our communities and the board do not have sufficient information to make wise choices about closing schools. Enormous questions remain, and need answers, before any questions related to closing options are put before voters. For example: 
•  If we keep all of our community schools open, at least for now, what are some specific changes that we could make to reduce costs while continuing to support student learning? All potential administrative, operational, and program costs savings should be considered (not just cost savings from closing community schools).
•  If we used extra space in our school buildings to provide medical/dental services, affordable childcare, and other services to our communities, how might this add value and change the fiscal calculus? 
•  For any of the closing options under consideration, what would be the net savings (including building renovation, building operations, building maintenance, insurance and legal costs, professional and non-professional staff, educational program expenses, transportation, and any other costs) and how would the net savings (if any) affect taxes in each community? (These savings should be expressed in dollars, across a range of property assessments and income levels, compared to FY21 taxes.) When would these net savings be realized? 
•  Vermont’s education funding system is complicated. What are the assumptions and calculations that go into the estimate that the district will need to cut $1.2 million next fiscal year, and $12 million for the next 10 years, in order to avoid spending threshold penalties? Would net savings from closing schools be enough to avoid penalties during this time, or would we be back again in a budget quandary soon in any case, as long as Vermont’s school funding formula remains as it is? 
•  For any of the closing options, what would be anticipated changes in students’ experience (including class size, daily transportation time, personalized learning, extra-curricular programming, and community and family connections) for students attending each affected school?
•  What does quantitative and qualitative research tell us about the value of small, community schools? For example:
-“Vermont Pupil Weighting Factors Report” (Dec. 2019, commissioned by the Vermont Legislature): “The negative relationship between the share of students who are economically disadvantaged in a school and average levels of student achievement is weaker in smaller schools than it is in larger schools.”
-“The Hobbit Effect: Why Small Works in Rural Schools” (2006).
-“What Does a School Mean to a Community? Assessing the Social and Economic Benefits of Schools to Rural Villages in New York” (Winter 2002).
-“The Cost of Small Schools: A White Paper” (June 2019)
-“School Reform Proposals: The Research Evidence” — Chapter 3, Small Schools (a review of the research — National Education Policy Center, 2002)
•  What effect would closing schools have on property values in our five towns?
•  Many young parents may see a local community school as a desirable feature when looking at where to raise their families. How might Vermont’s outstanding COVID response track record result in increasing our student enrollment over the next few years? How might efforts currently underway to expand access to affordable childcare, and to expand high-speed internet access across Addison County, result in increasing our student enrollment? How might closing schools exacerbate, rather than solve, the problem of declining student enrollment? 
As you face the daunting task of preparing the Fiscal Year 2022 budget, we urge you to:
•  Request that the superintendent engage the MAUSD administrative team in flexible, creative thinking about ways to reduce spending while continuing to support student learning, considering all reasonable options, and request that you review their specific conclusions before finalizing the budget.
•  Stay under the penalty threshold if possible, or reduce the projected amount the proposed budget exceeds the threshold.
•  Contact legislators and legislative leaders assertively and often, to insist that they take steps as soon as possible to make adjustments in the school funding formula, in order to support, rather than undermine, Vermont’s vibrant rural community schools. Surely we are not the only Vermont school district facing serious financial challenges. We recognize that our legislators, too, are facing tough fiscal issues statewide, but perhaps there are some small steps they can take (e.g., raising the spending penalty threshold, removing facilities costs from the equalized pupil spending calculation, using prior ADM to count equalized pupils) to help us off this fiscal cliff in the short term.
•  Hit “pause” on warning any Town Meeting Day 2021 measures related to closing schools.
As you project further (FY23 and beyond) we urge you to do everything you can to keep our schools open. Our six schools are beloved by our communities for a whole host of good reasons. As you seek solutions, 
•  Consider ways to use extra space in our schools (e.g. expanded access to childcare and to medical/dental and mental health services) that would promote equity and economic opportunity, attract new families to our five towns and help our schools and communities to flourish. 
•  Collaborate with selectboards in all five towns to explore possible solutions.
•  Request specific assistance from the Legislature.
Please know that we, and others, are most eager to help as you consider next steps. 
Nancy Cornell and Herb Olson, Starksboro; Michael Fisher, Lincoln; Cheryl Mitchell, New Haven; Robin Shalline and Jere Urban, Monkton 

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