Op/Ed

Letter to the editor: ACSD stands at defining moment in schools’ future

Over the past two months I, along with School Board Vice Chair Victoria Jette, have had the opportunity to visit with members of our towns that make up the Addison Central School District. Brought together in backyards, community centers, fire stations, in circles around firepits, seated in lawn chairs six feet apart, over 145 families have participated in the Porch Conversation Series. Parents, teachers, residents, came together to share their perspectives, ask questions and demonstrate their commitment to our children. 
Created so that members of the School Board Facilities Committee could engage with citizens in a way formal School Board Meeting rules do not always afford, the Porch Conversation Series has provided us with perspectives, ideas, and concerns as we continue to formulate a future vision for ACSD. 
From these conversations many themes have emerged, each important. I’d like to take this opportunity to share some thoughts from this experience. As I cannot speak for the entire board, these ideas represent my own viewpoint.
1. This is a complex issue: There are many factors contributing to the board’s consideration of consolidating our elementary schools. This is not just an enrollment problem. This is not just a staffing problem. This is not just an economic problem. This is not just a building problem. This is not just a budget problem. Our challenge is that each of these forces are pressing against us. During one school year, the pressure of one may be greater than another, but they are all very real.
2. Our vision for a great education for all is made possible by a strong financial foundation: Over the past few years, we have talked a lot about a Facilities Master Plan. This outward focus has overshadowed the work that goes on every day by our educators and support staff to create effective and inspiring learning environments for all our students. Unfortunately, without the spotlight that has been shining on the Facilities Master Plan process and our Covid-19 Response Plans, we forget that our work to create a strong financial foundation is done for one reason only, and that is in support of our educators and students. It is our educators’ planning, their research, their understanding of what works best in the classroom that we are in service of. Since our district consolidation, our leaders have been working on creating systems that can serve all students, regardless of their address. We must recognize that these efforts are hurt when there are insufficient funds to support them. Please know, our focus has never been on the buildings alone. Our work has been driven by our responsibility to ensure our educators have access to the necessary resources they need today and tomorrow. Dealing with buildings and finances are in support of this. It may not feel that way, but I can assure you, it is why I, and my fellow board members, do this work.
3. Our communities are strong: I believe this theme is the one that has been the most contentious, understandably so. As we visited towns that were identified in the TruexCullins report as not having a school building that represents the best of our buildings for learning, we were met with great concern that closing their school would render their community obsolete, unattractive for future home buyers and most importantly, have a negative effect on their children’s social and emotional development. 
The fact is, we have more school buildings than we need to educate our children. That surplus is causing us to spend resources that could be better used and have greater impact. It is also causing us to spread out resources, a “thinning” that is limiting their effectiveness. Most importantly, though, I believe communities are established because of practice, contribution and commitment. Boundaries, historically established for a variety of reasons, do not have to limit our definition of community. This is our opportunity to reimagine three or four new communities of learning. These new communities will bring together more people while still honoring our traditions of small schools, allow our students to sit in classrooms where there are more children of their age and gender, while providing an opportunity for diversity of experience and perspective. These communities will be created by the families that participate and contribute. Just as we have established communities in MUMS and MUHS, our new elementary schools will thrive because of the strength of those they support. Future home buyers, looking at the entire K-12 experience for their children, will see a holistic system, not just an elementary school. They will still consider the many variables of choosing a place to live, but they will have access to a great education for their children, regardless of their decision.
We have also had the opportunity to clarify some misconceptions:
1. Transportation is a critical component of this plan and we are still reviewing which solution will provide an acceptable implementation, ensuring our learning communities are diverse, travel times are acceptable and unrealistic burdens are not being placed on our families. Because of this, there has not been a final determination regarding which locations offer us the best solution.
2. This plan does not create ineffective class sizes. The new staffing plan enables the district to assign certified specialists in each of our schools. With a smaller number of buildings, specialists won’t have to travel to two or three other schools in a given week, a reason why many leave their position or don’t consider ACSD as a desirable employment opportunity. Such a change also affords them the opportunity to spend more time in the buildings with students and staff and less time in cars, providing specialists and classroom teachers with time to work together and coordinate services. 
The change in student/staff ratios is due to:
a. Creating a consistent class size of 17 to 20 students across all elementary schools in the district. This number is on par with the average size of classes in the state of Vermont, recognizing Vermont has one of the lowest ratios in the country.
b. The creation of a model that reflects the district’s vision to increase the number of certified specialists in our classrooms, while decreasing the number of paraprofessionals who have been asked to provide support that extends beyond their training or expertise. While this plan decreases the number of personnel, it increases the access our children will have to certified specialists.
3. Our enrollment is not increasing. Over the past four years our district has seen a decrease in total enrollment, going from 1717 students in FY18 to 1606 students in FY21 (see graph). FY22 will see a slight increase of students due to a small graduating class. Our elementary cohorts have stabilized with grades averaging around 117 students. Over the next four years we will be asked to weather two large graduating cohorts ranging from 134 to 162 and the other two cohorts averaging 125 students. With these cohorts being replaced by smaller incoming populations, and our costs continuing to rise, our financial foundation continues to weaken. While we may see some families moving here and houses being sold, counting on COVID-19 or other factors to eliminate the need for us to do this work is unrealistic. A current search of homes for sale in our sending towns shows limited inventory, families are getting smaller (tinyurl.com/yy7zxnj4), and our population is growing older (tinyurl.com/yymgd4fy).
4. I believe we need two years of planning before full implementation. Full implementation of the plan will require significant planning and preparation. As we asked district leadership to take two years as they planned for the movement of the sixth grade to MUMS, I also believe we must ask district leadership to implement components of this plan in a thoughtful and purposeful manner, and am confident they will do so. I believe this work may be done in phases as demonstrated by the movement of sixth grade to MUMS. I do not see full implementation occurring before September of 2023. While our work can begin, this will take time.
These are difficult, complex problems. Addressing them will mean things will look different. And yet, I believe addressing them will also mean we have a stronger foundation to support the increasing needs and opportunities our children have in front of them.
Our work is not done.
The Facilities Committee will be presenting the draft plan to the full board by the end of this year and we will continue to engage in vibrant, respectful and open debates. At this time, we will have a recommendation that supports an appropriate staffing model, an acceptable transportation strategy and a sustainable system of learning communities that helps all our students, regardless of their address.
Most of all, I recognize and understand the sadness and deep concern closing a school creates. Our schools are places where milestones of the heart have been witnessed and cherished memories made. They serve our children every day and watch over them in times of heartache and triumph. And while our future classrooms will look different, filled with different names and faces, they will represent our best, born from our traditions, inspired by our strength, and built on a foundation of love for our children and the promise each and every one of them holds. I ask that you continue to engage with open minds and together we will demonstrate once again our ability to overcome challenges that seem insurmountable.
With sincere thanks for the opportunity to serve,
Mary Cullinane 
Chairperson, ACSD 

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