Op/Ed

Editorial: Disruption hits area schools

Glance at today’s front page of the Addison Independent and you immediately sense that outside forces are disrupting school systems throughout Addison County and will soon force profound changes in our communities.
The headlines tell the story:
• Ripton and Weybridge residents will vote on whether to withdraw their elementary schools from the Addison Central School District in a last-ditch effort to save their local schools, which will otherwise be shuttered by the district school board.
• MAUSD Superintendent Patrick Reen has a plan to repurpose three of that district’s five elementary schools (in Lincoln, Monkton and New Haven) in phase one of that district’s reconfiguration, with the option of merging with the Vergennes Union High School and its five-town district in a second phase that is more a far-flung discussion point than a plan. Meanwhile, Reen projects up to 75-90 district employees will be cut over the next five years.
• Addison Central School District is continuing with its plans to consolidate and cut staffing and teachers as well.
All told, if district plans to merge, shutter schools and consolidate go into effect, the county could see a significant loss in the number of school district employees over the next four to five years — well over 200. Such drastic cuts could save some money in the long run for school districts, though the loss of 200-plus teachers, school aids, principals and others will also exact a high cost on our communities and significantly add to falling student demographics, loss of local spending and less state aid for schools.
At issue is our ability to afford the school systems we have. Because school funding is based on a per pupil amount of state aid (currently around $18,800 per student per year), when student populations drop at a school, state aid diminishes and local taxes either have to be raised or expenses must be cut. And each time a school district drops 10 students, that’s another $188,000 taken out of the school and out of the community’s economy. It’s part of a downward economic spiral that should worry us all.
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The preferable answer, of course, is to stabilize the student demographic and grow it to full enrollment of our existing school facilities. Imagine, for a moment, having another 500 students attending these three school districts (which would still be below capacity) that would attract that many more teachers and staff into our communities as well as $9,400,000 a year in state aid to the three school districts.
In short, the economic impact of growth is a pursuit worthy of substantial time and investment.
Yet, our school districts and our towns are not as hell-bent on devising plans for economic growth and attracting new students as they are at accepting decline and cutting spending, as if those actions of shrinkage will miraculously lead to growth.
That, of course, is their counter argument. Forced with the prospect of higher taxes, school leaders are suggesting that if we consolidate (shut down elementary schools in rural towns), we can create a better central school system at less expense and that will attract families to the area — regardless if their kids have to travel 20-30 minutes to school, or that the county’s rural towns are little more than residential outposts.
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That’s the dim overview, the essence of the argument.
The next steps get down to the nitty-gritty: Local residents reviewing school board plans to determine how much Option A will cost or save, versus Option B versus Option C, and then voting on those plans either at Town Meeting or weighing in at school board meetings if the district board (as with the ACSD) has the power to make that decision solo.
In those calculations the one critical element is that school boards must share all necessary information for citizens to make informed decisions.
That has not been the case at MAUSD, as has been made clear by Starksboro resident Herb Olson in his repeated requests for financial information that would demonstrate the projected savings of the administration’s preferred plan. Mr. Olson has repeatedly requested that financial information be shared publicly, but he has been put off and denied access to it for the past four months. (See story Page 1A.)
The ACSD, on the other hand, has made studies available that showed the cost savings of various consolidation options. Could they share more information to district towns? Absolutely. In another story in this issue, several school board members express their dismay with the decision by some Ripton and Weybridge residents who want to withdraw from the district. They suggest it would be detrimental for those two towns, those students and the entire school district. In the same breath, however, they suggest it’s not their responsibility to do more to inform them.
Certainly it is. The board has the responsibility to fully explain to all district residents the consequences of a town pulling out of the district and why board members would want to vote to keep towns from seceding.
Boards also have a responsibility to update demographic trend lines for each school district and adjust them, if necessary, rather than rely on decade-old data as if nothing has changed in the past few years — encompassing the pandemic, remote working, climate change related storms and weather, and the fires out West.
Finally, rushing these decisions is foolish. The talk of closing schools, merging high schools, not having a school in towns that have had them for the past 200 years, is life-changing for many residents. A little time to adjust, to re-imagine solutions if possible, is needed — and any cost, a year or two of higher taxes perhaps, is nothing area residents haven’t lived through before.
Patience and tolerance are virtues. In these discussions, we need more of both.
Angelo Lynn

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