Op/Ed

Letter to the editor: Closing schools isn’t the answer

There are well-documented adverse consequences of school consolidation on students including decreased parent involvement, lower grades and lower extracurricular participation. There are also well-documented negative impacts on towns including decreased property values, decreased civic involvement, and – in extreme cases – town abandonment over time. There are also no guarantees of real savings since school closures often result in increased transportation costs, future capital construction and increased mid-level administration. Even if savings within our county districts are realized, there may be no tax reductions or programming benefits since our three Addison County school districts represent less than 5% of the state’s education costs and we are in a shared funding model.
On a more personal level, many families simply prefer small elementary schools to large ones. Many families in my town of Weybridge chose to move here because they preferred a community school where all children are known by every member of the staff, where every kindergartener has a rotating 6th-grade buddy escort them for lunch pick-up and where all grades intermingle during play at recess.
The pros and cons of small schools vs. large schools can be debated and obviously there is no universal right or wrong, but for those families who intentionally chose a small community school, being told our kids may soon have no other option than to attend a school that is eight times larger feels heart-breaking.
It feels particularly daunting given the plans that have been presented to cut current K-5 staff at Mary Hogan by 30% and increase K-5 students by 33%. A petition was signed in January by many frustrated Middlebury residents expressing a grave need for more resources at Mary Hogan, yet consolidation plans call to decrease Mary Hogan’s K-5 paraprofessionals from 38 to just 8 and backfill those 30 eliminated positions with only 2-4 certified interventionists. We’re moving in the wrong direction.
So how did we get here? This is a statewide issue driven by declining enrollment and staggering increases in employee health care costs and teacher pension contributions. Yet instead of the state proactively addressing the underlying issues that created this crisis, districts are being forced to reactively respond by cutting their #1 expense – wages. Not only is this reactive response gutting and closing our schools, it is pitting towns against each other and vilifying our administrators and school boards who feel their only option is to use questionable Act 46 loopholes in order to make massive staff reductions.
This is what we saw with Superintendent Reen in MAUSD who is “recommending the MAUSD board NOT close any schools” but instead repurpose three elementary school buildings. This veiled attempt to get around the town vote requirement that was built into MAUSD’s Act 46 Articles of Agreement is damaging a relationship that is critical to the success of the district.
As a community, we need to come together — all three Addison County school districts, school boards, central offices and residents — and push back on the state to acknowledge this crisis and face it head on at the state level. We need to call on our state government officials to focus their energy on finding ways to entice more people to move to our beautiful state through affordable housing, universal broadband, business-friendly policies and increased economic opportunity. We need to ask them to reevaluate the state education funding model and the excess spending threshold that is making school boards feel like they’re being held hostage.
Obviously statewide changes won’t come overnight. In the meantime, our local elected school boards should allow taxpayers to vote on the value we place on our children’s education. Our school boards need to stop treating the excess spending threshold as a fixed ceiling and instead show us real projections of the tax implications on both the 70% of taxpayers who pay based on income and the 30% who pay based on property value so that we can be part of the decision on whether it’s worth it to gut and close our schools. We cannot solve a statewide issue at a district level and, if we try, we will all lose.
Jenny Phelps
Weybridge

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