Letter to the editor: Effects of closing schools need closer examination
“If you build it, they will come,” is a phrase that haunts the main character in the movie “Field of Dreams.” In that film, the thing to be built is a baseball field for spectral players from the early 1900s, but it got me thinking, and not about baseball. It got me thinking about the reverse of that message: “If you tear it down, what will happen?” For at least a dozen years, Vermont governors have been bemoaning our state’s demographics, hoping for more young families in our midst. Governor Scott went so far as to offer a sort of “sign-on bonus” of $10,000 for moving here. Recently, as a result of the pandemic, there has been movement for one kind of “build” which encourages folks to come: increasing internet capacity throughout the state. This is a significant step in the right direction, but what else?
What are we tearing down? In many parts of the state, school districts are looking to “tear down,” via closure, small towns’ schools. If I were someone with a young family looking to move here, would I choose a community where the school has been closed? Many smaller towns have available housing and it is often a bit more affordable than in the larger communities. These small towns would welcome the influx of new residents, and people who move from more urban settings often dream of a small, close community lifestyle. But would they choose a small town if it meant their children would face the lengthy bus rides and the crowded classrooms they were hoping to move away from?
In truth, Vermont’s problem is not too many schools. Rather, there are too few children to attend those schools. If we close schools, will those children — and their parents — come? In fact, if we close them, who will come to our smaller towns? Retirees? That’s fine, but who will become our firefighters and EMTs? Or will seasonal residents buy up the housing, and if they do, will they be active, involved community members? What about Airbnb owners/renters? They are even less likely to engage in the community. Ultimately, closing small schools is a recipe for gutting those towns and communities of our state.
I realize much of the push to close schools is fueled by a desire to keep taxes down, and I know many people do not relish paying them. However, those diminishing communities will ultimately lead to diminishing taxable value. Meanwhile, small town residents will bear the costs of a consolidated educational system in which they have weakened connections and no real voting power. Supposedly, there will be greater educational equity, but that is only true if one believes having every child in a classroom of 20+ students is more equitable.
And where is the equity when one child has a 5-minute bus ride (or can even walk or ride their bike) when another is on a bus for an hour or more each way? Where is the equity when some parents can quickly stop by the school to meet with a teacher, when another parent, with perhaps limited time and/or gas money, has to drive a dozen miles or more? Where is the equity when there is no bus ride home if a student from an outlying town wants to stay after school for sports or other extracurricular activities?
Robert Frost wrote, “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know/What I was walling in or walling out.” Say, before we tear something down or close it up, we need to know what we are losing; what we are shutting in and who we are shutting out.
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