Weybridge and Ripton to vote on leaving ACSD
You can pretty much guarantee that if you don’t have a school in at town — especially a town that is more remote —you’re not going to have as many young families come.
— Laurene Cox
RIPTON/WEYBRIDGE — On Jan. 12 residents of Ripton and Weybridge will be asked if they’d like to withdraw their towns from the Addison Central School District (ACSD), in what has become a last-ditch, grassroots effort to prevent closure of their local elementary schools.
“It’s been an adventure so far, and I think it’s going to be an even greater adventure as we go along,” said Millard “Mac” Cox, one of the residents who petitioned for the Ripton secession vote. “We’re just hoping that we can be successful, being the smallest town in the district. We have the least political power, but we’re not afraid; we want to move forward and do everything we can to keep our school open.”
The ACSD provides pre-K-through-grade-12 public education for children in Bridport, Cornwall, Middlebury, Ripton, Salisbury, Shoreham and Weybridge. The district unified its governance structure back in 2016 in line with provisions of Act 46, and is now exploring ways of containing rising education costs that are in part being driven by declining enrollment and rising health insurance premiums.
With the aid of consultants, the ACSD board has been working on a facilities master plan that will serve as a template for prioritizing repairs to district buildings that they believe will best serve its long-term educational mission.
Until recently, the panel favored the concept of keeping three elementary schools rather than the current seven. But they learned a three-school model (Middlebury, Salisbury and Bridport) would produce unacceptably long bus rides for students, so the board is now reviewing a four-school model that would preserve the schools in Middlebury (Mary Hogan), Cornwall, Salisbury and Shoreham.
Neither the three- nor four-school models calls for retaining the ACSD’s two smallest schools, in Ripton and Weybridge. Enrollment at each those two schools is expected to dip below 50 next fall, in part due to the transfer of all ACSD sixth-graders to Middlebury Union Middle School.
But some Weybridge and Ripton residents have been urging the ACSD board to preserve their local schools, arguing in part that they:
• Deliver quality education close to home. If the Ripton school were to close, some local residents aren’t keen about seeing their children bused to either the Salisbury or Mary Hogan schools.
• Are, for the most part, in sound shape.
• Serve as important community hubs for gatherings and events.
• Provide a powerful settlement inducement for young families looking to escape urban setting for small-town quality of life.
Jenny Phelps, one of those who petitioned for the Weybridge secession vote, voiced concern about the timing and implications of the ACSD’s school consolidation efforts.
“Many Weybridge residents have expressed concerns about the 69 K-5 elementary school staff reductions called for in current facilities master plan projections, the rushed timeline to vote on the plan before Town Meeting Day despite the pandemic and many unanswered questions, the board’s inability to guarantee that closing schools will reduce taxes or increase programming, and the increased transportation times that will result from school closure,” she said.
Peter Burrows, ACSD superintendent, said the ultimate reduction of teachers is hard to pinpoint at this time, as the district board has yet to decide on a three- or four-school option. Also, the ACSD is exploring a shift toward “more licensed staff for intervention and fewer general paraprofessional positions.”
Fearing time is running out for them to influence the school closure process, residents in Ripton and Weybridge have submitted citizens’ petitions calling for referenda that would, if passed, initiate a process for withdrawing from the ACSD. Their hope is their towns will become independent districts that could continue to serve their youngest children at their local elementary schools, while tuitioning their older children to MUMS, Middlebury Union High School, or any other nearby secondary school system that could take them.
“A special vote is the first step in a long process of withdrawal from a unified school district, but it will give clarity to Weybridge residents’ position on the issue of closing the elementary school and will start the process, if approved,” said Kelly Flynn, another person who lead Weybridge’s petition effort.
“We have not seen the small school hallmarks of Weybridge reflected in the school board’s discussion of school consolidation,” she added.
SCHOOL AS FAMILY
Erin Robinson is a staunch supporter of the Ripton secession effort, and hosts one of the “save our school” signs that are popping up on laws throughout town in advance of the Jan. 12 vote.
“It’s more than a school; it’s a family,” she said of Ripton Elementary and its staff.
Robinson has two young children enrolled at Ripton Elementary, and she serves as a substitute teacher there. She and her husband moved to Ripton from Middlebury three years ago, citing the small school as a major draw. Robinson said one of the couple’s sons becomes anxious in crowded settings.
“The Ripton School was a huge selling point for us,” she said. “We knew he could test his boundaries in a setting he feels comfortable in.”
Losing the local school would have far-reaching impacts, she said.
“It’s so sad for me to think about how this is going to displace our children … and our wonderful teachers, who don’t know where they’re going or what the plan is,” Robinson said.
Laurene Cox (also spouse of the aforementioned Mac Cox) chairs the Ripton selectboard. She told the Independent she and her colleagues back the secession effort.
“I’m not saying the selectboard would have generated (the vote) all by ourselves, but we were on board with the whole situation, because quite frankly, for Ripton, there’s not another option — at least the way things are going,” she said.
“Ripton and Weybridge are the two schools in the district that no one is talking about” when it comes to planning for the ACSD’s future, she added.
Like other Ripton residents, Cox wonders why the Ripton school building — erected only 31 years ago — is being dismissed for future use. She hears the arguments about Ripton being a more “remote” town in the district, but added it’s ironic, “We’re too far away for people to come here, but it’s OK for our kids to go there. It’s as much of an issue going one way as it is in the other.”
Cox lamented the impact that closing the Ripton School might have on the town’s demographics.
“You can pretty much guarantee that if you don’t have a school in a town — especially a town that is more remote — you’re not going to have as many young families come,” Cox said.
That in turn would choke the pipeline for volunteers for vital municipal services, like the fire department, Cox noted.
“It’s like a domino effect,” she said.
Mac Cox said getting the requisite 5% of registered voter signatures for the Ripton petition was “very easy. We got many more signatures than we needed.”
He has been a member of “ACSD Save Our Schools (SOS),” a group that’s been promoting preservation of the district’s rural schools. Cox this past fall mounted an eleventh-hour write-in campaign for Addison-2 House representative, but lost to incumbent (and ACSD board member) Rep. Peter Conlon, D-Cornwall.
The SOS group mounted a separate petition effort earlier this year requesting a vote to change the ACSD’s articles of agreement in a manner that would have required that a community vote in favor of closing its local school before such a step could be taken.
As it stands, the ACSD board has the power to close a district school by a super-majority vote of its 13 members. The ACSD board declined to put the SOS group’s proposal to a Town Meeting Day vote, based on an opinion from the district’s lawyer.
“We’ve been talking with the school board for about 18 months, we tried the petition, which failed, and we tried running a couple of candidates for two of the (ACSD board) seats, and neither one of the candidates won,” Mac Cox said. “The board apparently remains unanimously dedicated to closing our school, so we went to what now seems like the ultimate option of withdrawing from the district.”
The effort to leave the district goes beyond the potential closure of the Ripton school, according to Cox. He pointed to frustration among townspeople that Ripton — like Bridport, Cornwall, Salisbury, Shoreham and Weybridge — only have one seat on the ACSD board. Middlebury, due to its much larger proportional representation, gets seven votes, so its membership can out-vote one community, or even a coalition of the six smaller towns.
It should also be noted, however, that ACSD voters overwhelming approved the district’s articles of agreement back in 2016. It’s a decision that some residents of the smaller towns are now regretting.
“What it means is that as far as having any control over budgetary or educational matters in the district, Ripton would be virtually disenfranchised,” Mac Cox said. “We decided that if we can succeed in withdrawing and return to being an independent elementary school district, then we would have control over budget and education.”
COSTS TO CONSIDER
But Donna Russo-Savage of the Vermont Legislative Council, in her communiqué to the district, offered Ripton and Weybridge residents some important issues to study as they consider an exit from the ACSD. For example, she noted:
• The new town school district would no longer qualify for tax rate reductions as part of the merger incentives under Act 46.
• If a Small Schools Grant that was connected to the school was transformed into an annual, perpetual “Merger Support Grant” under one of the merger programs, then that grant goes away. But the new town school district would be able to apply for a small schools grant each year under the new criteria set out in 16 V.S.A. § 4015.
• Voters in the new district wouldn’t be eligible to sit on the school board of the schools in which the district’s older students enroll.
• Neither the new town school board nor its voters could change or vote on the policy decisions and the budget of the out-of-town schools in which the district’s older students enroll. Tuition to be paid for students in grades 7-12 would be an unchangeable line item on the PreK-12 budget.
The new district(s) would also be responsible for procuring special education services for any of their students who might require them. Then there’s busing, staffing, and budgeting responsibilities. Those lobbying for secession are still working out the financial implications of going it alone.
Members of the ACSD board weighed in on the secession efforts at the end of their Dec. 14 evening meeting. The consensus of the board was that the district should inform Ripton and Weybridge about the implications of their potential withdrawal.
“I truly believe being part of this (ACSD) community is an incredible opportunity for those who have access,” ACSD board Chairperson Mary Cullinane said. “While today, there are some of those who believe it’s in the best interest of their families and community to keep the elementary schools in question open — and do so at any cost — I have to say I disagree. By placing this financial requirement on this system, all our schools will deteriorate, in my opinion. And in a few years, when today’s elementary school children are ready to attend MUMS or MUHS, those will be different schools; they will reflect the costs of operating more elementary schools than are necessary to support all our kids. While consolidating our elementary schools is not going to alleviate all our challenges … not doing so will increase them.”
ACSD Board member Jen Nuceder said she’s saddened by the secession efforts.
“I’m sad that there are people who feel like we’re not doing our job well enough that they need to leave this work; hopefully, in the future, we can work this out,” she said.
“I feel like a strong school district is what’s going to drive people to move here, not a school in a town,” she added.
Conlon, who also serves on the Vermont House Education Committee, warned that Ripton and Weybridge would face a big learning curve about all the variables that come with leaving the district.
“The information that we have that’s very clear, is that if this process completes to fruition, all ties with ACSD are severed,” he said. “If I were a resident of Ripton or any other community that’s thinking about this, it would prompt a lot of questions in my mind that we can’t necessarily answer right now — and I’m not sure ours is the burden to answer them. We’re not the ones pushing this.”
Board member James “Chip” Malcolm said he hopes Weybridge and Ripton remain in the fold.
“I worry about the instability of secession; it doesn’t help our system at all,” he said.
John Flowers is at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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