ACSD might postpone school closure decision

I think it’s prudent to discuss a significantly longer timeline.
—Victoria Jette

MIDDLEBURY — The Addison Central School District board had been scheduled to vote Feb. 23 on whether to close several Middlebury-area elementary schools. But that pivotal decision will likely be postponed in order to give ACSD residents and board members a chance to further discuss a proposal that as of now calls for closure of the Bridport, Ripton and Weybridge elementary schools.
The decision to review and possibly defer the school closure decision came after a three-hour, 20-minute meeting of the ACSD board on Monday evening. The district’s Facilities Committee unveiled a busy meeting schedule culminating in a school closure vote by the 13-member ACSD board at its Feb. 23 annual meeting.
But Superintendent Peter Burrows informed the Independent Tuesday morning that a “special meeting of the (district’s) Communications and Engagement Committee, along with (Facilities Committee Chair) Victoria (Jette), is being scheduled for tomorrow (Wednesday) afternoon to discuss revising the timeline based on feedback from the board and community.”
Jette, during a Tuesday morning phone call, said the effort to postpone the closure decision beyond Feb. 23 is predicated on a desire to “have more time to deliberate and hear form the community” on what will be a major change in ACSD operations that will have an impact on hundreds of families.
Jette wasn’t sure about the length of the closure vote postponement, but said, “I think it’s prudent to discuss a significantly longer timeline.” It could come at the end of the academic year, she said.
It was almost two years ago that the ACSD board began preparing a facilities master plan that will, among other things, guide the district on which of its school buildings should be closed due to declining enrollment, and which are worthy of future investment and use.
The ACSD board is currently favoring a plan to reduce the district’s seven elementary schools down to four — those in Middlebury (Mary Hogan), Cornwall, Salisbury and Shoreham. The board is scheduled to hear a report from its transportation consultant, Tim Ammon, on a potential busing schedule to serve the aforementioned network of four elementary schools. It was the prospect of lengthy bus times for student travelers that prompted the ACSD board to dismiss an earlier preference to consolidate into three elementary schools (Mary Hogan, Bridport and Salisbury).
The ACSD’s articles of agreement, approved by district voters back in 2016, give the school board the authority to close a school by a super-majority vote (at least 10 of the total 13 votes are needed).
It remains to be seen how the district’s school consolidation plans could be affected by separate bids by the towns of Ripton and Weybridge to withdraw from the ACSD. Both towns are slated to vote on secession referenda on Jan. 12. These votes were both driven by citizens’ petition efforts initiated by folks who want to keep their respective elementary schools open.
If a majority of voters in Weybridge and Ripton vote to secede from the ACSD, residents in the remaining ACSD towns must endorse their withdrawal through a separate vote. If even one of the remaining ACSD towns votes against the secession effort, it dies.
If the two towns get a green light from all other ACSD towns, then it’s up to the State Board of Education to decide whether Weybridge and Ripton become independent school districts that can keep their respective elementary schools open and tuition their older students to Middlebury Union Middle and High Schools, or any other secondary schools that agree to take them.
“There would have to be a reassessment, for sure,” board member Peg Martin said of the impact that successful secession votes could have on the ACSD’s school consolidation process. “I hope that this does not come to pass… I just think it’s not prudent of us to just ignore it completely.”
The ACSD serves children in Bridport, Cornwall, Middlebury, Ripton, Salisbury, Shoreham and Weybridge. The prospect of school closures has prompted dissent, particularly from residents of Ripton, Weybridge and Shoreham. Opponents argue that local elementary schools provide convenient educational settings, community gathering spots, and are a major drawing card for young families.
A majority of board members have said, however, that schools are on an unsustainable financial path due to declining enrollment and insufficient state aid. The board on Monday got its first look at a draft 2021-2022 ACSD budget calling for $33.3 million in education spending. It offers cuts that include seven teaching positions. Still, the draft spending plan places the ACSD $500,000 over the equalized per-pupil spending threshold set by the state. The Independent will run a comprehensive story on the draft budget in next Thursday’s paper.
It should be noted the ACSD’s seven elementary schools will each take another major student enrollment hit next fall, when all district 6th graders will move to Middlebury Union Middle School. When that happens, elementary schools will only serve PreK-5 students.
All these big changes on the horizon ultimately led ACSD members to consider an extension to the school closure vote with specifics to be decided on Wednesday (after the Independent went to press, due to tighter holiday deadlines.)
“I feel a little overwhelmed right now,” board member Lorraine Morse said. “I’m not sure I’m not going feel comfortable making a decision by Feb. 23, to be honest.”
She noted that it was less than a month ago that the board was leaning toward reducing the ACSD’s complement of elementary schools down to three.
“I have no problem making a decision that needs to be made, but things keep changing on a continual basis,” she said.
Board member Betty Kafumbe asked if the board could consider a five-school model. She suggested maintaining five elementary schools could help shorten bus rides for students and prevent potential overcrowding.
Jette disagreed, saying that five schools would not put the ACSD on a path to financial sustainability.
“If you add another school, you’re back to micro-schools,” she said.
John Flowers is at [email protected].

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