Peter Burrows: Students need united community
This week’s writer is Peter Burrows, D.Ed., superintendent of the Addison Central School District, which serves Middlebury and six surrounding towns.
When we voted in our seven towns to become a single educational community in March of 2016, we did so with the hope and expectation that unification would allow us to address the demographic and financial challenges we face together.
We came to this unification out of an experience that had already been challenging, and we’d already struggled to sustain our programming and staffing while keeping the tax burden in our communities manageable. As superintendent, I had been a part of many of those conversations in our towns. At the time of unification, we knew that these pressures wouldn’t go away, but that we’d be able to confront them as a single community as opposed to seven different ones.
Our budgetary reality, not dissimilar to our other Addison County neighbors, has worsened to the point that we expect to be over the excess spending threshold this year by roughly $500,000, and we expect that number to compound year after year. The threshold is a part of Vermont’s education funding formula and requires double taxation for every dollar spent above it. We have now entered a period where we will need to significantly reduce staffing every year to stay below the threshold to avoid the double tax, or continue to spend above it and create an unsustainable tax burden for our community.
Reducing our costs yearly has a direct impact on students, and equates to fewer resources in all of our schools. Impacts will include larger class sizes, blends of three grades per classroom in smaller schools, less administrative support, and reduced student services to support wellness and learning. These are real impacts. There is understandable frustration, anger, and pain at the thought of closing schools, and I acknowledge how hard this is. At the same time, we cannot sustain the resources necessary to adequately staff our nine schools. A single-school district on its own will face these same pressures, but without the ability to be part of a larger district that can look ahead proactively to create more opportunity for students.
As a unified district, we are able to leverage so much strength. We have been able to sustain full-time positions, establish collaboration and connectedness across schools, pursue big projects like International Baccalaureate, and provide equitable access to professional learning, supplies, and programs. I don’t know how we would have gotten through the challenges of the pandemic without the ability to support students, staff, and families as one organization.
I still believe that we are one educational community, and that we are stronger together than apart. When I look at what we have created over the last five years, and where we are headed as we slowly move out of the pandemic, I believe that our students are better served by addressing these challenges as we are: as one community.
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