Op/Ed

Letter to the editor: If we don’t trust ACSD leaders we should withdraw

Over the last few years, school consolidation has been a contentious issue in Addison County and across Vermont. For many of us, it has taken up a tremendous amount of mental energy, time, and resources; sometimes, it feels like every step forward is followed by two steps back. Some have blamed those who are advocating for small-town schools for a lack of definite progress, accusing us of “undermining the strength of our district,” having a “limited imagination,” and of “looking backward and not forward.”
I have heard and read the buzz phrases: stronger together, one learning community, and equitable quality educational experiences for all many, many times. The truth is, consolidation is driven by financial factors and the small rural elementary schools are being sacrificed in the name of equity. Furthermore, to understand the present and to inform the future, it is necessary to acknowledge history.
Towns in Vermont have been responsible for educating their youth for hundreds of years. Do you really think citizens are going to be okay with being politically strong-armed into closing their schools? Are leaders really surprised to feel pushback when an arbitrary and ever-changing some in our district (and our state for that matter) are asked to make huge sacrifices on behalf of an unrecognizable whole?
I have also heard a member of our school board state that the small-school advocates “don’t feel heard only because they’re not getting their way.” Here is a small selection (and it is by no means comprehensive), of some ways the public has tried and failed due to lack of response to engage the ACSD board:
•  On Aug. 29, 2019, The Shoreham Selectboard sent the Facilities Master Plan Steering Committee a letter that documented the school enrollment growth over the past several years. (In fact, district-wide elementary school enrollment has stabilized.)
•  On Sept. 14, 2019, Deb Brighton, Salisbury, suggested the board read Slow Democracy and encouraged them to consider differentiating the term “community.”
•  On Nov. 25, 2019, Ruth Bernstein, Shoreham, urged the board to be honest with their motivation — that the truth is, their decisions are changing our mostly rural education into a more suburban model, and we need to be clear about the direction.
•  On Jan. 21, 2020, over 900 registered voters in ACSD petitioned the board to warn a vote on two articles that asked for fair protections; one was a town vote before closure. Only a handful of unified districts across the state don’t have this protection.
•  On March 3, 2020, Julie Barry and Amy Mason, Weybridge, presented a letter signed by over 100 people across the district asking the board to engage a facilitator as the next step. At that point, they felt the need to center empathy and a deeper level of engagement.
•  On June 22, 2020, Barb Wilson, Shoreham, submitted the report “Socioeconomic Assessment of the Three School Model.” This identified the potential for increasing social inequity across the district if the two most vulnerable communities were consolidated into the same school.
•  On Aug. 24, 2020, Chris Kramer, Cornwall, shared the results from a survey he conducted and suggested the upcoming Porch Conversations be used more than just a platform for the leaders to explain the current direction.
•  On Sept. 24, 2020, Steve Cash, Ripton, presented the board with a petition signed by over 650 people asking for a hold on the Facilities Master Plan process, as the COVID-19 pandemic rendered many families unavailable to engage.
•  On Sept. 28, 2020, the Town of Shoreham sent a letter signed by their Selectboard and Planning Commission Chair to the board with an alternate four-school model solution that would improve the socioeconomic disparity.
The principal person the ACSD board has been in creative dialogue with is David Epstein, of the architecture firm TrueEx Cullins. Epstein and the board generated a set of guiding principles during a 2019 summer retreat. These principles have been used to promote facilities upgrades over keeping schools open, focusing on an idealized one- or two-elementary school model for the entire ACSD. For many parents who champion small schools, mixed-grade classrooms, and the ease of engaging in town schools despite possible facility drawbacks, these models do not adequately reflect their values. Imposing the mantra “stronger together” on dissatisfied members of the community is not an adequate response. Moreover, to prove a united front with “one learning community,” a sacrifice has to come at all levels. If that is unpalatable, then you finally understand how some of us have felt all along.
On Jan. 12, 2021, two towns in the district, Ripton and Weybridge, as a last resort to be part of the process, are voting to withdraw. This final impasse is unfortunate, and it comes on the heels of an opaque, patronizing, and sometimes hypocritical (because of the ambiguous use of the term: equity) process lacking in true community engagement. Current ACSD leadership has utilized a power imbalance in order to promote a flawed plan. The phasing out of all outlying elementary schools and then using the current facilities in Middlebury might be the only option that would actually save money, and that’s something I could support, but until we can trust the leadership to be honest about all possibilities, I believe it is absolutely necessary for the impacted towns to withdraw from the school district.
Joanna Doria
Ripton

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