Letter to the editor: Small schools face long odds

Angelo Lynn’s editorial of Dec. 17, (“Disruption hits area schools”) requires some correction.
Mr. Lynn states that “school funding is based on a per-pupil amount of state aid (currently around $18,800 per student per year), when student populations drop at a school, state aid diminishes and local taxes either have to be raised or expenses must be cut. And each time a school district drops 10 students, that’s another $188,000 taken out of the school and out of the community’s economy.”
Mr. Lynn’s statement is not accurate. When voters approve a local school budget, the state sends that entire amount to the district. If, as in Mr. Lynn’s example, the district loses 10 students, but the budget is the same, the state still sends the entire amount.
School funding in Vermont is complex, but it essentially comes down to this: Tax rates for all resident property owners, regardless of income, are determined by per-pupil spending in the local school district. So in that example, if a district loses 10 students, but reduces its budget by an amount that keeps the per-pupil spending flat, there will be no increase in the tax rate. And significant reductions in budgets require reductions in staff, since that’s where 80% of the budget goes.
The problem comes when a school is so small that it cannot reduce its staff. That’s why declining enrollment is driving per-pupil spending — and hence tax rates — ever higher.
If very small school buildings were clearly better for students, we’d be faced with a tough choice. But there is no evidence indicating that very small school buildings deliver superior educational opportunities for students. There is no disputing that buildings with eight or more rooms can offer a music room and an art room, and the (usually preferred) option of single-grade classes.
A building with four rooms cannot offer those opportunities, no matter how many people move to the area.
Mr. Lynn worries about the economic impact of unemployed teachers. But just like businesses, our school district cannot have the goal of maximizing the number of staff, just to support the local economy. Our board is doing its job by being prudent with taxpayers’ money, assuring that it serves students to the extent possible.
As voters in Weybridge and Ripton prepare to vote on withdrawal from the district on Jan. 12, it is important to understand how school funding works, and how the size of buildings affects student opportunity. It’s clear to me that voting no to withdrawal is in the best interest of our students.
Jerry Shedd

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