We’ve Been Here Before: A 7-part series about past upheaval in local schools

THOUGH IT WAS only seven years old at the time, Vergennes Union High School was already getting an addition as the 1965-66 school year got under way — three junior high classrooms and a new science lab. VUHS, which served students in Addison, Ferrisburgh, Panton, Vergennes and Waltham, was one of several county schools that saw a surge in enrollment in the 1960s. This photograph first appeared in the Aug. 20, 1965, edition of the Independent.

Editor’s note: “We’ve Been Here Before” is a series about the growing pains of Addison County schools in 1965-66 and the Vermont Commissioner of Education’s ambitious plan to address them. Read on to discover the genesis of this series and see below a complete list of stories.

ADDISON COUNTY — As school boards, educators, community members and lawmakers offer their best ideas for addressing the declining enrollment and rising costs that have plagued our local school districts in recent years, it sometimes seems as if a great upheaval is underway.

School officials warn us about empty classrooms, reduced programming, skyrocketing property taxes. Proposed solutions have included closures, consolidations, merging, dis-unification. One proposal in the Mount Abraham Unified School District suggests the creation of a single county-wide high school.

Daunting and unique as it all seems, we’ve been here before.

Sort of.

In the early 1960s Addison County had roughly the same total student population it does today, though school enrollment was rapidly increasing then, rather than declining as it is today.

Then, as now, school boards, educators, communities and lawmakers scrambled to solve urgent facilities issues. Then, as now, people talked about closing, merging, withdrawing.

The upheaval became heated in the summer of 1965.

At the time, many county schools were bursting at the seams.

Middlebury Union High School, built in 1956 and recently selected to receive federal funding for a new technical-vocational center, desperately needed an addition if it was going to handle surging enrollment.

New Haven residents were eager to close Beeman Academy and send their grades 9-12 students to Middlebury, putting further pressure on MUHS’s facilities.

An attempt by the Bristol 5-Town area to form a union and build a new high school was foiled by six votes in Starksboro.

Shoreham residents were about to defeat — yet again — a proposal to close their high school.

School building additions were under way in Cornwall, Middlebury and Vergennes. A trailer-classroom was parked on the grounds of Bristol’s Mountain Street elementary school, but it wasn’t enough to handle student overflow, so the school had made arrangements to borrow space at St. Ambrose Church. A similar arrangement between Vergennes Union Elementary School and St. Peter’s Church was being proposed.

The county’s message to Montpelier was loud and clear:

Help. Now!

But the help local school districts received looked nothing like the help they said they wanted.

Drama ensued.

Local residents decried the intrusion of state bureaucrats, and battles emerged over local control. Some stakeholders fought for more advanced college preparatory courses, while others advocated for more technical-vocational training. Towns bickered with one another, and consensus, as always, was difficult to achieve.

After the smoke cleared, local officials got much of what they’d wanted, and Addison County’s school districts started to look like they do today.

In Montpelier, an ambitious, forward-looking education proposal got shoved into a drawer, where it has stayed ever since.

The Addison Independent covered the entire saga from beginning to end, publishing hundreds of articles and commentaries.

Lately, given the pickle our local schools are in, it has seemed like a good time to crack open a few of the newspaper-size leather-bound books in our archive and see if it might be possible to re-tell the story with fresh eyes.

Reporter Christopher Ross did just that in a series of articles that were published between July and September 2021. Read them below. 

Part 1: Where are we supposed to put the kids? A tent on the lawn?

Part 2: State and local officials spar over schools

Part 3: ‘Harris Report’ stirs up county educators

Part 4: Back to square one for schools… again

Part 5: School districts part ways

Part 6: 1966 set the stage for today’s school districts

Part 7: What does ‘local control’ mean? 

Clippings by Christopher Ross: 1966 series was a labor of love

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