Where are we supposed to put the kids — a tent on the lawn?

BRISTOL’S MOUNTAIN STREET School (now known as Bristol Elementary) was so chock-full of students in 1965 that these 18 first-graders were educated in a nearby trailer-classroom, as shown in this March 25, 1966, Independent photo. Middlebury officials were also considering the use of such trailers for their overcrowded schools.

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of stories about the growing pains of Addison County schools in 1965-66 and the Vermont Commissioner of Education’s ambitious plan to address them.

ADDISON COUNTY — A month before school started in 1965, Middlebury Union High School officials predicted their building would soon need two additional science labs, a language lab, more library and cafeteria space, and additional rooms for typing, art, math, English, social studies, mechanical drawing, vocational shop for junior high students, auto mechanics and more.

Union District 3 voters had rejected two recent bids for MUHS construction bonds, but that was just as well, said MUHS board chair Carl Schmidt in August. Both bonds had underestimated the school’s facilities needs. The Middlebury area was rapidly expanding, thanks to the growth of local employers like Standard Register Company, Simmonds Precision Products, Middlebury College and Agway, and the school was adding something like 50 kids a year.

MUHS, which received students from Bridport, Cornwall, Middlebury, Ripton, Salisbury and Weybridge, was now looking at the possibility of 1,000 students (grades 7-12) by 1970. (For comparison, Middlebury’s middle and high school enrollment in 2020-21 was 786, and that was with a larger union.)

Even more difficult than projecting enrollment numbers was predicting student interest, said Superintendent Ralph Eaton. He cited the tremendous increase in science immediately after the Soviet Union launched its first Sputnik satellite in 1957. Now, a year and a half into the “British invasion,” Eaton predicted there would be an increased interest in art and music.

Further complicating the issue, in a mostly good way, was the fact that Middlebury had been designated as the future site of a technical-vocational center. The designation came with federal funding, but first Middlebury had to make room for it.

Meanwhile, UD-3 voters were getting ready to decide the fate of New Haven’s 60 high school students.

Officials at the 106-year-old Beeman Academy calculated that for the same money they were spending locally on teachers they could send their high school kids to a different town, where they would have more educational offerings.

Just two months before, New Haven had voted to form a five-town union with Bristol, Lincoln, Monkton and Starksboro to build a new high school in the Bristol area. But the union bid was defeated by a six-vote margin in Starksboro, which at the time was more interested in joining up with Champlain Valley Union High School. Soon after, New Haven voted to apply to MUHS.

The town, the Independent pointed out in an editorial at the time, had declined to join the MUHS district when it was formed in 1953.

But now, “a New Haven faction that pushed … to seek admission to MUHS contends that it would be cheaper for taxpayers in New Haven to join a school that is half paid for rather than join in the proposed five-town union sharing the burden of cost in constructing a new building,” the editor said.

Some UD-3 voters didn’t think this was a very good reason, and the proposal encountered some resistance.

“Where are we supposed to put the kids from New Haven — on a tent on the front lawn?” asked a Middlebury-area resident in an Addison Independent story.

“We don’t want any more rooms,” another UD-3 resident said. “We do not want any more kids, and we do not want any more taxes.”

While New Haven had its eyes on Middlebury, Addison Northeast Superintendent Ernest Codding vowed that Bristol, Lincoln, Monkton and Starksboro would vote to form a four-town union and build a new high school in Bristol.

The existing Bristol High School was more than a century old and could no longer accommodate its 333 students.

As with all school unions, the Bristol four-town union would have to be approved by the State Board of Education, but the forecast wasn’t looking very good.

Outgoing Commissioner of Education John Holden said he favored making Addison County a “two-high school county.” A new Bristol high school would be too small to provide an education that met new state standards, and the area tax base was too small to support the school.

Holden proposed sending Bristol, Lincoln and Starksboro grades 7-12 to Vergennes Union High School, and New Haven’s kids to MUHS.


Farther south, Shoreham voters rejected — for the 13th time in 15 years — a bid to close Shoreham High School and send the town’s 75 students out of town.

In late August, some Shoreham residents circulated a petition calling for Gov. Philip Hoff to put an end to “harassment” by the Department of Education and its perennial attempts to close their school.

Addison-Rutland Superintendent Oliver Brown said he would not push for another closure vote in Shoreham, but the “battle” wasn’t over.

Brown complained that the school was emphasizing the education of only some of the students — those preparing for a college education. Industrial arts training, on the other hand, was deficient.

In addition to rapid growth, county and state schools were facing a new set of state educational standards that had to be met by July 1, 1967, in order to preserve state aid.

Shoreham residents bristled at this, too.

“If the state tells me to put in a barber chair, I’ll be very tempted to put in a chair that barely meets their requirements,” said one school board member. “If they leave me alone, I’ll be willing to put in a better, more costly chair.”

Elsewhere in the county:

•  The Mountain Street Elementary School in Bristol was overflowing with kids. Some had to be housed in a 500-square-foot trailer. Others studied in classroom space provided by Saint Ambrose Parish. Enrollment at the school had increased by 28 over the previous year to 376. (In 2020-21, enrollment at the school, which now has an addition, was 388.)

•  A $50,000 addition ($426,000 in today’s dollars) was in progress at Cornwall Memorial School. One classroom was scheduled to be completed by Thanksgiving, the rest in January.

•  Enrollment rose to 532 at Middlebury’s elementary school, an increase of 26 over the previous year. Alarmed, the school board announced that the Court Street school would stop accepting tuitioned students until further notice, and it was suggested that industry leaders and real estate agents be apprised of this fact.

 (The school was at the time led by Principal Mary Hogan, and the school that would eventually take her name had an enrollment of 544 last year.)

•  In August 1966, Salisbury voters defeated a bond proposal for the construction of a new six-room schoolhouse. As soon as the vote was over, the losing side circulated a petition for a re-vote. In September the second bond vote also failed.

•  Champlain Valley Union High School informed Starksboro and other towns that it would stop accepting tuitioned students in 1970. It had run out of room.

•  Vergennes Elementary School was exploring an agreement with St. Peter’s Parish for additional classroom space.

•  A new wing was completed at Vergennes Union High School — three classrooms and a science lab for junior high kids.

•  Enrollment was 19 at both the Jerusalem School in Starksboro and at Ripton Elementary School. It was a decrease of two in Starksboro and a gain of seven in Ripton.

As school population issues grew more urgent, and showdowns loomed in various parts of the county, a new face appeared at the Board of Education: Education Commissioner Richard A. Gibboney. He was from Pennsylvania, he was appointed by the first Democratic governor Vermont had elected in more than a century, and he was about to dive right into the fray.

See Part 2 next week.

Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].

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