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Ripton’s request for school services gets tougher

“The easy solution would be to assign (Ripton) to an existing supervisory union. But … I don’t think it’s advisable to disrupt the work of neighboring districts who have worked hard and achieved an efficiency and effectiveness.”
— Education Secretary Daniel French

RIPTON — With the town of Ripton essentially home-free in its bid to separate from the Addison Central School District (see vote story), the tiny town now faces the huge task of finding an entity that could help it secure special education, transportation, central office and other crucial services for its students.

The newly elected Ripton School Board has been counting on the town being paired with a supervisory union in the region that could provide the aforementioned services. But officials recently received discouraging news from two sources that could make their quest even harder:

•  Vermont Education Secretary Daniel French recommended that Ripton act as its own standalone school district.

•  The supervisory union Ripton hoped to tap for services declined.

Secretary French on Aug. 25 said he’d recommend to the Vermont State Board of Education that it designate the town of Ripton as its own school district, thereby negating the prospect of Ripton affiliating with a nearby supervisory union. That would require the community to secure its own special education, transportation and central office services for its students.

The state board of education, tentatively scheduled to meet with Ripton in mid-September, could reject French’s recommendation, but local school officials are concerned.

“The recommendation that came in Secretary French’s Aug. 25 email was not anticipated and generally came as a surprise,” said Ripton School Board member Joanna Doria. “Ripton’s withdrawal from ACSD was based on communication we received from the state board’s legal counsel that strongly suggested the option of Ripton, because of its size, being their own SU/SD was not feasible, nor desirable.”

Doria acknowledged French’s proposal for Ripton would require the town to “offer our students and families everything that an SU (supervisory union) would be responsible for, which includes but is not limited to a plan for transportation, special education services, food service, and central office support.”

Meanwhile, White River Valley Supervisory Union (WRVSU) has declined Ripton’s request for services through a pairing with that SU. The WRVSU executive board formalized its decision in an Aug. 23 letter to French and the Ripton School Board.

“After careful consideration and review, we can’t support this concept,” the WRVSU stated in its decision, citing the “large and expansive geography of our supervisory union, the additional time/resources that another district would require from our supervisory union staff, and fiscal factors that include additional costs for management of an additional district, special services, etc.”

The ACSD has already served notice that while it has the room to receive secondary-school-age Ripton children at Middlebury Union middle and high schools, it won’t partner with the town for the ancillary services it’s seeking. ACSD officials have said they have no interest in seeing the ACSD revert to a supervisory union system.

“A supervisory union structure is very different from a school district structure, and completely changes our governance model,” ACSD Superintendent Peter Burrows explained in an email to the Independent last spring. “It creates multiple entities within an overarching governing board that requires significantly more time to maintain basic operations and less time focused on cohesive, student-centered work that impacts teaching and learning.”

French’s Ripton recommendation was one of three options he had considered. The other two: creating a new supervisory union to provide services to Ripton and the ACSD, or assigning the Ripton to a multi-district SU that currently exists in the region.

French elaborated on his decision during a Tuesday phone interview with the Independent.

He called his stance on Ripton “an initial conclusion,” adding he’ll solicit reaction/feedback from community stakeholders prior to making a final recommendation to the state board’s meeting in mid-September.

French added, however, he’s unlikely to deviate much from his current advice on Ripton.

The main reason: He doesn’t want to disrupt operations in existing, neighboring, multi-town school districts — including Otter Valley, Mount Abraham and Addison Northwest.

“The easy solution would be to assign (Ripton) to an existing supervisory union,” French said. “But right now, anyway, my initial conclusion is, I don’t think it’s advisable to disrupt the work of neighboring districts who have worked hard and achieved an efficiency and effectiveness; I’m trying to preserve that as best I can.”

ACSD PAIRING ‘UNFAIR’

He acknowledged repatriating (for central office purposes) Ripton with the ACSD would seem to be a logical choice, “but then we come back to the issue of Addison Central having achieved a single district. To create a new supervisory union and basically — from my perspective — take a step backward from an organizational perspective and reinstitute a supervisory union structure for the sake of Ripton’s decision, essentially, would be unfair.”

He also conceded his decision puts Ripton in a tough spot.

“Designating Ripton its own supervisory district is not necessarily the best decision, because I don’t think they operate at a scale that will make that work very well. But on the other hand, I was more willing to protect the trajectory and work of the neighboring districts and not willing to disrupt that work as a result of Ripton’s (separation) decision.”

Ripton’s options include contracting for the services it needs, French noted.

“There’s some statutory language that’s been on the books for some time that allows supervisory unions to contract with one another for services,” he said. “It’s more challenging for issues like special education, because it’s not just a matter of service provision, it’s a question of liability. So the district has that liability and it can’t necessarily be assigned to someone else.”

French said his recommendation on Ripton shouldn’t be seen as a precedent for other communities seeking to divorce from their school districts. Locally, the towns of Addison, Weybridge, Lincoln and Starksboro are considering, have rejected, or are in the midst of separation bids.

 “I don’t operate on the basis of ‘sending a message,’ per se,” French said. “I would also say, though, that it’s about more than Ripton; it’s about understanding the dynamics of the region and how ultimately we can achieve a stable governance structure in the region that can achieve the state goals of education quality and equity. It’s not clear to me yet how the region will come together — particularly in the face of significant demographic challenges we’re all looking at.

“My prediction would be this decision will not be the final chapter in the story, and there’s more work to be done in the region.”

The Ripton School Board met this past Saturday to discuss French’s recommendation and its potential impact. The panel is preparing feedback that will be submitted to French on Friday.

Doria said she and her colleagues will look to make the best of what the state board ultimately decides — with students’ best interests the top priority.

“Reassignment to another SU might not be the most logical nor best choice for the state board to make at this point, and I hope, when it comes down to it, we can all make decisions that center students and families and puts politics aside,” she said. “I hope the state board can think creatively and possibly allow Ripton to contract temporary services with an institution that makes the most sense.”

Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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