Ripton’s withdrawal effort gets a lot trickier

RIPTON — Just three months ago, Ripton’s quest for independence from the Addison Central School District appeared to be a slam dunk. Voters in all seven ACSD communities, as well as the Vermont State Board of Education (VSBE), had overwhelmingly endorsed Ripton’s withdrawal effort, ostensibly placing the small mountain town on a path to control its own PreK-12 destiny beginning next July.

But the past several weeks have seen at least three area union school districts reject the notion of partnering with Ripton to provide it with the transportation, special education and central office services it will need if it’s to achieve independence. Those setbacks — along with a new Sept. 15 directive from the VSBE that Ripton should try to patch up its differences with the ACSD — have made the town’s path to independent status difficult and murky.

“We appreciate Ripton’s position, which is why we ultimately recommended that Ripton and ACSD try to find a way to come together again,” VSBE Chair Oliver Olsen told the Independent during a Sept. 20 phone interview. “Because it’s clear to the board that that’s in the best interests of the kids in the region.”

Those advocating for Ripton’s withdrawal from the ACSD see it as a way to preserve Ripton Elementary for PreK-6 children, while tuitioning the older students to area middle- and high schools with the capacity to serve them. The ACSD has tentatively targeted Ripton, Bridport and Weybridge Elementary Schools for closure, due to declining enrollment and rising education costs.

Ripton officials are now learning that going solo is more complicated than they initially thought. They received an initial jolt on Aug. 25 when Vermont Secretary of Education Daniel French said he’d recommend the VSBE designate Ripton its own school supervisory district, which would negate the prospect of the town affiliating with a nearby supervisory union for essential support services.

Still, some in Ripton held onto hopes the VSBE would decline French’s advice and instead pair the town with a school district in the region to provide support services that would otherwise be extremely difficult and expensive for Ripton to provide for itself.

But when the VSBE re-examined Ripton’s case on Sept. 15, it urged the town to re-engage in conversations to remain in the ACSD, and report on progress on those talks in November. The state board added it would likely designate Ripton its own supervisory district (as French recommended) if its talks with ACSD fail, but not before July 1, 2023 (instead of 2022).

“We went through, fairly exhaustively, the various options (that Ripton could pursue), and everyone concluded the options out there aren’t particularly good,” Olsen said.

State education officials said Ripton’s path might have been easier if it were able to link up with a pre-existing supervisory union or supervisory district in the region.

But here’s the problem.

Some of the candidates for a Ripton pairing indicated they’re too busy serving their current communities — as well as working through Act 46 consolidation — to take in Ripton. And other districts say accepting Ripton into the fold would force them (per state law) to revert to a supervisory union structure, which they believe would be unwieldy and less efficient.

One of the bi-products of that SU system: Creation of a new SU Board on which Ripton and the ACSD would both be allocated seats.  This new supervisory union could provide unequal representation, according to ACSD superintendent Peter Burrows, with the ACSD only having half of the seats on that board while representing more than 90% of the student population.

“The SU Board would shift current responsibility from the ACSD Board, including critical oversight of curricular direction and leadership,” Burrows wrote in s recent memo to his board that outline what he believes are several drawbacks to an SU format.

He said creation of an SU would also:

• Create a new governance structure that would provide an additional layer of leadership, “increasing the complexity required for ACSD to build on the work we have accomplished over the past four years.”

• Represent “a step backwards in our mission to provide equitable access for all students.”

• Result in the need for “locally voted, separate budgets (one for Ripton, one for the rest of the SU) that would make it harder to prioritize common initiatives related to curriculum, student services, and professional learning.”

• Would be more costly and less efficient.

• Would make it harder for the new SU to hire and retain qualified employees, due to the complexity of an SU.

• Could result in other districts withdrawing from ACSD, “which automatically creates secondary school choice for seceding districts,” Burrows said. “Ultimately, this could lead to both Middlebury Union Middle and High Schools left without belonging to any school district.”

Leaders of the White River Valley Supervisory Union (WRVSU) and the Otter Valley Unified Union School District/Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union have both declined to partner with Ripton. Ripton officials had in particular hoped to forge a partnership with WRVSU.

“This decision is based on several factors,” reads an Aug. 23 letter from the WRVSU board to French. “These include 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.”

Rutland Northeast officials expressed similar reservations in a May 17 letter from board Chair Laurie Bertrand to then-VSBE Chair John Carroll.

“The boards of the RNESU believe strongly that there are too many hurdles, whether structurally or financially, which would arise from the addition of Ripton as a district to the RNESU,” she wrote. “As such, we cannot support any decision which would place Ripton within our district or supervisory union.”

Ultimately, the VSBE decided it wasn’t going to disregard the school districts’ concerns and force one of them to accept Ripton. So Ripton now faces the prospect of either forging an accord with the ACSD — which may or may not assure survival of its elementary school — or becoming its own supervisory district at great effort and cost.

“The issue at hand is that while Ripton wants to go it alone, it’s going to be very challenging,” Olsen said. “The other supervisory unions have made it very clear that taking Ripton in would have a negative effect on their systems. So we, as a board, have to balance the interests of what Ripton is trying to do, with the greater good, if you will. I think the board made it very clear it was not willing to sacrifice the greater good to advance the very specific objectives of Ripton.”

The Independent reached out to representatives of both the ACSD and Ripton school boards to get their respective takes on the VSBE’s latest directive and the possibility of finding common ground.

 “We will be discussing the current directive of the State Board of Education at our next board meeting (Sept. 27),” said ACSD board Chair Mary Cullinane. “I’m confident, that as a board, we will continue to work towards solutions that are in the best interests of the children and families we have been asked to serve.”

The board, at its Sept. 13 gathering, discussed the perceived advantages and disadvantages of an SU structure. Board member Mary Heather Noble said the current ability of communities to withdraw from their respective school districts, gain independence, and then seek support services through an SU arrangement “essentially sets up a scenario where … (communities can say) ‘we still want the benefits of being in, but not the responsibilities of being in.’ And that’s a real concern for me.”

Ripton School Board members Molly Walsh and Steve Cash said they welcome another chance to speak with their ACSD counterparts.

Cash was asked if progress could be made if the ACSD holds firm in its previously stated position to shutter Ripton Elementary.

“If the district is going to stand fast with the position that they are going to close the Ripton school, that will be an admittedly tough place to start successful negotiations from,” he said. “However, we believe this is a chance for both of the parties working on this issue to examine it in a new light. Whether both of the parties involved will embrace different or changed perspectives remains to be seen, but we are hopeful that a positive solution can emerge. I also think it is important to remember that the VSBE did not ask ACSD and Ripton to merely talk, but to actively work on this and report back in November.”

He added the board doesn’t resent the VSBE for extending, by one year, Ripton’s potential independence.

“We feel the VSBE did their best to engage with the situation in a logical and realistic way, in the short time they had, and we appreciate their deliberations,” Cash said. “I do not feel this decision has nullified the path voters have chosen for Ripton. In some processes things simply take longer than the time initially allocated. It remains to be seen whether Ripton’s independence simply takes longer than first planned or if these discussions take us into uncharted waters.”

Witters said she hopes Ripton’s case serves as a catalyst for officials in Montpelier to assist in the survival of rural schools.

“This directive for consensus was handed down from the highest board in the state,” Witters said. “I hope now that other leaders in those positions of power recognize the imperative to take a close look at important educational finance legislation coming down the pipe. That is where they can truly help with this rural consolidation issue, by investing in a diverse educational landscape as an integral part of Vermont’s identity.”

Other Addison County communities are watching Ripton’s independence bid closely. Lincoln residents recently voted to withdraw from the Mount Abraham Unified School District, a move that still must be endorsed by the four other MAUSD towns and the VSBE. Starksboro is also considering leaving the ACSD, and the town of Addison on Oct. 5 will hold a revote on whether to leave the Addison Northwest School District.

Asked if the VSBE’s current position on Ripton should be seen as a bellwether for other towns seeking independence, Olsen said, “I think it’s really important that voters in those other communities really think through the next steps and the impact such a decision would have on the education of their own students and the sustainability of whatever school district might remain … And what should also be really clear is there are a lot of unintended consequences that oftentimes are missed in the early stages of these types of things. We’re seeing that play out here in Ripton.

“I think there was a lot of focus on the elementary school — and that was clearly a driving factor — but there’s a lot more complexity that hadn’t been fully vetted,” he added. “And now we’re having to grapple with those challenges. If I were in some of these other communities, I would be looking long and hard at some of the other details that sometimes get missed.”

Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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