Education Op/Ed

Editorial: Granting extra time in the Ripton withdrawal is a step in the right direction

The good news about the Vermont State Board of Education’s decision to ask the Ripton school board and the ACSD to revisit their relationship and see if they can work something out is that it buys everyone more time to work out a practical and reasonable solution.

That’s needed because the past two years have been fraught with too many unknowns: Would Ripton be successful in his decision to withdraw from the district? What would that look like? Could they partner with another district, even as many residents might prefer to stay within the ACSD for middle and high school? Would other district towns approve of Ripton’s withdraw, and what tack would the ACSD board take? It was and has been a path previously untaken, and it is to be expected that not all answers would be apparent.

That’s no one’s fault; it is not Ripton’s shortcoming.

Rather, the point should be that the ACSD and Ripton are pioneering new territory. The mutual goal is to try to find a path forward that serves their combined interest.

Such a pioneering effort was next to impossible to pursue over the past two years because so much was unknown. But now that both the district and Ripton residents know what each others’ preferences are, surely it’s possible to think in new ways to reach yet-to-be-considered opportunities.

One early move is to step back to look at the big picture:

• Ripton is a community dedicated to preserving its elementary school and is willing to devote parental time and community resources to do so. That’s a huge net positive that should not be lightly dismissed. Rather, district leaders should embrace such enthusiasm for education and seek to spread it throughout all district towns.

• Ripton has stated a preference for staying within the district for higher grades, and within the ACSD, if its elementary school can remain open. Over the long-term, the ACSD benefits from Ripton’s students attending its middle and high schools as state aid follows the student.

• The economic vitality of the ACSD and of greater Middlebury is stronger when it can offer a diverse range of communities to attract new growth. Having a mountain town with ample land and ski areas in its backyard is a highly desirable option for potential residents suddenly freed by being able to work remotely, and in a state likely to be a draw for climate-change refugees. Just in the past year Vermont’s resort towns have boomed with such new growth. Ripton and other towns in Addison County could see similar growth in the years ahead. Key to that growth for some people, however, is a vibrant community with a vibrant elementary school. (Yes, that argument can go both ways, but the folks who want a larger school and what it offers can settle in Middlebury; if small school options aren’t available for those who want them, those folk will go elsewhere.)

On a different tract, it was never the intent of Act 46 to close schools in communities desperate to keep them. Quite the contrary. Act 46 author and former state Rep. David Sharpe has repeatedly maintained as much, but nor was the act meant to saddle districts with financial burdens they couldn’t realistically sustain. To that end, it seems obvious that amendments to the legislation must be considered if towns like Ripton, Lincoln, Starksboro and others have the overwhelming community support to keep their schools vibrant without making it financially impossible to do so.

That the controversy over Act 46 now centers around school closures against the expressed will of community residents — and that’s a crucial distinction — demonstrates how poorly crafted the legislation was. But critics of Act 46 must also recognize that it is not working poorly in all school districts. There are communities who see benefit in consolidation and choose the pathways made easier by Act 46.

There is no reason, however, that the legislation can’t be tweaked to work for both.

What’s needed is the time and space to put entrenched, partisan thinking aside and to start anew. The VSBE’s decision is a step in that direction.

Angelo Lynn

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