Education Op/Ed

Letter to the editor: ACSD discussion needs context

I am writing to provide context to the quote attributed to me in the Dec. 16, 2021 article, “ACSD Board cool to Ripton rule changes,” and am doing so because I believe these are important details for the ACSD community to contemplate in this broad conversation about school consolidation. Please be aware that the following is my opinion as an ACSD parent and Middlebury resident, and does not represent the sentiment or official position of the ACSD Board.

The article reports the ACSD Board’s reaction to the Ripton School District’s itemized request for changes to ACSD’s charter to accommodate, among other things, majority town approval prior to closure of a school in the affected member town. The aim, of course, is to return the final decision-making authority regarding a school closure to local voters, and to gain a sense of control over the fate of their local elementary school should they choose to remain in ACSD.

The reasons behind Ripton’s request and the Save Our Schools movement are not without merit: town identities are tightly bound to their elementary schools, Vermont’s history favors local control, and many young, rural families cite their small schools as a primary reason for choosing to plant their roots where they have. But as valid as these reasons may seem, I feel there are two critical issues that make it particularly difficult for me to get behind Ripton’s request:

  1. Granting Ripton’s request would allow a town with no fiduciary responsibility to the school in question to usurp the decision-making authority of a district that has 100% of the fiduciary responsibility. And given our declining enrollment and increasing demands on limited resources, I believe such a change could hinder the ACSD’s ability to allocate its resources equitably to the students in all of its schools. In other words, if a town refuses to allow closure or reconfiguration of a significantly underutilized school, the ACSD Board would either be forced to starve its other schools and programs to balance the budget, or would be pressured to spend without regard to state spending controls and risk costing taxpayers even more. ACSD is already one of the highest spending districts in Vermont.
  2. ACSD’s mission is to educate students, not to preserve towns. Its mission is to set goals, establish policy, conduct planning, and allocate resources in support of its founding vision — which is that all ACSD students will meet their full academic potential and be prepared for success as engaged citizens. To that end, the District educates and coaches students, feeds them breakfast and lunch, and provides transportation, security, and enrichment. The District provides academic and behavioral interventions, special education, and offers meals for families during school breaks, as well as referrals for mental health care and other social services. The District is also providing access to primary healthcare for students at the high school, and is now offering COVID testing and vaccinations for all eligible students. I’m sure I’ve missed other services, but my point is that this is already a very heavy load. Are we really asking school districts to add preservation of small rural communities to their list of responsibilities?

—Which is what I was trying to say during the Dec. 13, 2021 Board meeting. We have limited resources with which to carry out our mission, and our students — both elementary and secondary in all member towns — must be the focus of our work.

I think it’s also important to understand that the ACSD’s ability to devote additional resources to our smallest elementary schools (which cost more per pupil to staff and operate) directly depends on the money we get from the State to do so. And the degree to which the State will provide that extra funding is a function of how it decides to weight equalized pupils attending small rural schools. This particular “rurality” factor has yet to be finalized, but it would seem worthy of the energy and attention of the Ripton School District and anyone else fighting to keep their small school open. How much does Vermont value its smallest community schools? Ask the legislative task force that just issued its December 17th final report on the implementation of pupil weighting factors. I hope their recommendations will help, but I doubt that the proposed “rurality” weighting factor will be high enough to fully offset the excess cost of staffing and operating half-filled schools. There are simply too many other pressing student needs in Vermont.

So please, let’s stop framing this issue as a David-verses-Goliath scenario, when in fact it might be more accurately portrayed as a large, diverse family gathered around the kitchen table, simply trying figure out how to balance everyone’s needs and pay the bills. Let’s use this time while the State has paused its education spending threshold, and while we have the benefit of federal COVID relief funding, to really focus on student recovery. But in the meantime, we should prepare for the difficult conversations and challenging decisions we will need to make as we plan for the future. There is no “us verses them.” It’s really just us verses us.

Mary Heather Noble

Middlebury

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