Education News

Ripton, Lincoln eye school collaboration

RIPTON — Dissatisfied with the pace and effectiveness of talks toward a possible compromise with the Addison Central School District, the Ripton School Board is exploring a public education union with the town of Lincoln.

Ripton residents a year ago voted to withdraw from the ACSD, a move largely aimed at protecting their small elementary school from possibly being closed at a time when the district is seeing declining enrollment and surging costs. Residents in the other ACSD member towns of Bridport, Cornwall, Middlebury, Salisbury, Shoreham and Weybridge subsequently affirmed Ripton’s vote.

But the Vermont State Board of Education (VSBE) has yet to sign off on Ripton’s exit, as the town has yet to pair up with a supervisory union to receive the central office, special education and transportation services it needs to fulfill its goal of becoming an independent school district.

Ripton has been unable to find a supervisory union suitor, and VSBE officials have said they’re unwilling to force a pairing because they don’t want to foist more responsibilities on supervisory unions, which are still getting used to school governance consolidation. Instead, the VSBE has asked Ripton and the ACSD to engage in talks that could result in the small town ending its independence bid.

But those talks have not been fruitful, at least from Ripton’s perspective. The board last month balked at Ripton’s request for amendments to the ACSD’s charter that would give member communities more power in electing their board representatives and a final say on whether their elementary schools should close.

The VSBE is slated to revisit Ripton’s independence bid on Wednesday, Jan. 19. It’s possible the board at that time could officially designate Ripton as its own school district, which would leave the community still searching for the special education, transportation and other services it likely couldn’t afford to provide on its own.

Ripton School directors are now asking the VSBE to take the town off its Jan. 19 meeting agenda to give it more time to work on two separate fronts to decide its public education future.

First, Ripton officials want to see if further talks with ACSD can bear fruit.

“Despite our efforts, ACSD has not reciprocated our effort to engage in solution-orientated discussions,” the Ripton School Board stated in a Jan. 3 letter to VSBE Chair Oliver Olsen. “We believe only a clear mandate by the VSBE for Ripton and ACSD to actively negotiate will bring both parties to the table. A working group mandated to examine the specific issues that led us to this point and create proposed changes would be beneficial for all.”

Ripton’s second reason for seeking more time is related to a study of whether the town could create a school union with Lincoln, which is seeking to separate from the Mount Abraham Unified School District. Like Ripton, Lincoln is concerned about the future of its local school, which the MAUSD has tabbed for possible repurposing.

“The lack of forward momentum with the ACSD has led us to explore alternative ways of achieving an effective, efficient education system,” reads Ripton’s letter to the VSBE, signed by board member Molly Witters. “This initiative has led to the beginning stages of evaluating the viability of partnering with Lincoln to meet our respective educational and administrative needs. In the past month, these conversations have taken significant steps forward. With the assistance of professional expertise and innovative approaches, we are working to build models that test and examine how a Ripton and Lincoln partnership would succeed.”

Witters closes the letter listing four Ripton goals:

  • Pursue all actionable steps to bridge the divide between ACSD and Ripton.
  • Await a four-town vote from MAUSD to determine if a partnership with Lincoln is possible.
  • Construct a thorough, vetted plan for a Ripton and Lincoln shared supervisory union.
  • Allow Ripton to hold town meetings to determine whether the community approves the options presented.

Witters, in an email to the Independent, noted Ripton has a lot of work to do in a relatively short time window.

“The groundwork is still early in the process of being laid and very exploratory,” she said. “We have not abandoned other options, but it is in the best interest of our town and its children to look very closely at this exciting (Lincoln) possibility.”

One of the big questions that needs to be answered, according to Witters: “Is there a functional and practical model in which two small towns can identify and implement the resources to support some form of a central office? We hope to act quickly, with the help of professionals in the industry, to build out the models with concrete numbers and staffing arrangements so we can bring this possibility to our communities for discussion by Town Meeting Day.”

Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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