Education News

Top 10 of 2021: Some towns want their elementary schools back

RIPTON RESIDENT ANZA Armstrong and scores of other Ripton residents were asked if their town should withdraw from the Addison Central School District. The referendum passed, 163-107. Independent file photo/Steve James

School consolidation and closure continued to dominate local public education discussions this past year, as districts searched for solutions to the long-term problems of declining enrollment and rising education costs.

And as those discussions became less and less theoretical, so did community resistance.

In January, Ripton voters, believing their school faced imminent closure, voted to withdraw from the Addison Central School District. Weybridge voters very nearly did the same.

The ACSD, confronted with this new problem, on top of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, hit pause on the facilities master plan Ripton and Weybridge voters had reacted to.

At the same time, the Lincoln selectboard was threatening legal action against the Mount Abraham Unified School District, where the school board was considering a proposal that would discontinue elementary education in Lincoln, New Haven and Starksboro without voter approval in those towns. This, many MAUSD residents believed, violated the district’s Act 46 articles of agreement.

MAUSD decided to table the elementary school part of the facilities proposal and pursue a second part: merging with the Addison Northwest School District.

In March Ripton’s withdrawal plan passed muster with the other six ACSD member towns and proceeded to the State Board of Education.

A month later the ANWSD and MAUSD formed a merger study committee and charged it with developing and then evaluating a theoretical merger plan.

Meanwhile, hoping to gain consensus around a single long-range facilities plan, the MAUSD board solicited proposals from the community. Six groups submitted ideas and the school board hired a consultant to figure out how to compare them to one another and to the superintendent’s plan.

In July Ripton forged ahead with its bid for independence by electing its own three-member school board.

Elsewhere in the county that bid was starting to look like the first in a line of dominoes.

Lincoln, concerned among other things about losing the right to vote on the closure of its elementary school program, scheduled a vote to withdraw from the MAUSD. Folks in a second MAUSD town, Starksboro, started discussing a similar move. And Addison, which had lost its elementary program the year before, scheduled a vote to withdraw from the ANWSD.

The Addison proposal failed in a close vote in July, and then was defeated decisively in an October revote.

Lincoln, on the other hand, voted overwhelmingly in August to leave the MAUSD.

Its district neighbors, however, were in no hurry to add their stamps of approval and hinted that their vote on letting Lincoln go might have to wait until Town Meeting Day 2022.

Soon, Ripton’s plan also came to a grinding halt when the town could not find a district or supervisory union willing to provide the administrative services Ripton could not afford on its own. The Board of Education, averse to forcing a district to provide those services, told Ripton and the ACSD to try and work out their differences.

The ANWSD-MAUSD Merger Study Committee got up to speed in late summer and almost immediately decided its original deadline was too ambitious. That deadline was pushed back to Election Day 2022.

In November the Addison Central School District resumed work on the facilities planning it had paused in January, though the Facilities Committee said it would not recommend specific school closures.

That same month, the MAUSD board settled an ongoing conflict in that district by refining the definition of school “closure” to include the reassignment of a school’s entire K-6 population. The move provided some degree of comfort to Lincoln and Starksboro residents, but it did not extend to the work undertaken by the ANWSD-MAUSD Merger Study Committee, which will not be required to agree to such definitions if and when it proposes a merged district.

As the year closed, Ripton and Lincoln were still in limbo, as were the seven competing facilities proposals in the MAUSD, though the school board expected to get a full report from its consultant in January.

And all indicators are that enrollments in the county will continue declining and education costs will keep increasing.

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