Education News

Could Lincoln and Ripton schools join forces?

ADDISON COUNTY — Lincoln and Ripton, which voted last year to withdraw from their school districts, have begun exploring the idea of creating a new supervisory union to handle the administrative services they might not be able to afford individually.

“It’s one of the most exciting moments we’ve had in a long, embattled year, to be sitting with people who are really visioning something that is proactive and unique, but also still really supporting the values that our towns hold dear,” Ripton School District (RSD) board member Molly Witters told the Independent earlier this month.

Since voting to leave the Addison Central School District last January and subsequently receiving the blessing of district member towns, Ripton has formed its own school district and now awaits a complicated decision by the Vermont State Board of Education (VSBE).

Lincoln voted in August to leave the Mount Abraham Unified School District and awaits possible ratification of district member communities on Town Meeting Day, March 1.

The two towns were responding to what they felt was the imminent closure of their schools.

The ACSD, MAUSD and other school districts struggling with declining enrollment and rising education costs have contemplated or proposed closing or repurposing their smallest schools, such as those in Ripton (53 students in 2021) and Lincoln (82 students), in order to remain financially viable.

Residents of Lincoln, Ripton and other towns believe their schools are essential to their communities — and that being physically present in their home community is essential to the education of their children.

THE SU QUESTION

The biggest challenge faced by each town will be securing and paying for the administrative services school districts are required by law to provide, including such big-ticket items as special education and transportation.

RSD had hoped to secure those services by joining or getting assigned to an existing supervisory union (SU), or forging a new one with an existing school district, but those efforts haven’t panned out, and on Aug. 24 — the same day Lincoln held its withdrawal vote — Secretary of Education Dan French wrote a letter to the VSBE recommending the RSD be established as its own school district, responsible for providing its own services.

If that happened, a K-12 RSD would “proportionally be the smallest school district in Vermont, by at least four-fold,” Witters told the Independent.

But instead of immediately implementing French’s recommendation, the VSBE advised the RSD and the ACSD to work out their differences. Those conversations are ongoing but have produced little movement thus far.

The VSBE could could make a final decision on Ripton’s bid for independence as soon as its next meeting, on Jan. 19, but RSD officials have asked for more time in order to explore a possible collaboration with Lincoln.

‘IN CASE’

On Jan. 6, the Independent interviewed Witters and two Lincoln residents who helped spearhead that town’s withdrawal movement — selectboard vice chair Paul Forlenza and co-founder of Save Community Schools Jim Warnock — via Zoom.

They’re fascinated, they said, by the last paragraph of Sec. French’s Aug. 24 letter, which, among other things, points to the possibility that future developments may require more governance flexibility.

“It may be most prudent to designate the (Ripton School District) — and any other withdrawing town — as its own (school district) for at least the next few years in case other changes in the region necessitate either the need for a new multi-district SU or some other configuration that cannot yet be contemplated with any specificity,” he wrote.

Indeed, there are many moving parts in Addison County that could precipitate “changes in the region,” including VSBE’s decision regarding Ripton; MAUSD ratification of Lincoln’s withdrawal plan, which would send it to the VSBE; a potential merger between the MAUSD and the Addison Northwest School District; MAUSD pursuit of a long-range facilities plan that’s not immediately reconcilable with the terms of a possible ANWSD-MAUSD merger; Starksboro pursuing its own withdrawal from the MAUSD; and Addison, with the status of its former elementary school building now up in the air, resurrecting its twice-defeated bid to withdraw from the ANWSD.

All of that notwithstanding, Witters, Forlenza and Warnock read the final sentence of French’s letter as challenge to come up with a creative solution.

COLLABORATION

Challenge accepted.

At the moment, the three are working to develop models of what a potential supervisory union could look like.

To help them do that, they’ve engaged Dylan Patrick of the New Hampshire-based Holistic Impact Foundation, a nonprofit focusing on human-centric sustainable solutions, and Jeffrey Valence, a well-respected former principal-superintendent of The Lyme School, also in New Hampshire.

“It was exciting to identify and bring on board a couple of fellow travelers who kind of relish the possibility of creating something that currently doesn’t quite exist in Vermont, especially as it’s becoming apparent there is a need for something beyond what the statutes currently provide for,” Warnock said. “There’s a level of creativity that I think is driven by the experience these gentlemen bring to the table. It’s not so much looking at things from 30,000 feet (as looking at them) from the inside out, looking at the enormous value of small schools and the vibrant role they pay in communities.”

The big question, of course, is “How much will it cost taxpayers?”

Lincoln and Ripton plan to use the same financial modeling process Lincoln used when determining the feasibility of its withdrawal from the MAUSD, Forlenza said. But it will take some time.

Witters emphasized that, as excited as they are, “we’re going into this with an open mind. We may get to the end of this work and say ‘our towns absolutely won’t be able to afford this.’ (If so,) that’s an answer we need to have.”

At the same time, she added, “I think we need to recognize that what this budget is going to look like on Year One is very different from what it could look like in Year Five, and there’s a long view — an exciting long view — about the possibility and potential that this partnership could create.”

STARKSBORO

Though they’re running models for a supervisory union consisting only of their two towns, Witters, Forlenza and Warnock believe the SU structure they’re designing could accommodate — and would welcome — other communities, should they wish to join.

But all three were clear: They’re not working with Starksboro to create a three-town supervisory union.

“Starksboro has a big decision to make,” Forlenza said. “To withdraw a town school is really huge, and they need to decide whatever it is that they’re going to decide, so we’re not encouraging them one way or the other.”

Forlenza and Warnock have met informally with the Starksboro Save Our Schools Committee, Warnock said, but the Lincoln contingent “is not going to fan the flames or douse the fire.”

The Starksboro Save Our Schools Committee is “closely following developments with our neighbors in Ripton and Lincoln,” said Nancy Cornell and Herb Olson in an email to the Independent. “It remains to be seen what the future holds for our students’ education in MAUSD or in a merged district with ANWSD.”

TIME LINE

The landscape has changed since Jan. 12, 2021, withdrawal vote in Ripton, Witters acknowledged.

As the RSD continues its work with the VSBE and ACSD, it’s also hoping to have “substantive information” about a potential Lincoln partnership included in the Ripton Town Report, which typically goes to print in early February, she said.

She’s also discussing with town leaders “how to dive deeper into community outreach.”

In Lincoln, the folks from Save Community Schools are prepping for a Jan. 26 informational meeting, when they’ll present their withdrawal case to the other MAUSD towns and answer questions.

It’s by no means a foregone conclusion that Lincoln will win approval from its MAUSD neighbors on March 1, but “the feedback I’m getting is they certainly want to honor what the voters of Lincoln have overwhelmingly approved,” Forlenza said.

Though any such discussion has to remain informal and theoretical, Save Community Schools isn’t shying away from talking about its ongoing work with Witters and others.

After all, “one of the big questions people have is ‘What are you going to do about a supervisory union?” Forlenza said.

Witters hopes and believes the MAUSD towns will ratify Lincoln’s withdrawal plan.

“We (in Ripton) did a lot of groundwork to get the word out in that short time (between the Jan. 12 withdrawal vote and Town Meeting Day) and then the support was overwhelming when we had the other towns ratify our vote,” she said. “It really affirms sort of the Vermont ethos of independence and mutual community support, and I hope to see that again for Lincoln.”

In the meantime, Witters will continue doing what she’s been doing — going out and getting whatever information is needed, and presenting it to her colleagues.

“It’s a really heartening moment for us to feel like we could build something rather than pare something down, which has been our position for quite a while in Ripton.”

Reach Christopher Ross at christopherr@addisonindependent.com.

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