Education News

ACSD agrees to change rules on school closures

MIDDLEBURY — The Addison Central School District Board on Monday agreed to revise the ACSD charter in a manner that would give local voters more of a say in whether their schools should be closed. A majority of the panel appears friendly to a change that would allow district voters to weigh in on any future proposals to shutter a local school.

Victoria Jette, chair of the ACSD board, had hoped she and her colleagues could decide on a charter-change route by the end of Monday’s meeting. But a crowded meeting agenda led to the board not taking up the issue until hour three of what became a three-and-a-half-hour session, so the panel tabled further discussion and action until it gathers next month.

While the panel postponed its decision to a later date, advocates for preserving ACSD’s smallest schools are seeing cause for optimism after what has been a multi-year effort to gain voter input on potential school closures. Members of the group Save Our Schools have previously petitioned and lobbied for changes to article 14 of the ACSD’s charter, which allows for a school to be closed upon a supermajority vote (10 of 13 members) of the ACSD board.

Though there are currently no formal plans to close any ACSD schools, the district board has been taking stock of the future of its school buildings in light of declining enrollment, rising education costs and deferred maintenance. The panel received an update this past spring from consultant Truex Cullins indicating Middlebury Union high and middle schools are in need of $61 million and $18 million in updates and repairs, respectively.

Save Our Schools members have long advocated for a charter change that would require a town vote before its local school could be closed. A majority of the ACSD board has historically opposed such a concession, fearing it could force all district taxpayers to financially sustain tiny, costly schools.

Ripton residents in January of 2021 voted to leave the ACSD to run their own preK-12 public education system, primarily as a way to safeguard their local school. But the town couldn’t find a way to provide key educational support services. Townspeople on Sept. 30 voted 148 to 89 to rejoin the ACSD, with Ripton school leaders hopeful district officials would soften their position on article 14.

Among those hoping for a charter change is Joanna Doria, a member of both the ACSD board and soon-to-sunset Ripton School Board.

“The Ripton School Board played an important role in Ripton rejoining ACSD,” she said at Monday’s meeting. “That needs to be recognized. Moreover, the town of Ripton was able to progress through a very controversial vote and surface on the other side intact and just as committed. I believe this happened because of community trust. People in Ripton trusted the Ripton School District Board because the board accepted the burden of proof and worked tirelessly to find a solution that upheld the town’s values. We can learn from that. I believe appropriate amendments to our (ACSD) charter would help our merged district work together and move forward with a greater sense of trust.”

That work was made easier on Monday with an unveiling of the district’s “Ad Hoc Charter Research Committee” report, which provides an overview of how the charters of all 46 of the state’s unified districts speak to the issue of school closures. The committee found, among other things, that:

• 15 of the state’s 46 unified districts leave closure decisions to the school board.

• 12 of the 46 districts make school closures contingent on a binding district vote and a board decision.

• 39 of the 46 districts have or had town vote requirements featured in their charters. Twenty districts only required town votes within the first 2-4 years of operation (conditions that have now sunsetted), while 18 of the districts in this category still require binding town votes prior to school closure — even after the temporary protection period. So the latter 18 districts require a board and town decision.

• The ACSD is one of 21 districts that require a supermajority vote of the board to OK a school closure. Five districts require unanimous board approval, and eight districts require only a majority vote of the board to shutter a school.

The Vermont Agency of Education confirmed the accuracy of the charter committee’s report (which you can read in its entirety at the bottom of this article).

REASONS FOR CLOSURE

A few board members on Monday asked whether the board should codify an explanation of what conditions in the school system must lead to a vote on shuttering a school.

Committee members stressed their report intentionally focused only on the range of processes for approving or rejecting school closures. It will be up to the board, once it agrees on a closure process, to develop protocols for what conditions need to exist in order to spur a closure effort.

“We did not bring to you a one, two and three (top options) because we didn’t want anybody to say, ‘The ad hoc committee basically told us what to do,’” said charter committee Chair Suzanne Buck. 

Board member Mary Heather Noble agreed with the committee’s limited approach and to not delve into reasons for closing a school that might include safeguarding the health and safety of students, inadequate staffing, or dwindling student numbers.

“I’m not sure the articles are the best place for that (discussion), but I do agree that these are things that are really important and that we should be talking about as a community — certainly as a board — and it should absolutely be transparent,” she said.

“That opens a much larger can of worms,” ACSD board member and charter committee member Steve Orzech said of the dialogue on closure justifications.

Orzech added the committee found, as it was doing its research, that the ACSD is in uncharted territory right now.

“No district has changed its articles (of agreement) around closure,” Orzech said. “No one has dropped or added a clause, as far as we know.”

Using the committee’s report as a guide, Jette asked each ACSD board member to state whether they were interested in amending article 14 of the charter, and if so, how they’d like to see school-closure input broadened. Almost all members said they were in favor of amending article 14, and a small majority indicated a preference for requiring a school closure to be endorsed by both the ACSD board and a majority of district voters.

Several board members — including Jamie McCallum, Barb Wilson and Joanna Doria — said they favored a process that would allow a town to vote before its local school could be closed.

The board will leave a final decision until its next meeting, slated for Nov. 14.

In other action on Monday, the ACSD board:

• Overwhelming approved a proposal to site a bike pump track on a town recreation park site located between the municipal pool and nearby playing fields (see related story).

• Heard a presentation on the possible financial impacts of the impending sunsetting of federal COVID-relief grants and affects that could have on future ACSD budgets. The Independent will explore that topic in a future edition.

• Welcomed the board’s new student representative, Eddie Fallis.

• Noted some early, looming impacts for the upcoming 2023-2024 budget (see related story).

• Agreed to entertain, in the near future, an increase in current $500-per-year stipend that board members currently receive as token compensation for their many hours of service to the community.

ACSD Findings of Ad Hoc Charter Research Committee
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