Education Op/Ed

Letter to the editor: ACSD board member explains charter change views

I am writing in response to recent opinion pieces on the issue of ACSD’s potential charter change. As a board member, it’s important to tell you that I do not speak on behalf of the ACSD Board — but I also think it’s important to consider the perspective of someone who values the entirety of ACSD as much as citizens behind the Save Our Schools movement love their individual towns.

Recent articles in the Addison Independent have highlighted both ACSD’s charter change issue and the estimated $110M repairs needed for our schools. I want to connect the content of these two articles in the minds of ACSD community members, because I fear the direction of the school closure conversation has been steered too far from the realities that ACSD faces as a single educational community. And the enormous price tag associated with addressing the urgent needs of our aging facilities is just one of many financial challenges we face.

We have been fortunate so far that the ACSD community has supported district budgets — I believe this has been the case because 1) we all believe in investing in our children and their peers, and 2) we have had the collective tax capacity to do so. The problem at hand is with that second part. As the cost of education rises, we are forced to examine how we are investing in our schools to make sure that we can equitably deliver high-quality education to all students across the district well into the future.

This is not a new problem, nor is it unique. The ACSD Board has been investigating the district’s financial sustainability since the beginning of its facilities master planning process, and nearly every district in this region has been grappling with how to handle the financial impacts of declining enrollments. When you factor in our underutilized aging facilities, changes to Vermont’s education funding, staffing shortages across nine schools, and the increasing complexity of student need, you feel the gravity of the situation. 

Meanwhile, teachers are begging for stability and support in the wake of the COVID crisis, and our last board meeting included grim forecasts of sunsetting COVID relief money and changes to the state’s pupil-weighting factors and special education funding that will ultimately force ACSD to do more with less.

Although the state spending threshold has been paused, our collective tax capacity is not limitless. At some point, there is simply not enough butter to cover the bread. ACSD will need every possible tool it can find to solve its financial sustainability dilemma — and that solution may need to include school closure.

We keep hearing this issue framed as David-verses-Goliath, fortified with testimonials about the powerlessness of small towns and the purity of community in our district’s smallest schools. Notwithstanding the sincerity of the folks making these arguments, I think what’s always missing from these conversations is what happens to the quality of education for all students when its resources are spread too thin.

I believe that education resources should be directed toward the greatest student need, and that inserting town veto-power over school closure into ACSD’s charter could hinder the district’s ability to serve that need. If I’m honest, I will tell you that Ripton’s story has revealed important lessons about communication, engagement, and citizen agency in the planning process. But I’d also suggest that Ripton’s story is a case study about the lengths to which a town will go to protect its school from closure, regardless of the cost. 

So, I worry about the potential for a town to hold a district budget hostage if resources are reconfigured to address long-term sustainability. I worry that the board could be forced to make painful cuts to programming and other student services. I worry that agreeing to a town vote would be like adding a filibuster to the process — which simply obstructs decision-making on vital issues. I worry that nothing will get solved. Our children’s education is at stake, and this is bigger than any one town, including Middlebury.

I had previously stated that I could not support a charter change, but I do think modifying Article 14 to allow for a district-wide vote prior to any school closure is the most reasonable compromise. It preserves the integrity of the district’s decision-making authority over its financial obligations yet requires the board to be transparent and accountable to its voters. It elevates the question of school closure to a broad audience and would require the district to justify its proposed action to more stakeholders than even a town vote would require. Most of all, it would give ACSD voters agency over the most important decisions. This issue is a district-wide concern that requires district-wide participation in its problem-solving. I truly believe we are stronger together, especially in our most challenging times.

Mary Heather Noble

Middlebury

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