Education News

Wendy Baker off to fast start as new ACSD chief

WENDY BAKER, THE Addison Central School District’s new superintendent, shared some of her thoughts and goals after a whirlwind first week on the job. Independent photo/John Flowers

MIDDLEBURY — While Wendy Baker is new to the Addison Central School District, her recent hire as the ACSD’s new superintendent is somewhat of a homecoming.

She’s a ninth-generation Vermonter; her several-greats grandfather Cordon Harris Sr. settled in Panton with his family during the 1700s. 

Her great-great grandfather Cordon Harris Jr. was a Vermont lawmaker and longtime Ferrisburgh town clerk.

His daughter, Mildred Baker, was Wendy’s grandmother.

“She taught in a one-room schoolhouse off Greenbush Road in Ferrisburgh for 37 years,” Baker said proudly.

Wendy’s dad, Sid Baker, graduated from Vergennes Union High School.

And while the Bakers would move to Burlington, they knew their heritage rested in Addison County.

“Addison County was very much where we went, as a family, to experience ‘home,’” Baker said. “I spent a lot of time in my youth on my grandmother’s lap in her backyard, (walks) up Snake Mountain, Shell Mountain, Mt. Philo, watching the ice run out on Lewis Creek, the geese in the fields of Addison. All of that has always been with me as an important foundation of my sense of home.”

Now she gets to work at “home,” as the ACSD’s top administrator, while at the same time checking off several other boxes on her professional wish list.

“Public school service has always been a calling,” Baker said during what was her first interview with the local press, in her new Charles Avenue office. The walls were still bare, but Baker will have time to adorn them with things that are important to her, just as she’ll put her imprimatur on the district’s education system.

She’s pleased to be back in the public-school trenches after a stint in the world of higher-education. As an administrator with Southern New Hampshire University, Baker led the development of non-traditional programming for support staff, teachers, and leaders across New England. She also managed strategic partnerships that brought transformative, place-based academic programs to students, teachers, and leaders across the country and in many countries throughout the world.

Prior to that, Baker had spent 20 years in Vermont public schools, including a stint as a tutor in the Chittenden County Correctional Center, as a humanities teacher, a school improvement specialist within the Vermont Department of Education, a middle school principal (at People’s Academy in Morrisville), and as superintendent of the Orange East Supervisory Union in Bradford.

“I was fortunate enough to spend some time outside of public service, serving public educators for the most part in a higher-education setting — and I learned a lot there,” she said. “But I always hoped there would be a time when I could come back to public service.”

COMING TO ACSD

She cited three factors why she made ACSD her preferred landing spot: a desire to return to the public-school setting, her deep Addison County roots, and ACSD’s reputation for innovation. She’s delighted with the foundation she inherits from interim Superintendent Tim Williams.

Baker is a big fan of the ACSD’s International Baccalaureate program, which was spearheaded by former Superintendent Peter Burrows.

“I have always known Addison Central to be a district that does high quality work,” she said. “The IB program provides an instructional framework that I believe in deeply.”

While Baker was able to shadow Williams sporadically since this past February to size up her new post, her first official week on the job began June 1 — and it was a doozy. It included advancing three new elementary school principals, an ACSD board retreat and an address to the Middlebury Union High School class of 2024.

“I was ready, but tired at the end of the week,” she said with a kind smile and a gentle laugh. “It’s been a good transition.”

Baker steps into a stable school district, and the only one in Addison County to pass its fiscal year 2025 preK-12 spending plan on Town Meeting Day. But, like other Vermont school districts, it also faces plenty of challenges, including sustainable budgeting, aging school buildings and declining enrollment that could force tough decisions on the future of some of ACSD’s smallest schools. ACSD serves children in Bridport, Cornwall, Middlebury, Ripton, Salisbury, Shoreham and Weybridge.

First on Baker’s agenda will be a call for the ACSD community to take a moment to think about its current state of affairs, how it got there, and where it should be headed. She noted it wasn’t that long ago (2016) that ACSD took the major step of streamlining its school governance through Vermont’s Act 46.

And then came the pandemic in 2020, throwing public schools a massive, three-year curveball.

“I think the district is still doing the work of coming together,” Baker said. “There hasn’t been time to just pause and say, ‘Where are we and how do we build our capacity to work together?’ And that’s where we’re going to start.”

SCHOOL FUNDING

She acknowledged the ACSD will need to be fiscally prudent as pressures continue to mount on property taxpayers.

“Every school district in Vermont is thinking about public resources that are being expended in support of public education, how to prioritize those resources and think about what’s sustainable,” Baker said. “This district is no exception to that.”

Baker began her teaching career in 1993 — before the advent of Vermont’s Act 60 — so she’s seen a wide variety of legislative attempts to reform public education funding.

“In each case, where there’s been success, we’ve worked together,” she said.

As lawmakers consider new school funding formulae during the years to come, Baker hopes one constant doesn’t change. 

“One of the things that’s really important about education in Vermont… is its connection with local tradition, the tradition of having a local voice. There are other places in the country where the delivery of public education is divorced from any of those traditions,” she said.

State legislators this past biennium resurrected talk of providing state aid for school construction. The ACSD five years ago hired an architecture/design company called TruexCullins to estimate repair needs for its seven elementary schools, middle school and high school buildings. TruexCullins placed the price tag at around $110 million. 

Baker said she’s already toured district buildings and believes the problems have been overstated.

“I’ve toured all our facilities… and I have been both assured and impressed. I’ve been assured every building is a safe place for our students to be, and that’s not true across Vermont. There are other districts in the state facing far more challenging circumstances than we are,” she said.

She said her recent tour revealed the district has been chipping away at some of the school repairs recommended by Truex/Cullins — and doing them for less than what the consultants had estimated.

“Quite a bit has been done in the past five years to ensure our systems are updated, taken care of and that our buildings are safe, good places for students. And that work will continue,” she promised.

But Baker acknowledged the district needs to plan for some larger capital projects. She believes Cornwall’s Bingham Memorial School — where student population has started to grow — fits into that category.

SCHOOL ENROLLMENT

Declining enrollment has prompted district officials to carefully weigh capital investments, including some preliminary discussions of which buildings should continue to be part of the ACSD’s plans. This has in turn raised concerns about potential closure or consolidation of some of the smaller elementary schools. Ripton residents voted to leave the ACSD in January of 2021 to safeguard its school. But townspeople reversed that decision a year and a half later after trying to navigate the difficulties of making Ripton its own, autonomous preK-12 district.

Baker said she understands Vermonters’ historical affinity for community schools.

“One of the elements of small schools in Vermont communities — beyond providing an identity — is the school provides community access to assist in the raising of children,” she said.

“If you take children out of a community, then you’ve removed a community’s immediate access to provide care and expertise and instill values as a community into those children, intentionally,” she added. “Solving the dilemma of the right way to educate our students is less about eliminating things, and more about enabling what is most wonderful for the youth across our state.”

Baker pointed to two recent, separate demographic projections authored by ACSD board Chair Barb Wilson and Williams that indicate the district’s enrollment will be “steady” during the next decade. Wilson suggested the district will serve a total of 1,704 students during the 2032-2033 academic year — a gain of 105 — while Williams countered with 1,632 students by 2032-’33, a gain of 33.

School administrators are devising class configurations to reflect population bulges at some grade levels and contractions at others.

“We’re planning appropriately for strong, sound academic environments for all kids,” she said. “Right now, our schools are in good shape, providing good educational opportunities in ways that satisfy both instructional needs and the community’s expectations.”

Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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