Editorial: School consolidation: Let's cut to the chase

To have a serious discussion about the financial benefits of school consolidation, we all first have to agree that unifying governance, alone, solves very little. What is uniformly recognized is that significant savings come by combining schools — including eliminating building expenses; reducing staff, teachers and administrators; and getting the teacher-pupil ratio higher. Reducing the number of school boards and the number of meetings all of those volunteers attend saves little and serves as the smoke screen to the more serious conversation.

But if millions are going to be saved, and that is the potential, the argument the governor’s administration is pushing is as tough as nails: They want to close the smaller schools and fill vacant spaces in the larger ones.

The math is on their side.

According to a recent school consolidation report commissioned by the Addison Central Supervisory Union, Middlebury Union High School’s 670 students currently occupy about 84 percent of the available space in the building. That leaves room for about 130 more students, filling the school to near its 1977 peak of 792 students. Even more troubling is the expectation that school enrollment is supposed to drop by another 50 students over the next four years.

It’s a statistic that is mirrored across the district and across the state. Within the ACSU district (made up of Middlebury, Ripton, Salisbury, Weybridge, Cornwall, Bridport and Shoreham), the school buildings are operating at an average 76 percent of capacity. Ripton and Salisbury each operate at 54 percent, the lowest in the district. Part of the reason for the low rate of utilization is the rapid loss of students: Since 2003, the district’s K-6 student population has gone from 998 to 828 in 2010, a drop of 17 percent in seven years. (Note the story in today’s Tiger’s Print, Page 3, for more information on this issue, and in the March 25 Addison Independent.)

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Seeing the actual numbers drives the point of consolidation home. In Ripton, there are currently 45 students with room for 38 more; at Weybridge Elementary, they have 70 students with room for 40 more; Shoreham Elementary has 78 students with room for 31 more; Cornwall Elementary has 83 students with room for another 14; Bridport has 86 students with room for 43 more; Salisbury Elementary has 95 students in its relatively new building with room for 80 more; and Middlebury’s Mary Hogan has 384 students with room for 134 more. In total, the district’s school buildings have excess capacity that could handle another 380 students and they are all facing a declining school enrollment over the next several years.

But seeing the numbers is the easy part. Slicing and dicing to try to make the sum of the parts a whole is fraught with peril.

The consolidation report, for example, suggests four scenarios: 1) joining Ripton and Salisbury with Mary Hogan, eliminating 18 full-time positions; 2) merging Weybridge with Bridport as the host school, an idea that would eliminate 6.68 fewer teachers, one principal and some staff, though the Bridport school would need renovations and expansion to accommodate the extra students; 3) joining Ripton with Salisbury to eliminate 2.9 teaching positions and seven staff; 4) consolidating the elementary schools of Shoreham, Bridport, Weybridge and Cornwall into one new unified building or renovate and expand an existing building. One or more of these scenarios can be pursued.

But which town wants to lose its school? Which parents want to see their five- and six-year-olds hop on a bus to be hauled out of town to a neighboring or regional school? And which community wants to give up that cohesive unity that the elementary school provides?

Those are the tough questions at hand and the proponents of school consolidation need to face them outright as it is a disservice to each community to dally on side issues (governance) while avoiding the heart of the issue. If no town is interested shuttering its school, then the question of saving money through unified governance is moot.

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That’s not to say that school consolidation is a lost cause. Money talks, and so does the prospect of greater opportunities and improved academic outcomes.

The challenge facing the proponents of school consolidation is two-fold: First, they must surmount the emotional attachment each community has to its elementary school and convince those residents that a combined school, in sum, will be better for the community (long-term tax savings could mean better town services, for example, or improved summer youth programs); and second, they must demonstrate the educational opportunities and outcomes will be better for their sons and daughters.

Is that possible? For some towns, absolutely. Leicester, for example, has tried to merge with neighboring schools for the past four years to no avail. For other towns, the likelihood is next to nil.

But here again, the math is solid.

Under the first scenario (although I find it unlikely that Salisbury would want to close that new school), Ripton residents would save an estimated $3,619 per pupil, the report says, while Salisbury saves $1,401 per pupil. So, take Ripton’s 45 students times $3,619 and you get $162,855 per year in savings. Now, if those savings are anywhere near correct, you’ll sway a few voters with nothing more. If you hold an open house at Mary Hogan and show Ripton parents the expanded class offerings (arts, languages and accelerated programs) and the potential for educational improvement, you might sway a few more. And if both schools came into Mary Hogan, the economies of scale should, theoretically, allow the school to offer even more educational diversity and excellence — and that promise might sway a few more voters. And, if Ripton used those savings to beef up other community activities to replace school functions, perhaps the net loss wouldn’t be so traumatic and a few more might be swayed.

Who knows what the outcome might be under any of the proposed scenarios, or others, but those very real choices are where this discussion should be. Forget the small talk. Let’s run the numbers, craft some creative solutions and put the hard choices in front of the people. If voters are interested, school officials will find out soon enough. If not, forget it and move on to other solutions that have a chance for community acceptance.

Angelo S. Lynn

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Addison County Independent

58 Maple Street
Middlebury, VT 05753

Phone: 802.388.4944
Fax: 802.388.3100