RIPTON — Ripton school directors are asking fellow residents to weigh in with ideas on how to sustain their local elementary school through a declining student enrollment that could dip to 27 by 2013.
Meanwhile, Weybridge officials this fall will launch a similar series of public forums to respond to dwindling student numbers in that community.
At issue are a series of Ripton school board-sponsored forums that began on May 18 and most recently convened on July 19. Residents have been invited to offer any short- and long-term ideas to keep the small community school viable in wake of shrinking student numbers, a trend that is affecting most schools in the Addison Central Supervisory Union (ACSU) and indeed throughout Vermont. Lee Sease, ACSU superintendent, said Ripton’s K-6 enrollment was 61 children in 2003, a number that shrank to 45 this year and is projected to descend to 27 by 2013.
Ripton school board member Willem Jewett said that while there are no immediate plans to ask voters to endorse a major shakeup in school operation, the community is being asked to consider four potential strategies in dealing with the shrinking student numbers.
• Doing nothing, meaning the school would make virtually no changes to programming or staffing.
• Adjusting programming in response to declining enrollment in a way that would allow the board to contain costs while providing “customer satisfaction.”
• Privatizing school operations. In essence, a private entity would be brought in and asked to run the school.
• Exploring consolidation of overall governance; merger with another school; tuitioning students; or offering school choice.
Ripton school directors have assigned community volunteers to further explore each of the four strategies. Some of the fruits of that volunteer labor could be seen as soon as next year, in the form of spending adjustments at the school.
“I think we will see some of the (ideas) that roll into the next budget, and some other stuff that will continue to germinate,” Jewett said.
In the meantime, officials will keep an eye on student numbers that could substantially deviate from the 27 predicted for 2013, according to Jewett. New employment opportunities in the ACSU towns and/or a few large families moving into the district could prompt a sudden jump in Ripton Elementary’s numbers, he noted.
“Historically, enrollment trends have been notoriously inaccurate,” Jewett said.
PICTURE IN WEYBRIDGE
Weybridge officials are also coming to grips with a marked slide in student enrollment. The latest ACSU figures indicate Weybridge Elementary served 86 children in 2003, a number that declined to 70 this year and could further shrink to 41 in 2013.
It’s a community that has also seen its education property tax rise precipitously in recent years, in part as a result of dwindling student numbers. This past March, Weybridge residents passed a 2010-2011 budget of roughly $1.2 million that represented a 0.95-percent decrease in spending. But a 10-student decline in student numbers and factors associated with Common Level of Appraisal (CLA) provisions of the state education funding law resulted in an almost 20-percent jump in the town’s K-12 education property tax rate.
“That promoted an outcry, and we feel a responsibility to look at some options,” Weybridge Elementary School board Chairman Eben Punderson said of the budget vote fallout.
With that in mind, Weybridge school directors will host three monthly meetings — beginning this October — to explain the enrollment and budget challenges and solicit citizens’ ideas on how to respond to those challenges. The Addison Independent will publish the dates of those meetings once they are set.
“We want to get the community aware of what is happening in the bigger picture and how we could respond to that, as well as what is happening locally,” Punderson said.
The “bigger picture” includes recently passed state legislation that encourages — but does not force — smaller school districts to share resources and/or governance structure, or even merge.
Former Barre Superintendent Ray Proulx earlier this year released a study of enrollment trends and resources in all seven ACSU communities. His study revealed, among other things, that six of the district’s seven elementary schools have student bodies of less than 100 — a threshold under which he said it is difficult to operate cost-effectively. The seven schools served a combined total of 1,400 students during much of the 1990s, a number that has shrunk to 828. Proulx cited an aging state population as a prime reason for the enrollment decline.
Proulx suggested in his report that Middlebury’s Mary Hogan Elementary could accommodate an additional 134 students; Bridport Central School could handle another 43; while Salisbury Community School could take in another 80. He told ACSU members they could consider a variety of consolidation measures to streamline operations, including joining Mary Hogan, Salisbury and Ripton into a unified K-6 school; uniting the Bridport and Weybridge schools, with Bridport as the host; joining the Salisbury and Ripton schools (in Salisbury); or building a new school to accommodate a union elementary district that would include Shoreham, Bridport, Weybridge and Cornwall.
No school boards within the ACSU are actively pursuing school mergers or governance consolidation. But they are clearly keeping their options and ears open.
“You can never go wrong when you get your neighbors together to talk about things like this,” Jewett said. “That’s how you manage a school or any public asset.”
Reporter John Flowers is at email@example.com.