ADDISON — Addison selectmen are sponsoring a Thursday evening forum at Addison Central School to explore the possibility of converting ACS into an independent private school, known as a town academy, that would serve Addison’s elementary-school-age pupils.
Such town academies are permissible under Vermont Law, and backers have invited the principal of The Mountain School in Winhall, Daren Hauck, to the 6:30 p.m. meeting at ACS to discuss that town’s experience with its 12-year-old town academy. The Mountain School is a pre-kindergarten-through-8th-grade school near the base of Stratton Mountain with about 70 students.
In order for a town academy to be founded in Addison, residents would apparently have to vote to close ACS, lease it to an independent school, send its students to that school, and leave Addison Northwest Supervisory Union.
Proposal backer Carol Kauffman told an ANwSU committee studying unification at its Oct. 12 meeting that she believes a town academy is the best way to preserve a local elementary school in Addison.
“Addison has a viable option,” Kauffman said. “I think (students) have a right to be educated in their community ... Schools are important for a community to survive.”
ACS board members and some ANwSU officials have publicly and privately said they do not agree with the town academy approach. They have said the issue has been raised to create opposition for unification; that selectmen, two of whom have supported the town academy idea, have a conflict of interest in calling the Thursday forum; that residents who wish their children to have a private education already have several options; and that Addison would lose control over its school with a town academy.
For example, the entire ACS board signed a letter published in this edition of the Independent (see Page 10); it reads in part:
“There are options: the Gailer School, Red Cedar, Champlain Valley Christian School, St. Mary’s, and others not mentioned. The taxpayers of Addison should not be fooled into thinking that creating an independent town academy will provide equal and better education and choice for their children than unification or simple tuition options. How much local control will there be in a town academy whose board of directors is not answerable to the town of Addison?”
Just the application process for a town academy to the Vermont Department of Education now takes six to eight months, per the department’s website. A proposed school must demonstrate that it can meet the same standards as state’s public schools. A description of the process may be found at http://www.education.vermont.gov/new/pdfdoc/pgm_independent/educ_indepen....
THE MOUNTAIN SCHOOL
Information for this article on The Mountain School was collected from its website, Hauck and news articles. The school was founded in 1998, and is apparently the only U.S. town academy with elementary-age students. The school’s grade levels run from pre-kindergarten through 8th grade. Residents of Winhall and Stratton have a right to attend, and the school also recruits about a fifth of its pupils from surrounding towns; their parents pay its tuition.
That tuition now stands at $12,900 for full-time students, Hauck said, and $6,500 for pre-K pupils. The two primary towns pay for their own students. Most Mountain School students later attend Burr & Burton Academy.
Winhall residents voted to close their public school in March of 1998 because it was both underperforming and expensive, and it reopened as a town academy that September.
The Mountain School website states, “100 percent of MSW’s 2010 graduating class taking the NECAP (standardized tests) scored a level 3 (Achieved the Standard) or above ... and 100 percent of 8th grade algebra students were accepted into Burr & Burton’s Honor’s Algebra course.”
Hauck said the school offers language, music and art courses, and that a town considering the town academy model should do so because of academics, not finances.
“It’s about the kids. It’s not about saving money. You may not save money,” he said.
Still, Hauck said Winhall’s per-pupil costs dropped dramatically when the town switched in 1998, from more than $12,000 to less than $8,000.
Research shows one possible reason why: Private school teachers are typically paid less and receive fewer benefits than public school teachers. According to a 2007 study by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, “Public school teachers are paid 61 percent more per hour than private school teachers, on average nationwide.”
According to an undated Education Intelligence Agency report on CalNews.com, “While private schools operate with significantly smaller overhead costs and administrative staffs, the cost differential is mostly due to lower pay and benefits for their teachers. On average, public school teachers make 50 percent more than private school teachers.”
Hauck said teacher morale is high at The Mountain School.
“We’re really able to focus on the individual child ... Our teachers love that. It’s very fulfilling,” he said.
Hauck also said he plans to share with Addison residents on Thursday that Mountain School tuition covers only about 81 or 82 percent of its operating costs, and the school must rely on fund-raising to raise the balance.
According to 2000 U.S. Census data, Winhall had a population of 702 with a median family income of $65,000, about 33 percent higher than Addison’s 2000 median family income of $48,696.
The smaller town of Stratton is less wealthy; its 2000 population of 136 had a 2000 median family income of $43,750.
Hauck also said an enrollment drop is a bigger challenge for a private school than a public school. The state provides a financial cushion for public schools that lose students, but if The Mountain School has fewer students in a given year, it must either raise more money or cut costs.
“You are on your own,” Hauck said. “We’ve had to tighten our belts (at times).”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected]