MIDDLEBURY — Addison Central Supervisory Union (ACSU) board members will spend the coming weeks digesting various school district consolidation options offered up in a massive report that could lead to sweeping changes in how schools in the seven-town district are governed and managed.
It was last fall that the ACSU commissioned former Barre Superintendent Ray Proulx to study resources, enrollment trends and possible collaborations among schools within the ACSU’s seven elementary schools, middle school and high school.
Proulx on Wednesday officially unveiled a 101-page draft of his report, with offers a cornucopia of facts, figures and at least four school merger options for ACSU leaders to consider as they confront declining enrollment and increasing costs within the union.
Last Thursday’s edition of the Addison Independent featured an in-depth look at some of the report’s findings. The entire draft report can be viewed at www.addisonindependent.com.
Proulx on Wednesday gave ACSU members a 90-minute overview of his report, which he called “a labor of love” that involved many hours of research, ranging from combing through district statistics to riding local school buses to get a handle on how transportation services might be affected by consolidation.
“You, as a board, are in a difficult and challenging position,” Proulx told the more than 20 ACSU delegates at the meeting. “How do you sustain the quality you have and meet the demands of the future?
“This report puts a lot of responsibility on you folks,” he added. “Even if you do nothing, it will be based on facts (available in the report).”
A sampling of some of the facts in the report include:
• Elementary school enrollment in the ACSU-member towns of Bridport, Cornwall, Salisbury, Shoreham, Ripton, Middlebury and Weybridge has gone from a high of 1,402 during the 1990s to 828 today — a 41 percent decrease. That included a 17 percent decrease since 2003, Proulx noted.
While it appears the decline in elementary student numbers will level off in the not-too-distant future, Proulx said, “it doesn’t look like you’ll be increasing your enrollment during the next three years.”
Proulx noted that with the state’s aging population, fewer families have children in school. As an example, he recalled that in 1969, around 65 percent of Barre’s families had a child in school. That has dropped to fewer than 20 percent, according to Proulx. To illustrate that point locally, he noted that the average age of the current Weybridge resident is 41.3 years, and 40.8 years in Ripton. These are the two ACSU towns seeing the greatest per capita decline in student numbers.
• Schools serving fewer than 100 students — a category that applies to all of the ACSU’s elementary schools except Middlebury’s Mary Hogan Elementary — are the most expensive to operate, Proulx said. On the other hand, schools serving between 300 and 400 students are the most cost-effective, and Mary Hogan Elementary falls into that particular category.
• Mary Hogan Elementary could accommodate an additional 134 students, Bridport could handle another 43, while Salisbury Elementary could take in another 80. Meanwhile, Middlebury Union High School and Middlebury Union Middle School could take in another 132 students and 71 students, respectively.
Proulx told ACSU members they could consider a variety of consolidation measures to streamline operations, including joining Mary Hogan, Salisbury Community School and Ripton Elementary 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.
The above merger scenarios, Proulx said, would add minimal transportation costs and could save taxpayers some significant dollars through personnel cuts and joint facilities.
But he stressed that finances should not be the overwhelming reason for taking any consolidation measures.
“Any option has to have ‘excellence’ as the top criteria,” Proulx said, acknowledging that any talk of diminishing or eliminating a school in any community is likely to spur emotional debate.
Proulx noted that the ACSU could take the step that Addison Northwest voters did on Town Meeting Day — namely, to establish a single board to govern all of the ACSU schools. This would demand a second phase of study, approval by the Vermont Board of Education and endorsement by ACSU voters. The result would be a single school board of to 18 people (instead of the current nine boards) to preside over one district budget, one teacher contract and a single set of policies. Such a governance structure would also allow for a common cost-per-pupil figure for the union, a figure that currently fluctuates from town to town.
“You operate as one single entity,” Proulx said.
ACSU board members on Wednesday offered little reaction to the options in Proulx’s report; they said such debate will come later. But they were clearly impressed with the depth of the research that went into the study.
“I think this document is remarkable,” said board member Peter Conlon on Cornwall. “I learned a tremendous amount.”
ACSU board Chairwoman Carol Ford of Ripton said she is confident the Proulx report will not be relegated to a shelf. But for now, she said school directors must continue to study the results and determine what, if any of the options should be pursued.
“My thought would be that this will become a topic of discussion at local board meetings during the next month or so, then we could have an ACSU board meeting to discuss where we want to go from here,” Ford said.
With no less than nine bills in the Legislature aimed at revamping school governance and/or financing, it is becoming clear that the status quo will not remain an option for long, officials said.
“The education structure in Vermont is evolving and we can’t just sit back and let it happen without us; we have to be proactive,” Ford said.
John Flowers is at firstname.lastname@example.org.