ACSD likely to keep just 3 or 4 elementary schools open

We feel it is not prudent to explore options that would require a bond. Our communities are under enough fiscal strain, without adding additional tax burden. — Victoria Jette and Mary Cullinane

MIDDLEBURY — The Addison Central School District has resumed long-range planning for its Middlebury-area buildings, only this time officials will be focusing on how the ACSD might reduce its complement of elementary schools from the current seven, to just three or four.

Victoria Jette, chair of the ACSD Facilities Committee, said her panel has asked Superintendent Peter Burrows and Business Manager Brittany Gilman to work up:

•  A three-school scenario reflecting all full-time staff.

•  A four-school scenario reflecting all-full-time staff.

•  A four-school model reflecting shared staff.

“We did not discuss which school would be the fourth, but rather said that the comparison modeling will drive whether four schools make sense and if so which one,” Jette said in an email to the Independent.

The other three elementary schools being eyed for ongoing service have been identified in a study released in March by the Burlington-based TruexCullins. The company presented ACSD officials with five school consolidation options, including a proposal to retain the district’s graded schools in Middlebury, Salisbury and Bridport, which would collectively absorb students now attending Weybridge, Ripton, Cornwall and Shoreham elementary schools.

This option would call for Middlebury’s Mary Hogan School — which can serve up to 564 students — to accommodate the Weybridge and Ripton school enrollments, which now stand at 43 and 48, respectively, according to the TruexCullins report.

Meanwhile, Bridport Central School would take in Shoreham Elementary’s 81 students, while Salisbury Community School would accommodate the 69 enrollees at Cornwall’s Bingham Memorial School, the report states.

The aforementioned enrollment numbers take into account that all of the ACSD’s sixth-graders will begin attending Middlebury Union Middle School beginning in the fall of 2021.

Jette and Mary Cullinane, leader of the ACSD board, issued a joint statement to the Independent describing their hopes for a renewed facilities master planning effort they believe has taken on new urgency in light of the financial impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Once completed, the master plan will serve as a template for prioritizing repairs to district buildings that will serve the ACSD in the long-term.

Vermont’s Education Fund is looking at a $175 million deficit for next fiscal year. Coronavirus-related business layoffs, a major dip in retail sales and a dearth of tourists has resulted in a hit to state revenues. This could place even more pressure on property taxpayers when funding education. 

And it’s in deference to area taxpayers that the ACSD Facilities Committee is focusing on school consolidation scenarios that wouldn’t require a major bond issue, according to Jette and Cullinane.

“We know school budgets are going to be very, very challenging going forward,” Cullinane and Jette said in their email. “The federal and state reimbursement model for expenses related to COVID-19 school closure remains ambiguous, and all indicators point to increased cost related to re-opening. In addition, because most school budgets across the state have already been voted on, we don’t have much opportunity to make cuts and seek savings this fiscal year, so the changes will be most significant next fiscal year (2021-2022) and beyond. Given this, and the clear financial impact COVID is having on our families, with many out of work, we feel it is not prudent to explore options that would require a bond. Our communities are under enough fiscal strain, without adding additional tax burden.”

The other factor driving school consolidation talk is declining enrollment in the ACSD, a common phenomenon in most Vermont counties. Addison Central schools have lost a combined total of 100 students during the past two years.

FEWER GRADE SCHOOLS

Jette confirmed the ACSD board at this point has abandoned the hope of being able to keep all seven ACSD elementary schools open for the long haul.

She and her colleagues realize the prospect of school closures will draw more opposition from some affected residents. Consolidation opponents, most notably from Weybridge and Ripton, have been fiercely lobbying for their small schools to stay open. A local citizens group called “Save Our Schools,” or SOS, circulated petitions early this year aimed at forcing Town Meeting Day votes on whether to give district residents more of a say in the fate of their schools. The ACSD board, following consultation with an attorney, declined to warn the referenda — though several communities in the district agreed to warn them as nonbinding questions.

As it stands, the ACSD board can close a local school by a super-majority vote, meaning at least 10 of the 13 board members must vote in favor.

Joanna Doria, a Ripton resident and SOS member, said her group will soon meet to discuss the ACSD Facilities Committee’s new consolidation focus.

The Independent reached out to three Weybridge parents, who offered their thoughts on the district’s new tack on consolidation.

“The Board described the plan for their analysis as a 3-legged stool with 3 equally important criteria: facilities, education and operations,” Julie Barry said. “To date, we have only heard about facilities and we eagerly await the opportunity for meaningful discussions on Education and Operations.”

Resident Jenny Phelps is concerned about the ACSD narrowing down its school consolidation plans at a time when there’s so much financial upheaval at the state level.

“There are so many unknowns in the current environment,” she said. “Will in-person instruction be consistently offered in the future, will the state restrict class sizes, how will the anticipated $175 million education fund revenue shortfall impact education tax-rate parameters in fiscal year 2022, what are the state’s plans to address the significant operating deficit? It seems premature, if not downright impossible, to make recommendations on school consolidation amid so many unknowns — especially when so many of the levers are controlled at the state level.”

Resident Amy Mason said she’d like to see the ACSD provide more info on the perceived financial and educational benefits of its latest consolidation planning before she weighs in.

Jette said she and her colleagues will solicit extensive feedback from ACSD residents. She said there’s no timetable at this point for completing the district’s facilities master plan.

“The TruexCullins report is just one input,” she said. “The work we are doing now will provide additional clarity in understanding our options as a community.

“We clearly recognize that this work is difficult,” she added. “However, we do believe that we will find a solution that puts our students first and does so in a way that is equitable and fiscally responsible.”

John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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