ACSD school consolidation details emerge; downsizing to 3 or 4 schools eyed

MIDDLEBURY — Downsizing from seven to three elementary schools could save Addison Central School District taxpayers an estimated $3.3 million in year one, and $41.5 million over 10 years.

Downsizing to four elementary schools would reduce costs by around $33 million over a decade.

That’s according to ACSD administrators and a consultant that assessed the Middlebury-area’s education infrastructure.

Those estimates were among several new pieces of information reviewed by the ACSD Facilities Committee as it coordinates a master plan for the district’s myriad school buildings. The ACSD includes Middlebury Union middle and high schools, as well as elementary schools in Bridport, Cornwall, Ripton, Middlebury, Salisbury, Shoreham and Weybridge.

Once completed, the ACSD facilities master plan will help the school board determine which elementary schools should fit into the district’s future plans and which could be mothballed to save money during this era of declining enrollment and rising public education costs.

ACSD board members are studying the concept of reducing the number of elementary schools to either three or four. A preliminary consolidation concept being studied by the Facilities Committee calls for the Middlebury, Salisbury and Bridport grade schools to absorb students now attending Weybridge, Ripton, Cornwall and Shoreham elementary schools.

In principle, Middlebury’s Mary Hogan Elementary School would accommodate the Weybridge and Ripton children, while Bridport Central School would take in Shoreham’s students. Salisbury Community School would accommodate Cornwall’s children. But ACSD board Chair Mary Cullinane has also stressed that families would have a broad choice on where to send their children within the district.

It should also be noted that ACSD’s elementary school system will shrink to kindergarten through grade 5, beginning in the fall of 2021. That’s when all ACSD sixth-graders will begin attending MUMS, to facilitate the district’s transition to an International Baccalaureate curriculum.

Talk of consolidation has raised major concerns among some families — particularly those residing in Ripton, Weybridge and Shoreham, whose schools would close under the current system modeling. More than 500 people have signed an online petition asking the ACSD board to table further school consolidation discussions until the end of the COVID-19 pandemic (see related story by clicking here).

Cullinane and Facilities Committee Chair Victoria Jette argue the district can’t afford to pause its master planning process, given the depleted state of Vermont’s education fund that could lead to major cuts in future school budgets. Brittany Gilman, ACSD business manager, said the COVID-related shortfall in the Education Fund is currently $96.3 million for fiscal year 2021, which began July 1.

Carrying seven elementary schools in the long term would exact an even greater toll on local taxpayers, officials fear.

“We believe we have to find ways to operate under this new norm,” Cullinane said. “This work is important, critical and requires our immediate attention. Unfortunately, due to system-wide economic factors, the state will be looking to us to spend less on our schools or increase taxes to a level that is over the funding threshold, thereby having a significant impact on local taxes.”

“I believe that we would be shirking our responsibility as a board if we allow the pandemic to paralyze us,” Jette told her committee colleagues at an Aug. 11 Zoom gathering. “Is it going to be easy? No. But as we discussed last night (at a retreat), the board is unanimous in its desire to keep going.

“We believe that the financial condition of the state is going to result in substantial cuts to school budgets, and to not be prepared to mitigate some of the harm those cuts will cause would be irresponsible,” she added.

CRUNCHING NUMBERS

So the Facilities Committee continues to crunch numbers on school consolidation scenarios, with the help of the consulting firm TruexCullins, Superintendent Peter Burrows, and Gilman.

The effort has included modeling on how faculty and class sizes would look in both three- and four-school elementary systems serving a combined total of 720 kids in grades K through 5.

As currently imagined, the three-school model assumes:

•  480 total students at Mary Hogan Elementary, and 120 each at the Salisbury and Bridport schools.

•  Eighty children in each of grades K through 5 at Mary Hogan School, with an estimated 20 per grade at both Salisbury and Bridport schools.

•  Number of sections of kindergarten set at five at Mary Hogan and two each at Salisbury and Bridport. Also, grade 1-5 sections set at four (Mary Hogan) and one (Salisbury/Bridport). Alternatively, small kindergarten classes could be confined to one section in Salisbury/Bridport, and another grade could have two sections in the event of a “bubble,” officials said.

•  Twenty-five classroom teachers at Mary Hogan, and seven each at Salisbury and Bridport.

Students would have access to onsite special educators, speech/language pathologists, interventionists, paraeducators and guidance counselors. Each school would also have library, nursing, Spanish language, phys ed, art and music personnel, as well as custodial, administrative and clerical positions.

•  The need to add one or two buses to keep student ride times at a maximum of one hour. Based on ACSD’s current transportation contract, that would cost around $90,000.

Current visioning for a four-school model assumes:

•  A total enrollment of 396 at Mary Hogan, and 108 each at Salisbury, Bridport and an as-yet unidentified school.

•  Sixty-six children in each of grades K through 5 at Mary Hogan School, with an estimated 18 per grade at each of the other three schools.

This model assumes four sections of each grade at Mary Hogan and one section of each grade at the other schools.

•  Twenty-four classroom teachers at Mary Hogan, and seven each at Salisbury, Bridport and school No. 4.

•  The four-school model would cost $660,000 more in staffing than the three-school concept.

Students would also have access to the same variety of on-site educators and staff as under the three-school scenario.

Current K-5 enrollment at the ACSD’ seven elementary schools: 49 in Bridport, 69 in Cornwall, 360 at Mary Hogan, 44 in Ripton, 64 in Salisbury, 81 in Shoreham and 43 in Weybridge.

ACSD principals have seen, and reacted to, the two consolidation models, according to Facilities Committee members. Their consensus takeaway, according to the committee: The three-school model is preferable to four schools, with the rationale that it would provide “the greatest opportunity for equity amongst the schools,” according to an informational handout at the Aug. 11 meeting. The principals also decided that “the four-school model was unnecessary given the space available in the schools in the three-school model,” according to the handout.

District officials are mapping out new ways to get public feedback for the facilities planning effort during this pandemic. Among the strategies:

•  Outdoor, in-person events called “porch conversations.” This would allow Cullinane and Jette to meet people and answer questions in each town.

•  Make the acsdvt.org/fmp website more user-friendly.

•  Encourage people to submit questions and ideas to grandchallenge@acsdvt.org. District officials will publish responses to those questions.

Current plans call for the ACSD board to offer a draft facilities master plan early next year for the seven communities to review. The board is expected to vote on a final plan next March, with implementation in 2022, 2023 or 2024.

“We do not have a definitive date, and we will look to our district leadership in determining the best option as they will be working hard on implementation planning and the budget process,” Cullinane said. “Both these factors will be key in determining a final timeline.”

John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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