Addison gears up for school closure fight
ADDISON — On Tuesday, Nov. 5, Addison voters will head to the polls to decide the following issue: “Shall the voters of the Town of Addison agree to the Addison Northwest School District’s plan to close the Addison Central School for use as an elementary school on June 30, 2020?”
Voters in Ferrisburgh are warned to decide the same issue for the Ferrisburgh Central School.
The ANWSD has explained to voters that because of declining enrollment and increased costs, keeping the two schools open would require program cuts at the high school or tax increases it assumes district residents would find unacceptable.
But even though the language on the ballots will look almost identical for the two towns, residents of Addison and Ferriburgh have not been given the same set of options.
No matter how residents of Addison vote, their school will look drastically different next year.
At its Oct. 21 meeting, which was held at the Addison Central School, the ANWSD voted to inform voters of the following consequences if a majority of voters in each town votes No:
• Ferrisburgh Central School would lose its sixth grade, and possibly its fifth, which would be transferred to Vergennes Union High School.
• Addison Central School would lose every grade but kindergarten and first.
• Or, if the district decides to reconfigure ACS for “K-12 alternative education,” it would cease to exist as an elementary school altogether.
“I’m still voting ‘No’,” said Addison resident Caetlin Harwood at an impromptu town gathering that drew 14 people the following evening. “We’re being thrown under the bus. We’re being bullied into voting ‘Yes’.”
Lorraine Franklin, who hosted the gathering, felt the same way.
“I feel bullied,” she said. “There’s no other way to put it. I watched the (school board) meeting on (the Regional Educational Television Network) and I wanted to jump through the screen. We were being put in our place. That much was loud and clear on the TV screen.”
In response to an inquiry by the Independent, the legal team at the Vermont Agency of Education determined that the district was likely within its rights to pursue a dramatic school reconfiguration, even if the town’s voters refuse permission to close ACS.
In any event, said Ted Fisher, Director of Communications and Legislative Affairs for the AOE, in this case the agency would defer to the ANWSD’s own legal counsel.
Whether or not the school district has done its due diligence with regard to the vote warning language is “not something the AOE is able to judge or comment on,” Fisher reported.
In an Oct. 11 post on Front Porch Forum, the ANWSD wrote, “We believe that our system works best as part of a democratic process.”
But many district residents feel that where the school-closure process is concerned, democracy is not being served.
“This has not been a collaborative or thoughtful process,” said Addison veterinarian Mary O’Donovan Tuesday night. “The whole thing has been rushed.”
VUHS student Una Fonte expressed similar concerns during a group conversation Monday morning at 3 Squares Cafe in Vergennes.
“This is being foisted upon us without our input,” Fonte told gubernatorial candidate and former secretary of education Rebecca Holcombe. “There has been no outreach to students. Students feel like their voices don’t matter.”
Some community members feel the same way.
After ANWSD board chair Sue Rakowski cut her off during the public comment period at Monday night’s meeting, Addison resident Carol Kauffman went home and filed an open meetings violation complaint with the Vermont Attorney General’s Office.
Kauffman finished her interrupted public comment in a separate email to the school board. After raising concerns about the district’s approach to budgeting, she expressed doubt about their commitment to a “democratic process.”
“I was shocked you marched into Addison (for a Sept. 25 informational meeting) to inform us a No vote is inconsequential,” she wrote. “Reconfiguration is happening.”
Kauffman also criticized the board’s commitment to include educators in the school-closure decision-making process.
“This commitment was also thrown out,” she wrote. “The board voted to approve their ‘favorite’ reconfiguration plans, ignoring the outcome of the Nov. 5th vote, without offering public, teacher or local administration opinion.”
A dozen middle school educators at VUHS echoed that sentiment in a letter to the editor published in the Independent earlier this month.
“The reconfiguration process needs to be slowed down and democratized immediately,” they wrote. “The community needs time to consider different options in detail, with a full and honest accounting of the implications of all possible options for not only next year, but the next five, 10, and 20 years. The current breakneck pace being pursued makes it impossible for students, educators and families to be true democratic participants in this process.”
Nor was the Addison Northwest Teachers Association (ANTA) consulted.
“We, along with students, parents and the community, had no voice in the proposed changes and were only made aware of them after school began this fall,” wrote VUHS guidance counselor and ANTA president Susan Oliveira in an email to the Independent. “No matter the changes ahead, we join with our community in, first and foremost, being concerned for our students and their education.”
NO MEANS NO
“The November 5 vote isn’t going to get the district what they want,” said Addison selectman Peter Briggs at Tuesday night’s community gathering. “Last year’s (school district) budget only passed by six votes, because the taxes were too high. (The district is) going to get the same No vote from people on taxes anyway, but if (the district) starts jerking towns around like this (they’re) going to be way behind (on the vote).”
The only way to proceed is to keep saying “No,” said David Entrott at the same meeting.
“The school district has a game plan,” he said. “It’s a lot of scare tactics. ‘We’re going to cut high school programs. We’re going to get rid of your school buses.’ They’ll cut this and cut that. You need to let the board know that you are not going to let them do this to you. The only power I see that you have is to align (yourselves) and vote No on this, then vote No on the budget. Vote No on everything.”
Ashley Paquette agreed.
“I think having an active, educated conversation, where we can hold people accountable, starts with a No vote,” she said. “Then we have to hunker down to find out what’s best for our community.”
Some Addison and Ferrisburgh residents have begun wondering aloud about withdrawing from the school district entirely.
“Do we even want to stay in this union?” asked O’Donovan Tuesday night. “I mean, if they’re going to treat us like this, can we leave?”
O’Donovan added that she had recently contacted the Granville-Hancock Unified School District for more information about how they tuition students to other schools.
At the Oct. 15 Ferrisburgh selectboard meeting, town resident and vocal school-closure opponent Matt Vogel inquired about the process for getting school district withdrawal on the selectboard agenda.
In Addison, Harwood and Paquette have been going door to door on behalf of the Rural School Alliance (RSA), whose members — from Addison, Ferrisburgh and elsewhere — oppose closing the two schools.
Harwood estimated that they had connected in some way with about 85 percent of Addison's thousand-or-so registered voters.
“The conversations about school closure have mushroomed into conversations about the town in general,” she continued. “It’s been amazing.”
The response they’ve gotten for their “Vote No” campaign has been overwhelmingly positive, they said.
The RSA has established five citizen committees to scrutinize budgeting, assess legal issues, conduct community outreach, campaign for a No vote and raise funds for printing, sign-making, legal and consulting fees, and other costs.
Now that the ANWSD board has left the town with no option for keeping its elementary school open, however, the RSA is re-evaluating its campaign efforts and redefining what it means for Addison to vote “No.”
Throughout it all Paquette has been focusing on what she feels is important about her town and her school.
“Our kids feel free to grow here,” she said Tuesday night. “A smaller town might have fewer voices to fight with, but sometimes a small town is wonderful, too. And we’re wonderful.”
Reach Christopher Ross at firstname.lastname@example.org.