Lincoln school is seen as big draw for families

Our local schools are so important for our children and also the greater community and identity of our small towns. I worry about the long-term implications of closing elementary schools not only in Lincoln, but for all the small towns navigating similar issues. — Isabelle Clark

LINCOLN — A new generation of Lincoln residents is starting to take shape, with young families moving to town or planning to do so in the near future. They have children ranging in age from infants to toddlers, and they have cited the Lincoln Community School as one of the biggest reasons for settling or returning to Lincoln.

But with the recent decline in enrollment at the school and a proposal in the Mount Abraham Unified School District to discontinue elementary education at LCS, some are worried they may have come too late.

Amaia Perta, who attended LCS in the early 1990s, is planning to move back to Lincoln from California next month with her husband, Mario Rivera, and their 1-year-old child. Perta says she can think of at least eight such families, including her own, who have been drawn to the town because of the school.

“I had a wonderful experience at LCS and am still close with many of my classmates, 25 years later,” she wrote in an email to the Independent. “The education I received there not only set me up for the institutions that followed, but also gave me a sense of community and emotional intelligence that I don’t think I would have experienced at a larger school or in another town.”

Joanna Plunkett was friends with Perta at LCS. Not long after her daughter, Alice, was born last February, Plunkett and her husband, Theo Love, left Brooklyn to weather out the pandemic in Plunkett’s family home in Starksboro. Over the summer they bought a house in Lincoln, and moved there in October.

“There’s always that Vermont thing about when to move back, and I know this was always in the back of our mind,” Love, a North Carolina native, told the Independent. “A big draw for us was the community itself, the Lincoln friend group. And a big part of that was LCS and thinking about where Alice would go in three to four years.”

Another LCS alum, Isabelle Clark, and her husband, Rob Blum, have a 14-month-old and are planning to build a house on the corner of Clark’s parents’ land in Lincoln and move there in 2022.

“LCS has always been a very important part of why we want to be in Lincoln, and now that we have our son, we feel an even stronger pull to be in the area,” Clark told the Independent. “LCS provided me with a sense of belonging, safety and security. I felt seen and heard every day. I was able to navigate the ups and downs of childhood in the context of a supportive and loving school community.... I am returning to this place so that my children can have this same opportunity.”

Molly McEachan and Kevin Ready both grew up in the 5-Town area. McEachen went to Bristol Elementary, where Ready finished his grade school years after attending LCS through fourth grade. They built a house in Lincoln last year, and their daughter was born this past June.

“We had always planned to raise our family in Lincoln in large part because of the small, close-knit community which is fostered by the Lincoln Community School,” McEachen wrote in an email to the Independent. “Because we see firsthand the vital role the elementary school plays in our lives and the community.”

Cassidy Dobek, another LCS alum, and her husband Paul Fletcher currently live in Oregon with their 15-month-old son and are planning to move back to Lincoln in the next few years.

“We thought we might purchase my grandfather’s property in Waterbury and move there, but then we realized that Lincoln was where we wanted to be,” Dobek said. “In some ways I didn’t realize how much LCS had impacted my reason for wanting to return to Vermont until (discussions about consolidation) started happening.”

On Dec. 7, MAUSD Superintendent Patrick Reen unveiled a long-range facilities plan that includes repurposing three elementary schools, including LCS, which would become an “innovation” center. If the plan is approved, Lincoln kids would attend elementary school in either Bristol or Monkton starting with the 2022-23 school year.

Because of declining enrollment and rising costs, the district will need to eliminate 75-91 staff positions over the next five years to avoid paying millions of dollars in excess spending penalties. Reen’s proposal is meant to create efficiencies that would allow the district to sustain significant staff cuts without compromising programming for students.

LCS has the lowest enrollment in the district with roughly 85 students at the moment, and it’s projected to drop even more in the coming years, despite hopes about returning families bringing in a new generation of students.

At a Dec. 17 community forum, held via Zoom, MAUSD business manager Floyd Davison estimated that Lincoln — with the highest spending per pupil — spent about $14,000 more per pupil than the school with the lowest per-pupil spending, which is Bristol Elementary.

Keeping such schools open, and asking all district residents to pay for them, is not equitable, said MAUSD board member Kevin Hanson of Bristol at a Jan. 13 special meeting.

“It affects all the other towns, including my town, which is the poorest town in the district,” Hanson said. “It’s got the lowest median income in the district, it’s the highest with free lunch and food. It was where the ELP program started because it had that base to develop and all that kind of stuff.”

That towns like Bristol end up at a disadvantage “because towns that are more affluent want to keep their concept of a Normal Rockwell painting or whatever, is starting to weigh a lot on me,” he said.

WOULD FAMILIES STAY?

Repurposing LCS would impact Plunkett and Love’s decision to stay, Love said. They still have their apartment in Brooklyn, which is an option, but they might also consider moving closer to Burlington.

Clark isn’t sure what effect repurposing would have on her family, but she felt sad and discouraged by the consolidation plan, she said.

“I have always envisioned my children going to LCS and it is devastating to think that might not be an option,” she wrote. “Our local schools are so important for our children and also the greater community and identity of our small towns. I worry about the long-term implications of closing elementary schools not only in Lincoln, but for all the small towns navigating similar issues.”

McEachen and Ready are strongly opposed to the plan, McEachen said.

“Now more than ever we count on our schools to promote learning, meet children’s behavioral and mental health needs, attend to challenges in their lives and to help families meet their children’s basic needs like food and healthcare,” she wrote. “These needs are met much more effectively in smaller, localized settings.”

She suspects fewer young families would choose to live in Lincoln if it didn’t have its own elementary school, and more people would move away, never to return.

Dobek said she understands the fiscal realities LCS faces, but “would be devastated if the school gets closed. I think that would be a huge mistake.”

If Reen’s plan is approved, her family might still consider moving to Vermont, but perhaps not to Lincoln, she said.

Perta and Rivera, who bought their house last month, are also strongly opposed to the plan.

“I think the small size of our schools and the way they are intimately woven into our communities is vital not only to our children’s education, but also our town’s success and ability to thrive,” she said.

And if the plan is approved?

“We will look into private schools and be more likely to consider moving out of town, should the opportunity present itself.”

Reach Christopher Ross at christopherr@addisonindependent.com.

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