Middlebury group urges ACSD school mergers


FRANK SWENTON IS a Mary Hogan parent and co-author of a petition to the ACSD board in favor of merging the district's elementary schools.
I would sooner undo the unification of the district than have this concept we’re going to keep all the schools open under one pool of money. It just doesn’t work. — Frank Swenton

MIDDLEBURY — The Addison Central School District (ACSD) board has for many months been hearing a “don’t close our small schools” message from a coalition of Ripton and Weybridge residents organized under the banner of “Save Our Schools.”

Now ACSD directors are hearing from a group of Middlebury residents who are urging the board to do the opposite. They’re arguing limited education tax dollars are being funneled away from the district’s largest elementary school — Mary Hogan Elementary in Middlebury — in order to extend a lifeline to the smaller learning centers they contend are unsustainable due to low student numbers.

“The current situation puts us in an untenable and unacceptable position in which the taxpayers of Middlebury are paying to keep open a number of costly schools,” reads a letter to the ACSD board signed by Florence Feiereisen, Erin Sassin and Frank Swenton.

“Mary Hogan School is the central primary school of our district, serving the largest body of students (and the largest number of high-need students), and the fact that its available resources are being used to fund semi-private satellite schools in more affluent surrounding towns is both infuriating and unacceptable,” the letter further states.

The authors placed their letter online and invited other Middlebury residents to sign it. As of Wednesday, 108 had endorsed the letter, which is now in the hands of the ACSD board.

The ACSD includes elementary schools in Bridport, Cornwall, Middlebury, Ripton, Salisbury, Shoreham and Weybridge, as well as Middlebury Union middle and high schools. Taxpayers in the seven member-towns used to vote on their own elementary school budgets, and for a separate spending plan for MUMS and MUHS. But the ACSD in 2016 consolidated its school governance under Vermont’s Act 46. As a result, all ACSD schools are governed by a single board that presides over a global K-12 budget.

The district is in the process of preparing a facilities master plan to guide the ACSD board in prioritizing investments in local school buildings. Board members have already raised the possibility of school closings, in part due to shrinking enrollment numbers in the majority of ACSD towns.

All ACSD elementary schools except Mary Hogan have enrollments of fewer than 100. The Ripton and Weybridge schools have fewest, at fewer than 60 each. As a result, residents in those two towns are concerned about the prospect of seeing their schools close, thus ending their long history of having a local education and community hub.

But supporters of the pro-consolidation letter argue that children in smaller schools would see educational gains through mergers. Among the perceived advantages: No need for multi-grade classes, access to more diverse programming (such as foreign language instruction) due to economies of scale, and greater socialization/extracurricular opportunities.

As it is, all ACSD schools are losing by having to stretch finite dollars across seven elementary schools, according to authors of the online letter: The smaller schools are operating some classes with only seven or fewer students, while Mary Hogan has a large third grade that could use another teacher.

“A few thousand dollars extra (per year, per student) going to outlying schools adds up to much-needed teachers and support staff at Mary Hogan,” according to the letter. “This year, 68 third-grade students are squeezed into three classes, after having been split into four up to this point (which was pedagogically sensible). This adds up to roughly 23 students per class in third grade, which is almost half of the entire student body at Ripton and Weybridge (with Bridport being a close third).

“We do not think it too much to ask to have both excellent teachers and class sizes below 18,” the letter continues. “In addition, the 443 students at Mary Hogan lost their sole math/science specialist this year. Are we making sure all students have access to not just an education, but a quality education?”

REDUCTIONS IN STAFF

Swenton, during a Tuesday interview, said the letter is the product of discussions among several Middlebury residents concerned about diminishing resources at Mary Hogan Elementary, which in recent years has seen sporadic reductions in teachers and paraprofessionals.

The letter, Swenton stressed, isn’t a petition and doesn’t trigger any kind of public vote. It simply airs some Middlebury residents’ concerns and advises the ACSD board to follow through with consolidation.

“At least it has started some discussion,” Swenton said of the letter.

Swenton is floating his own idea about how consolidation could work in the ACSD. He’s suggesting a three-school system that calls for:

•  Re-establishing a school in East Middlebury to house Ripton, Salisbury and East Middlebury students.

•  Renovating and expanding Cornwall’s Bingham School to create a “West school” housing students from Cornwall, Weybridge and Shoreham.

•  Maintaining a “Central school” at a renovated Mary Hogan Elementary.

“When the district was unified, it was clear that the schools that cost more money and the schools that cost less money would be (financed) from the same pool, and that in the interim — before consolidation — we would be paying for them,” Swenton said. “I thought that was reasonable for a year or two. It has extended, and now there are people who want to make it permanent. And that’s where the problem comes in. I would sooner undo the unification of the district than have this concept we’re going to keep all the schools open under one pool of money. It just doesn’t work.”

Swenton made some financial assumptions based on current ACSD budgeting and Act 68, the state’s education funding law. The Independent asked ACSD Business Manager Brittany Gilman to review those assumptions:

Swenton: As far as numbers, it is simply more expensive to maintain overly small schools. Given that our goal is to educate students, cost per pupil is a reasonable measure, and the difference between a school like Mary Hogan Elementary (about $12,000 per pupil) vis-à-vis, say, Weybridge Elementary (about $15,000 per pupil) is large.

Gilman: As a unified district, we only have one amount for education spending per equalized pupil. However, we can still do some calculations related to cost per pupil at each school.

She pointed to the ACSD’s annual report and budget book, which provide information related to school-specific costs. These include regular education costs that can be specifically attributed to a school-based cost center, but doesn’t include areas deemed centralized — such as curriculum and district administration. She specifically cited page 34 of the fiscal year 2020 budget book that places Mary Hogan’s school-based costs at $5,405,405, leading to a cost per pupil of $12,147. The same calculation for Weybridge leads to a cost per pupil of $14,949.

“It’s not exact, but it does show that there is some scale to a larger school that leads to decreased costs per pupil,” Gilman acknowledged in an email.

Swenton: The district has been unified, meaning that all of ACSD’s towns pay in … to fund all schools in the district. However, expenditures per student are not level — it’s akin to going to a restaurant with a friend, where you order a burger and they order prime rib, and splitting the check down the middle. Easy arithmetic shows that the one with the cheaper meal overpays and the one with the more expensive one underpays. This, in a nutshell, is the principal reason that when the district was unified, Middlebury property taxes went up and Weybridge property taxes went down. Middlebury is helping to subsidize the school in a more affluent surrounding town.

Gilman: “If we look at tax rates Pre-Common Level of Appraisal, all towns have seen a tax rate decrease since unification. Pre-CLA is generally how we look at taxes to start, because all towns start out with the same unified district tax rate before the town specific CLA is applied,” Gilman said.

“In Fiscal Year 2018, the first year of unification, all towns experienced a decrease. Part of this is a realization of the efficiencies of unification, while part of this is due to the 10-cent tax rate incentive the district received in year one of unification. Looking into year four, the incentive rate will be 4 cents, followed by 2 cents in the following year, then it will be phased out. It is true that Weybridge had the highest tax rate of the towns and Middlebury had the lowest prior to unification by a fair margin.”

‘IT’S COMPLICATED’

Michael Corbett also signed the pro-consolidation letter. He lamented the fact that ACSD officials and their constituents didn’t have more debate about the prospect of school closures prior to the Act 46 governance merger.

“I feel the time to talk about this was … pre-merger,” he said during an interview. “By voting for the merger, they voted for everything that came along with it — including the ability for schools to close. But the focus back then was the ability to share resources.”

Also unfortunate, according to Corbett, is that pro- and anti-consolidation advocates don’t seem to have a common set of facts with which to frame the debate.

“One of the biggest problems with this situation is there’s so much uncertainty out there about what the facts are,” he said. “It’s pretty complicated. I analyze financials and make business loans for a living, and I still struggle with the financial analysis of the school system and education funding.”

This has made the debate more heated, according to Corbett.

“It’s all come to a head at this point, and unfortunately it’s pitting some communities against one another,” he said.

On that, both groups can agree. Save Our Schools members acknowledged the discord in a response to the pro-consolidation group’s letter.

“We are afraid that what may be coming to pass, evidenced by your (online letter), is what we have claimed all along: Act 46 is creating a chasm between our communities,” the SOS response states. “Pitting towns against one another, in particular the larger towns against the smaller, is a direct effect of Act 46.”

SOS members maintained their right to try to preserve their small schools. As previously reported by the Independent, SOS has been circulating a petition to force a Town Meeting Day vote on two major changes to the ACSD charter. One would require a townwide vote in order to trigger closure of a school in that community; the other would call for each ACSD board member to be elected only by his or her community of residence. Right now, ACSD board members are elected at-large, and the 13-member board has the power to close a school if a supermajority of 10 or more members endorses such a move.

Members of the pro-consolidation group oppose the SOS petition.

“I wouldn’t want to see us get to a point where because a town doesn’t want to vote to close its own school, that we have an even less efficient system where we’re funding a school with five students or something like that,” Corbett said.

The Independent reached out to ACSD board Chairman Peter Conlon for his take on the pro-consolidation letter:

“The board continues to work on its facilities master plan,” he said through an email. “Many of the points these folks have brought forth have been at the forefront of our discussions. We are still gathering the data we need to make informed decisions.

“I think the high level of public discussion and action on the challenge of declining enrollment, equity and maintaining great schools shows just how tough it is to face significant change,” he added. “But at the heart of the matter is a school system that people care deeply about, and, despite the difficult conversations, that is quite heartening.”

Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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