Petition seeks pause in ACSD master planning process

RIPTON — A Ripton man is spearheading an online citizens petition aimed at convincing the Addison Central School District board to suspend its work on a facilities master plan — which will likely include recommendations on elementary school closures — until the COVID-19 pandemic is over.

The petition had garnered more than 559 signatures as the Independent went to press on Wednesday.

“In the current situation, the education of our students necessitates all the energy and resources the district has available,” reads the petition, which is attributed to the “ACSD VT Citizen’s Alliance.”

“This situation also requires space for appropriate social-distancing in classrooms, making any discussion to reduce space ill-advised,” the petition language continues. “The situation is further complicated by the current inability to hold any sort of community meetings, which would allow for full public participation in such important processes. Because of these factors, we ask that the board stop any facilities master plan discussions and planning at this time, and instead direct their full attention to the safety of the students.”

Steve Cash of Ripton said he composed the petition, with input from other folks concerned about the prospect of seeing the current seven ACSD elementary schools whittled down to three or four (see related story by clicking here). The ACSD includes Middlebury Union middle and high schools, and the elementary schools in Bridport, Cornwall, Middlebury, Ripton, Salisbury, Shoreham and Weybridge.

A preliminary consolidation concept being studied by the ACSD’s Facilities Committee calls for the Middlebury, Salisbury and Bridport grade schools to collectively absorb students now attending Weybridge, Ripton, Cornwall and Shoreham elementary schools.

This concept also acknowledges that ACSD’s elementary school system will shrink to pre-K through grade 5, beginning in fall 2021. That’s when sixth-graders will begin attending MUMS, a change being made to facilitate the transition to an International Baccalaureate curriculum.

Cash, the parent of a future Ripton student, listed what he believes are five justifications for pausing facilities planning in the ACSD:

•  The inability to define how long the COVID-19 pandemic will last.

•  The inability to forecast what condition the ACSD will be after the pandemic.

“We can’t know what will change in the fabric of our society,” he said.

•  The current, challenging environment for public meetings. Local, state and regional boards have been meeting online since mid-March.

•  It appears counterintuitive to talk about reducing school space at a time when districts are looking to maximize the building square-footage at their disposal in order to implement social distancing requirements, according to Cash.

•  Preserving the health and safety of students, staff and faculty should be the district’s top priority right now, rather than the long-term future of school buildings, according to Cash.

Cash acknowledged that declining enrollment and rising education costs are forcing the ACSD board to look at ways to streamline operations. But he warned that savings for the district might result in higher costs for parents, such as having to rearrange work schedules to conform to new, longer bus routes.

“That money might be saved in a budget, but the reality is that cost is just transferred to the parents or people in that district, potentially,” he said.

“It just shuffles the bills.”

Cash believes the district should get through the COVID-19 crisis before reimagining its school campuses.

“I don’t think this is an ideal time to dream or plan,” he said.

Cash has yet to decide when he’ll submit the petition to the ACSD board. For now, he’ll see how many more signatures it gets. The petition can be found at tinyurl.com/yydnvmqs.

SIGNERS COMMENT

Here’s a sampling of comments from people who’ve signed the petition:

•  We are all facing many layers to this global pandemic … it seems wise to not move forward with such drastic decisions and change until things are more clear and safe. — Samantha Isenberger

•  I think this is the worst possible time to go forward with decisions to consolidate schools. The decision-making process has been flawed from the beginning and is weighted more towards finances than educational equity. — Fran Putnam

•  The community deserves the type of meaningful in-person dialog — the ability to look in each other’s eyes and hear each other’s voices and work toward solutions that take everyone’s perspective into account — that is impossible during social distancing and the stress of a pandemic. — Amy Mason.

ACSD leaders said they’re aware of the petition, but were candid in stating the facilities master planning effort is unlikely to be tabled. They noted the board paused the planning process when COVID-19 first hit back in March, but resurrected the effort a few months later when the state released dire news about major revenue shortfalls for the Vermont Education Fund.

“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,” Victoria Jette, chair of the ACSD Facilities Committee, said during a recent gathering of the panel.

“There has been talk of halting the facilities master plan due to the pandemic, which we initially did to give us all time to get our wits about us and our feet under us again,” she added. “No one knows when this pandemic will end. I would not dare to try to predict. What we do know is that there is a new normal and it would behoove us to figure out how to plod through it rather than be paralyzed by the change and challenges that it presents.”

Time and resources are of the essence right now, noted ACSD board Chair Mary Cullinane.

“Pressing pause on a process does not change our reality; in fact, this pandemic has created more urgency for us to be prepared,” Cullinane said through an email. “Our kids need more resources in their schools, not less. Our teachers need more time to teach, not less. And our administrators need more time to lead, not less. This work is being done to ensure the resources are there for every student and every teacher. It’s what they deserve. In a very short period of time, we will be asked to make significant cuts to our budget. Every economic indicator points that way. We as a board understand none of this is ideal, but we are prepared to do the work that is necessary to support our district and our families. We ask for our community to be open to new ways to engage, consider new perspectives on the definition of community and to continue to support each other as we all try to do our best during very difficult times.”

John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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