Ripton's fate lies with ACSD voters
RIPTON — You’ll forgive Ripton residents this year for being more preoccupied by their neighbors’ town meeting results than their own.
That’s because residents in Bridport, Cornwall, Middlebury, Salisbury, Shoreham and Weybridge on March 2 will decide whether to endorse Ripton’s bid to withdraw from the Addison Central School District. Ripton residents — in an effort to preserve their local school, which has been targeted for closure due to low enrollment — voted 163-107 on Jan. 12 to leave the ACSD and become an independent school district.
But Ripton’s road to independence still faces two major hurdles.
A majority of voters in all six of the other ACSD towns must vote in favor of Ripton’s withdrawal effort. Weybridge — which also has a small school targeted for closure — entertained the same withdrawal vote, but defeated it by a 190-119 margin on Jan. 12. Will its citizens be more receptive to endorsing such a move for Ripton?
If all six towns side with Ripton on March 2, the Vermont Board of Education must then give its consent for independence. And the board hasn’t made a practice of breaking up school unions.
The Independent asked Vermont Education Secretary Daniel French whether he thought Ripton’s independence effort might spur additional defection bids by other towns seeking to protect their small schools from closure. His reply: “Regardless of how governance issues are decided, we will still be faced with demographic challenges both from an enrollment perspective and the perspective of recruiting and retaining talented education staff.”
Ripton’s independence bid has spawned at least two websites and a sustained, animated discussion on a panoply of social media platforms — as well as in the Independent’s Letters to the Editor section.
Those in favor of Ripton leaving the district point, among other things, to the central role the local school plays in its community. It not only educates local children close to home, it also serves as a hub for community gatherings. For instance, it has been the site of summer Friday pizza-making, and the school hosted a U.S. naturalization ceremony a few years ago.
Withdrawal proponents also note the school is a powerful inducement for young families to settle in Ripton and pay property taxes. And without young families, civic organizations — like the fire department — will struggle to fill their ranks.
From a logistical standpoint, pro-withdrawal folks have said they aren’t keen on seeing their children bused to consolidated elementary schools in Middlebury or Salisbury.
Those opposed to the withdrawal effort are concerned about the potential tax implications of Ripton maintaining and managing its own local school. The ACSD central office currently recruits and hires educators for district schools, and taxpayers in the seven member communities jointly foot the bill for school improvements — either through the union’s global preK-12 budget or a bond issue.
Some withdrawal opponents have also raised concerns about educational continuity for Ripton if it leaves; the town’s children are currently part of the district’s transition to an International Baccalaureate program.
Those advocating for Ripton’s exit counter that Ripton could keep the IB program alive locally, and then tuition students to the ACSD for further IB instruction at Middlebury Union middle and high schools.
The ACSD on Feb. 12 completed a study of the financial implications of a Ripton exit. It can be found online at tinyurl.com/RiptonACSDimpact. It offers two potential scenarios, both of which reveal a tiny savings for the six remaining towns in the ACSD.
The first scenario compares the ACSD’s FY22 estimated cost per equalized pupil based on the proposed FY22 budget, to what the cost per equalized pupil could be if Ripton withdrew. In this scenario, ACSD officials reduced the costs that could specifically be attributed to Ripton — such as staffing, facilities and transportation — while making “a reasonable” attempt to prorate additional expenditures such as professional development, technology, curriculum and special education.
Estimated savings for the six ACSD towns: $46 in education spending per equalized pupil ($18,890, versus $18,936 with Ripton).
The second scenario compares ACSD’s FY22 estimated cost per equalized pupil (based on the proposed FY22 budget) to what the cost per equalized pupil could be if Ripton did not withdraw and Ripton Elementary School was closed, with students attending other schools in ACSD. In this scenario, some of the expenditures associated with Ripton Elementary are reduced, but much of the revenue is retained, including Ripton’s equalized pupil count (through which the district gets payments from the state). Expenditures that are not reduced in this scenario include the cost of transportation, special education, and other prorated expenditures such as professional development and technology. Staffing and facilities costs are reduced.
Estimated savings: $420 in education spending per equalized pupil ($18,516, versus $18,936).
What about the tax impact on Ripton?
Joanna Doria, a member of Ripton’s Save Our Schools group (saveourschoolsvt.org), acknowledged a potential 15-20 cent boost in education property tax rates for homeowners if the town withdraws. That increase could add $300 to the annual tax bill for residents with a $300,000 homestead who pay school taxes purely by property value. The impact would be less for those who pay their school taxes based on income — which is the case for two-thirds of Vermonters.
Heading into Tuesday’s vote, here are some of the pro/con voices weighing in on the Ripton withdrawal issue:
• Ripton resident Millard “Mac” Cox, a member of the SOS group: “We cannot remain in ACSD because ACSD gives no space for our democracy. If we remain, we will lose the school we have built and paid for and loved since 1989. We want our children to have the best possible education, and we are determined that it will be in our own town. If we remain in ACSD, the district will, against our wishes, close our school and bus our children to two different towns rather than allow them to remain in Ripton and be educated as a part of our small, strong community. If we are not released, we will be powerless as the smallest town in the district.”
• Ripton resident Molly Witters: “We have been extremely heartened in talking to so many neighbors around the district over these last weeks. We are feeling an overwhelming sense of support from you all, and so much of it comes down to us sharing strong common values: we believe in local democracy, we believe in the importance of small towns in defining our state’s values, and we believe in supporting one another. In Ripton, we want to keep our young children close. We want to keep our community vibrant and a place where working families choose to move.”
• Ripton resident Erin Robinson, SOS member: “I feel as though SOS has done everything it could to inform people of the outcomes of the decision to withdraw from the district. More than blood, sweat and tears went into this from our camp and I couldn’t be more proud of the hard work of the individuals on the front lines. I hope that everyone who votes does so with the full awareness of their decision and truly considers a ‘yes’ vote to allow Ripton the freedom to make its own decisions regarding our school and town.”
• Tracey Harrington, Ripton Elementary School principal and Ripton resident, through a letter posted to an anti-withdrawal website called “Stronger Together,” at tinyurl.com/2x22us2v: “If you think by creating a small school district in order to save your small school building, you will save your ‘school’ — the teachers, staff, administrators, shared resources, programming and collaboration, you are wrong. You may save the elementary school building, but there is great potential loss to our students, pre-kindergarten through high school. I urge us to look forward, not backwards, for ways to configure our schools and ensure all students get a high-quality educational experience while working within the spending parameters we are faced with. I believe we are stronger together — as one district, with seven towns working towards a common vision. A vision focused on saving our students, not just schools.”
• Ripton residents Heather and Joe Durante, through a recent post on Front Porch Forum: “this idea that RES (Ripton Elementary School) is worth ‘saving’ at any cost is elitist. When our taxes go up, how will our low-income neighbors afford to live here? What young families will be attracted to moving here? An independent RES sounds more like a publicly funded private school for those with the means to pay for it. This is not our reality, and I am sure it’s not for many of our neighbors either.
• ACSD board Chair Mary Cullinane (speaking as an individual): “At the end of the day we are all trying to do what’s best for our children. And while we may disagree on how to best accomplish this, we are still a community, and no matter the outcome of this vote, we will still care for and support one another.”
John Flowers is at firstname.lastname@example.org.