Shoreham residents rally against possible school closure


RUTH BERNSTEIN AND her daughter

TANYA SCUTERI WITH Owen
We need more connectedness and relationships closer to home for the benefit of parents, children, and all in the community… Let’s strengthen our communities, not destabilize them. — Ruth Bernstein

SHOREHAM — Shoreham residents are joining a chorus of Ripton and Weybridge voices expressing concern their local elementary school could become a casualty of consolidations plans being explored by the Addison Central School District (ACSD) Board.

The board is working on a facilities master plan to guide it in future decisions about which school buildings to improve, and which to vacate, as the district confronts declining enrollment and rising education expenses. The financial picture figures to get worse due to a COVID-19 pandemic that has stemmed revenues to Vermont’s Education Fund.

ACSD board leaders recently agreed to pursue options that would reduce the ACSD’s elementary schools from the current seven, to “three or four.” Most of the district’s local schools have been shedding students, and will shed even more during the fall of 2021 when sixth-graders transition to Middlebury Union Middle School.

The ACSD commissioned the Williston-based TruexCullins company to study all seven of the grade schools and enumerate their assets and shortcomings. The company recommended several options to pare down the seven, including one calling for Shoreham students to be served at the Bridport Central School, while Cornwall students would travel to Salisbury, and that Ripton and Weybridge kids would attend classes at Middlebury’s Mary Hogan Elementary.

ACSD officials stressed no decisions have been made on consolidation, nor has a specific timeline been set to bring about the sweeping changes. Mary Cullinane, chair of the ACSD board, said the ultimate consolidation plan could give affected families a choice of open schools to which to send their children.

“In other words, one benefit from consolidation is that we are not bound by town boarders in determining what makes the most sense in determining where each school pulls its students from,” she said. “So it is possible that students from the same town could attend different schools.”

District officials are definitive, however, in saying the district won’t continue to carry seven elementary schools in the long-term. So it’s safe to say they’ll face intense lobbying during the coming months from residents in all seven towns to keep their respective schools open.

The Independent has previously reported concerns raised by various Ripton and Weybridge residents, whose local schools are the smallest in the district. This week, the Independent offers comments from a group of Shoreham residents — some of them the parents of current students — who are adamant about seeing their school serve future generations of local kids.

During a recent, socially distanced meeting with the newspaper in front of the Shoreham library, the group of six concerned citizens offered what they said was clear evidence their local school should continue operations. Among their arguments:

•  Spring enrollment at Shoreham Elementary School was almost 100 students, up 45% since 2016. They argue that Shoreham is among the few ACSD communities seeing an enrollment rise.

“Shoreham is growing,” resident Barbara Wilson said. “We have been growing at a time Middlebury Union High School (enrollment) has been declining.”

Cullinane acknowledged Shoreham’s recent enrollment jump, but added “as a unified district we have to look at our collective enrollment, not just one school’s trend. Given the strategic nature of this work, we have to plan for what creates the greatest flexibility over the long term, during which trends can change.”

•  Close proximity of the local library and other community assets — such as the town green, ball field, tennis courts, hiking trails and the town-owned, 300-acre Farnham property — to benefit students.

•  The presence of an on-site, after-school program.

•  The Shorewell Clinic is located nearby, and town officials have asked Shorewell to consider a satellite health clinic at the school.

•  Having town water and sewer service means the school won’t need to worry about future well or septic system issues.

One of the challenges, Wilson said, has been bringing Shoreham residents up to speed on the status of their school, including its recent growth trend and the fact that it’s in peril.

“A lot of people who aren’t involved with the school are clueless about what’s happening at the school,” she said, noting residents who don’t have students there are not keeping track.

PHYSICAL PLANT

Shoreham Elementary was built in 1954, and had its roof replaced in 2001.

It has 14,800 square feet and is situated off School Street, on a portion of a 19-acre municipal lot.

The school has a capacity for 108 students, and its wastewater permit would allow it to accommodate up to 145 individuals. The building is hooked up to the town’s municipal septic and water services.

TruexCullins gave the Shoreham School high marks for its town center location and for being hooked up to municipal water and sewer services that could allow for the building to accommodate up to 145 people. But the report also gave the school poor marks for “site slope” and a lack of available expansion space, for classrooms “lacking access to natural light,” and for the fact that it sits on town-owned land.

Bridport School, which TruexCullins said could receive Shoreham students, was built in 1955 and was equipped with an addition in 1987. It has 17,600 feet of space, serving 83 occupants, according to the report. It gets high marks for being on a large, open site that’s conducive to expansion, with proximity to Route 22A. But it gets low marks for “poor soil drainage,” “limited stormwater management,” and the nearby presence of “uncommon animal species.”

TruexCullins placed the combined K-5 population of Bridport and Shoreham at 138 students, which would still be under the 145-person capacity for the Bridport School.

“All buildings have positive characteristics as well as some challenges,” Cullinane said. “And many factors must be considered. At this point in the process, we have identified schools for further review that we believe provide the best opportunity for us to be flexible over the long term, meet the needs of a declining district-wide population and address significant financial constraints that we are facing. There isn’t one factor or characteristic that provides a clear answer to the question of which locations offer the best solution.

Ruth Bernstein has lived in Shoreham for the past 14 years and has three young children, one of whom currently attends the local school. She’s concerned about how the loss of the local school would affect the quality of education, as well as the community as a whole.

“I believe that social connectedness is one of the our most important societal resources and ways to prevent and alleviate the problems of generational poverty, trauma, housing insecurity, food insecurity, child abuse and neglect, preventable health issues, etc.,” Bernstein said. “We need more connectedness and relationships closer to home for the benefit of parents, children, and all in the community… Let’s strengthen our communities, not destabilize them.”

She fears the extra busing time to Bridport would be taxing on young children, some of whom will have to get up before 6 a.m..

“If you’re 6 years old and on the bus for two to three hours a day, that doesn’t help you focus on school,” she added.

Resident  Denise Bertholf said her son boards the bus at 6:40 a.m., “and that’s to come a mile and a half here (to school). And he’s not the first one on the bus.”

Tanya Scuteri is a former Shoreham School Board member. She, too, is concerned about the added time local kids would spend on a bus to Bridport, a transportation mix that could include kindergarteners and high school seniors.

“Busing in our district is already a significant challenge, and this is certainly going to magnify that challenge,” she said.

Dee Bertholf said he hopes the ACSD board is taking transportation into consideration during the consolidation debate.

“The frustrating thing for me is they seem to be making decisions without a transportation study, without understanding what the true impacts are going to be,” he said. “We can tell you the impacts won’t be good.”

Cullinane said transportation is being taken into consideration.

KEY IN THE COMMUNITY

“We recognize this is a very important component of the overall plan,” she said. “It is our intention to review and adjust catchment areas for each of the elementary community schools in an effort to help address any transportation issues. It is not accurate to assume all students from one elementary school will simply be assigned to another school.”

Paige Pierson said it would be a shame to lose the myriad school teachers and administrators that are part of the Shoreham School.

“We have so many resources here,” she said. “My son had a great set of teachers at this school. I think the world of Michael (Lennox), the principal, and we arguably have one of the state's best librarians… This little town does a lot for its size. I think there’s something unique about Shoreham.”

She and like-minded Shoreham residents don’t want their town to become known for having no elementary school — a loss they believe could affect property values and make the town a less desirable place to live.

And Scuteri questioned the wisdom of potentially combining two school populations that together have the largest percentage of households (among the seven ACSD towns) receiving state and federal aid — such as free and subsidized school lunches.

“I think equity should be the driving force of the process,” she said, “and I think to make this decision now, while we’re still in the middle of a pandemic, would be shortsighted and not in the best interest of the community, the district, and the students.”

Cullinane promised equity will be a big part of the decision making process.

“Equity has and will continue to be a driving force in this work,” she said. “We will be looking at many different factors including transportation, the roll of school choice and appropriate catchment areas as we move forward. Each of these will be designed to ensure we are creating learning environments that support all of our students in the best possible manner.

TOWN SUPPORT 

The Shoreham selectboard and Planning Commission have sent letters to the ACSD board asking that the Shoreham Elementary School stay open. In a July 8 letter to Cullinane, the Shoreham selectboard noted residents at the March 2020 town meeting unanimously supported two non-binding articles that sought to give the community a direct say in the closure of its school and more influence over how its school board representatives are elected.

The letter also referenced enrollment estimates showing  an incoming kindergarten class of up to 19 students.

“The selectboard believes that Shoreham Elementary School enrollment will continue to grow, and the school is in a strong position to serve our town for many years to come,” the Shoreham selectboard stated.

Concerned Shoreham residents, in concert with the local planning commission, are putting together a survey that will in part touch upon the future of the school, according to Wilson. That survey is to be delivered to all local residents — with an online response option — in August.

“It’s vital for town planning to have a school,” Wilson said.

John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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