Should we stay or should we go? Two towns to decide on ACSD exit


A YARD SIGN in Middlebury this week urges voters in Ripton to vote in favor of leaving the Addison Central School District. Independent photo/Megan James
We are in the position of having to choose between two extreme options — withdrawal or closure — and, frankly, neither feels great, but one offers us the ability to have a say in our future and the other does not. — Jenny Phelps of Weybridge

This story was corrected after it was originally posted to correct an error. We found out after the story went to press that the ACSD had updated its FAQ on the Ripton and Weybridge secession votes, and that the two towns would not absolutely loose their small schools grants from the state if they left the school district. Instead, they could seek continuation of their Small School grants if ultimately the state granted them permission to continue as independent school districts.

MIDDLEBURY — Ripton and Weybridge residents will go to the polls on Tuesday, Jan. 12, to decide whether they’d like their towns to withdraw from the Addison Central School District.

The secession votes were forced in both towns by residents concerned the ACSD board is preparing to close the Ripton and Weybridge elementary schools as part of a broader consolidation plan aimed at reducing districts costs amid declining student enrollment.

If a majority of the voters in each town endorses secession, the withdrawal efforts would need to cross additional hurdles before the towns could become their own independent school districts.

According to a “Frequently Asked Questions” page prepared by the ACSD (found at tinyurl.com/y6chap6o), here’s how the process would have to unfold if a town votes to withdraw from the district:

•  Residents in each of the six other ACSD towns must vote in favor of the community withdrawing. By statute, the vote is required to be held by Australian ballot on the same day in all towns.

•  The Vermont Board of Education must then endorse the move and determine whether it’s in the best interests of the state, students and remaining towns for the ACSD to continue to exist. If the State Board concludes it is in the best interests, it may decide the ACSD should continue in spite of the withdrawal. But the board could decide to dissolve the unified school district.

•  The town(s) that have withdrawn from the ACSD will presumably operate their own preK-6 schools, and determine how to provide education for its students in grades 7-12. Students would be required to tuition into ACSD schools (if space is available) or other schools for secondary education, according to district officials. Depending on the elementary grades offered in a seceded town, students would either enter Middlebury Union Middle School or another middle school in 6th or 7th grade, provided there’s enrollment space.

The new town school district would adopt the curricula of the supervisory union to which it would be assigned, according to ACSD officials. The ACSD would no longer be responsible for sustaining and supporting the school’s incorporation into the ACSD’ International Baccalaureate IB World District.

•  The new town school districts would have the option of trying to join another school district, or to function as an independent preK-12 school district. The State Board would assign the district to a supervisory union for administrative purposes.

FINANCIAL IMPACT

There could be major financial consequences for districts that withdraw from the ACSD, according to analysis provided by district officials. Here’s how they explain the potential withdrawal consequences in the FAQ document:

“If education spending per equalized pupil increased an average of 3% per year, and Ripton and Weybridge had remained independent districts, Ripton’s FY21 education spending per equalized pupil would be approximately $1,700 over (Vermont’s) excess spending threshold, while Weybridge’s FY21 education spending per equalized pupil would be approximately $2,900 over the excess spending threshold, without considering secondary tuition costs.

“Exceeding the excess spending threshold as described would result in an additional tax burden of approximately 17 cents on the property tax rate for Ripton and 28 cents for Weybridge homeowners, bringing the total estimated homestead tax rate to $2.25 per $100 of assessed value for Ripton and $2.32 for Weybridge. Comparatively, ACSD’s education spending per equalized pupil for FY21 is $115 over the excess spending threshold, and exemptions to the threshold shielded taxpayers from any tax penalty.”

An ACSD FAQ docuement explained that the newly formed elementary districts could lose their state’s small schools grants; but they could petition to keep the grants if they are ultimately granted permission to continue as independent school districts.

Still, many Weybridge and Ripton residents believe secession is the way to go, in order to preserve a system of community schools that has endured for centuries in Vermont. They want local kids to be educated close to home, in buildings that have also served as community hubs. They also aren’t keen on seeing their students take longer bus rides to elementary schools in Middlebury or Salisbury. And they believe the presence of their local schools can, and will, attract more young families.

Pro-secession signs have been popping up in Ripton and Weybridge, where advocates have been meeting in small groups or virtually. A Ripton group called “Save Our Schools” can be found at saveourschoolsvt.org. Advocates have also prepared a mailer in advance of the vote.

VOICES FAVOR LEAVING

In addition to presenting pro-secession points of view, the mailer includes quotes from a variety of prominent Ripton residents, including acclaimed environmentalist, author and scholar Bill McKibben.

“For 200 years, through times much leaner than these, Ripton has somehow been able to educate its youth; it seems unlikely that we’re suddenly too poor for that,” he said.

Ripton selectboard Chair Laurie Cox: “We have pride in our community, in our school, and ownership of our children. This is why so many of us who moved here stayed, why students who attended school here 20 years ago are choosing to return, and why we have had an increase of young families moving here in recent years.”

Carol Ford, who chaired the Ripton Elementary School Board for 30 years: “Ripton Elementary School is in my heart. I absolutely will vote in favor of withdrawal because of the importance of the school to our children and to our town.”

Jenny Phelps is among the Weybridge residents who want their town to withdraw from the ACSD.

“I don’t believe anyone in our town is taking this decision lightly,” Phelps said. “We are in the position of having to choose between two extreme options — withdrawal or closure — and, frankly, neither feels great, but one offers us the ability to have a say in our future and the other does not.”

Kelly Flynn is also advocating for Weybridge to go it alone.

“When it became clear that the district would propose closing Weybridge Elementary School, we started looking for a solution that, if it didn’t keep the school open, would at least provide our community with a voice and empower us to help shape the future of education for our students,” she said. “As we have talked with more community members and did more research, it became apparent that withdrawing from ACSD was a viable option. We had a proven track record of success at Weybridge Elementary School prior to Act 46 and this is an opportunity to return to that success and regain our local control.”

Weybridge resident Jamie Northup is also opposed to closing the local school.

“I am in favor of Weybridge starting the process to withdraw from the district because it is unfortunately one of the few mechanisms we have to make sure our voices are heard,” Northup said. “I think this vote is a demonstration that the people of Weybridge support our school and I hope it will help refocus the discussion to what is most important — the educational experience and the sense of community for the students in our town.”

Phelps and Flynn have assembled a secession FAQ document for Weybridge residents that can be found online at tinyurl.com/y4zt7of3.

URGING ‘NO’ VOTE

Meanwhile, others in Ripton and Weybridge — as well as the ACSD board — are urging people to vote “no” on secession.

The school board on Monday endorsed a statement on the issue in advance of the Jan. 12 vote.

“We recognize the concerns of community members, as this process is complex and difficult,” the statement, drafted by board Chair Mary Cullinane, reads. “While we respect the towns of Weybridge and Ripton rights to pursue withdrawal, the Addison Central School District Board believes we are stronger together. The challenges faced by districts in educating our youth are daunting and require tremendous collaboration and resources. We believe we are best able to serve the students of ACSD when we do so as one learning community.”

A group of secession opponents have unified under the moniker “Stronger Together in ACSD,” which can be found at tinyurl.com/y6tpjp9j. The group’s ranks include past and present Ripton School directors, as well as current Ripton Elementary Principal Tracey Harrington. Harrington — speaking as a Ripton resident and parent — shared her views in a recent letter previously published in the Independent, now posted on the “Stronger Together in ACSD” website; read it online at addisonindependent.com/tracey-harrington.

“The opposition has continued to fight for the small schools no matter the cost. Currently, the effort underway is to convince town members to vote to secede from the ACSD district and go back to being their own town school districts,” she wrote. “As hard as it is to imagine our small towns without their own elementary school, I am very concerned about how harmful this decision would be to our children and families.”

Harrington voiced concern that withdrawing from the district would present the town with “many financial, administrative and operational challenges.”

“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,” she wrote. “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.”

Weybridge and Ripton are each projecting around 40 students through grade 5 at their respective schools next year. All ACSD 6th-graders will go to MUMS this fall.

ACSD board member Victoria Jette chairs the district’s facilities committee.

“Our current configuration is not sustainable,” Jette told her colleagues on Monday, adding “we need to address the fact that our footprint is larger than necessary for the student population we serve.

 “By saying this, I don’t mean to take away from the enormous loss some towns will feel,” she added. “I understand our schools are not just buildings where kids are educated, but rather are community meeting places where lives are shared and relationships built. I hope that by staying together, we can help each other reimagine the use of these buildings and keep them as places where people can continue to come find community, share experiences and benefit the greater good.”

Australian ballot voting will take place on Tuesday, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., at the Weybridge Town Office, at 1727 Quaker Village Road. Residents can vote absentee by requesting a ballot from the town clerk by Jan. 7.

The polls will also be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the Ripton Community House off Route 125. Request an early/absentee ballot at mvp.vermont.gov or from the town clerk.

John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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