Editorial: ACSD petition is well-timed

As the saga over the consolidation of small schools within newly formed school districts evolves, the latest advancement is a petition drive within the Addison Central School District (the greater Middlebury area) to change the charter that formed the consolidated district. The argument among the petitioners is that the charter was passed early in the Act 46 process and district residents were not fully aware of the consequences. They believe the public would vote differently if given the opportunity. 

Specifically, the petition asks voters to approve changes to the charter, which say:  

• “No district elementary school shall be closed unless a majority of the registered voters at a duly warned special meeting of the town in which the school is located vote to close the school.”

•“Each director shall be elected by the voters of the district town in which the director lives.”

Currently, the charter has all ACSD board members elected at-large, and the district board has the sole discretion to close a school without a vote of the town residents of that school. Those charter guidelines were discussed and drafted by a school board committee and passed overwhelmingly, 3,404-792, among district residents.

According to a story in today’s Addison Independent, Molly Witters, one of the petitioners from the group “Save our Schools ACSD,” said many residents were not aware of the changes made under the new district charter and have been “shocked” to learn that town residents would have no direct vote in closing a school.

“People don’t even know what’s in the charter,” she said. “They’re shocked and immediately sign my petition. That’s farmers in Bridport and Shoreham, and shopkeepers in Middlebury.”

That’s no doubt true for a couple of reasons: 

• First, the vote to form the charter was back in 2016, and very few of us remember the details of decisions made three years ago. 

• Second, in the context of the times, the rationale behind those charter changes seemed reasonable. That is, to create a district board that was representative of the seven towns, and with Middlebury having such an overwhelming population in comparison to the six other smaller towns, it was deemed most equitable to elect all board members at large, while still assuring there would be at least one representative from each town and seven from Middlebury. That provision held as true to a representative democracy based on population, while still representing all seven towns, as they deemed possible.

• At the time, there was little talk of closing schools; the provisions made to do so were done in a theoretical context.

That said, there’s nothing like the possibility of a perceived negative action that wakes up the citizenry. It’s not that the public did not engage in the process three years ago, but that the prospect of the smaller schools potential closure was not the focus of the discussion.

To that end, the petition is well-timed and well-considered in that it focuses the district on the rules of engagement going forward, now that, as the saying goes, push comes to shove.

If district residents vote (with a simple majority) to change the charter’s provision as recommended by the petitioners, the board will adjust accordingly. If voters maintain the status quo, district residents will likely be resigned to work within the system. 

Is the latter point possible? Most likely, yes. District residents should note that the district board has not yet voted, nor recommended, closing any elementary school to date. The board has conducted studies that have demonstrated the potential short-term savings for such action, but longer-term costs and costs to the communities were not yet factored into that discussion. There is still much to discuss before those decisions are made.

It is fair to ask, for example, how low can you go? What’s the minimum level of student-teacher ratio that should be allowed? Is a K-6 elementary school with fewer than 40 students viable; or should the number be 50 or 75 or 125? Should an elementary school be allowed to combine classes (first-and-second graders in one classroom, for example) if that brings the pupil-teacher ratio to acceptable levels? Can a town elementary school welcome pre-K students, ages 2-5, as a way for the building to be more cost effective? And, if the school is operating at or near capacity, would there ever be reason to close it?

Once those data points are articulated, each small town will know what it needs to achieve to keep a healthy and viable school, and we would hope district board members would give those small schools an opportunity to make that happen before shuttering them without fair warning.

We also expect that district residents will re-learn what ACSD board chairman Peter Conlon said in today’s story: that the committee that drafted the new district charter was “thoughtful, careful and thorough in its work,” and that there “is a very solid foundation for why the articles were developed as they were.” That, in short, there is a high bar to hurdle for changes to be made — especially because the current policy favors a dominant Middlebury bent because of its outsized population. 

But it also doesn’t mean that the current board can’t assign a value to maintaining a strong, diverse school population represented in as many communities as is reasonably possible. Regardless of how the district charter is written, two things remain clear: each school must prove itself to be economically viable and academically sound, and the schools are stronger working together than they are alone. How those ideals are articulated and carried out, will be the measures of success or failure. 

Angelo Lynn

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Addison County Independent

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Middlebury, VT 05753

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