Editorial: ACSD proposals suggest possible school consolidation
On the issue of school consolidation, here’s how the Addison Central School District may have unintentionally created a problem that has become detrimental to the district’s smaller towns and to the greater district: Simply put, in crafting the district’s charter, they created a structure that favored a district bias over the bias of individual towns.
The board’s intent, understandably, was to create a stronger district across all schools — to create better pay equity from school to school among teachers and administrators, and better student outcomes by providing equitable opportunities to all students regardless of school size. To create that needed change, the board reasoned, they would have to put the district’s needs above the individual schools and the towns they represented.
Today’s opponents of such a bias might remember the context: to create change, you have to overcome what was, and that necessitates a realignment of priorities.
But taken to its logical conclusion, such a bias disenfranchises the voices of the small schools and towns throughout the district, and it may well lead to drastic school consolidations that work against the best interests of the individual towns and of the school district at large. Here are three points to consider:
• One strength of the district approach is that it can help implement districtwide early education, starting with kids age 3. If the ACSD area is to become a place that attracts and retains businesses and young families, that’s a necessity that will strengthen the district’s overall economy.
• If the district’s small towns lose their schools, those communities will be less viable and attractive to potential residents who may be seeking the intimacy of small town living and the personal attention given to students in schools such as Ripton and Weybridge Elementary. By diminishing the options, it weakens the county’s economic and social vitality.
• The board is mistaken if its mission is to create a district devoid of town influence. The idea should not be to drum the individuality out of the district, but rather to use the strength of each community to build a stronger whole. That was the intent of Act 46; to ensure that small schools were able to get the resources they needed to stay viable, and if they couldn’t, to offer a solution within the larger school district. It is a corruption of that idea if the intent becomes to force consolidation to achieve an homogeous body of schools without town control or input — yet, there are ample concerns that is what is happening with the board’s current push.
Last spring we applauded the ACSD board for being upfront with the demographic trends facing district resident and proposing several merger scenarios. These were hypothetical and meant to stir discussion on critical points. Student population trends were showing declines of 20-25 percent for the past decade with little change in sight. If those trends were to continue, smaller schools may not be economically viable in the not too distant future. Better to talk about it now and plan, rather than be faced with a crisis later and few good options.
What seems to have happened, however, is an outside consultant was hired; they imposed industry standards as if schools were to be run as businesses, and scenarios to that effect were presented for discussion. That’s standard proceedure, but it doesn’t mean the advice must to be followed.
What’s missing in the discussion is the value-add that small schools bring to their communities and the economic and social strengths that small, viable communities bring to the county’s overall health and attractiveness. In short, the district benefits greatly from having seven vibrant, small towns with thriving schools. The ACSD needs to make sure it weaves that consideration into its discussion — and provide ample room and attention for indvidual towns to express their desires.
What we do know is that the potential closing of a few of the smaller schools in the district does not represent the will of those communities. Ripton residents have reacted most strongly against such a prospect, but we suspect that if the ACSD board were to suggest closing the schools in Weybridge, Shoreham, Salisbury, Cornwall or Bridport in the year 2020 and consolidate them into one school in Middlebury, there would be mass revolt.
What one would hope is that the ACSD board would strive to create a school system in which there was maximum buy-in by the residents of each town; that the schools reflected the strengths of their communities, and, yet, that the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. That can be true if each town is happy with the end result; but if towns are disenchanted from the get-go, you can bet that will translate into a school community that does not have the support of parents or taxpayers — and that spells long-term trouble with a capital T.