Editorial: Does Vermont want small, rural schools to survive?
Closing a town’s elementary school was as tough as predicted: In the town of Addison, voters on Tuesday rejected the Addison Northwest School District’s suggestion to voluntarily close its school by a three-to-one margin: 373 opposed to 123 in favor. Ferrisburgh voters rejected a similar recommendation by a five-to-one margin, 884 opposed and 160 in favor.
No surprise in either instance.
Town residents sent a clear message on several fronts: 1) they wanted to keep their schools open; 2) as a community, they wanted be in driver’s seat when it came to making the decision to keep their schools open or to close them; and 3) they wanted to work with the school district to find viable options to keep the town elementary schools open.
That was the voters’ desire, and the majority will prevail in the short-term.
But it’s no time for a victory lap.
What happens next at ANWSD will be the school board’s decision. They are eyeing several scenarios that would reduce grades taught at each of the district’s elementary schools (Addison, Ferrisburgh and Vergennes). One proposal includes putting grades 5 and 6 into the middle/high school, and perhaps only having grades K-1 at ACS. (See story.) It’s unclear at this time if the district school board would reconsider those scenarios and opt, instead, for keeping school classes more in line with the status quo and trying to pass a budget within those parameters. Certainly, that is the hope of Addison and Ferrisburgh residents who voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to reject the district’s proposed solution.
The difficulty, of course, will be finding a way to keep the two elementary schools open while keeping costs — and taxes — under control. The board, after all, has to propose a budget voters will pass.
The issues are complex, and when looking at the drivers of school costs, many are beyond the control of local boards:
• health insurance costs are currently up 12-14 percent;
• teacher and staff wages typically see an average of 2-3 percent annual hikes;
• declining student enrollment reduces the state aid to the district and threatens triggering a tax penalty under Act 68 passed in 2012;
• and then there is the increased burden of special needs students due partly to the fact that the federal share of that expense over the years has been reduced and put on the shoulders of local taxpayers. Opiate addiction problems have only compounded that burden.
What school districts can control is the configuration of how they educate their students, and since the passage of Act 46 (school governance consolidation) that has led to more power within some school district boards to make decisions to consolidate. School closures, those boards argue, save money by reducing building operating expenses, consolidating students into larger classes and reducing teachers, and saving on administration. Other costs go up, but on the whole, when schools are not at capacity, cash savings can be found through consolidation.
There are other reasons for consolidation and to oppose it, but from a pure financial perspective, the studies done by Addison Central School District (Middlebury area) and ANWSD project significant savings for those first years.
Let’s also note here that not all district charters are alike. In ACSU, the district’s charter allows the board to make a decision to close any school without town residents of that school having a vote; in ANWSD (Vergennes area), towns have a vote for the first five years of the district’s formation, but afterwards the district board will make all decisions without town residents’ direct vote; in MAUSD (Bristol area), the district charter was written to always allow town residents to have a vote on any proposed school closure. Like it or not, many of those district charters were discussed in public forums, drafted and accepted roughly two years ago.
What can residents of small towns do to ensure the survival of their schools? As the system is currently designed, the answer is to convince the majority of residents in any school district to pass budgets with high taxes. But that will be increasingly difficult. If no schools are consolidated in ANWSD, for example, school taxes will increase 27 percent over the next three years, according to district projections. And a disproportional amount of those taxes fall on the towns with the largest populations because it is a district-wide vote. That is, small towns would have to convince taxpayers in the largest towns to keep their small schools open at a higher cost than if those schools were closed. It’s the same story in each of the county’s three school districts.
You can hear the whispers from here: Good luck with that!
Ultimately, the answer may lie with changes in state legislation. With the recent demographic trends showing sharp drops in school enrollment throughout rural Vermont, the current state aid formula (which is dependent on allocating state aid per student) doesn’t fit the times. Rather, it is skewed to hold high growth school districts harmless (primarily Chittenden County and one or two others), while punishing school districts throughout the rest of the state.
To revamp school funding, however, will take at least a couple of years if not longer; amendments to current legislation might offer a short-term respite. A first thought is to suspend for two years the tax penalty on per pupil spending when it exceeds the threshhold. Few penalties have gone into effect (as school boards have worked hard to keep under those threshholds over the past seven years), so it’s not likely to reduce any significant funding to the state. It would, however, reduce the heat on school boards and eliminate the threat of more drastic cuts to school spending, particularly in the middle-and-high school budgets.
That buys a little time, but the larger question remains: Does Vermont want small schools to survive, or shall we maintain a funding formula that pushes consolidation to its practical ends? That may mean consolidating all Addison County schools into a single district. Logically, that’s where this conversation is headed, and we might as well engage in it full-tilt before we act in a piece-meal fashion and perhaps rue the day we did so.