Editorial: Let small schools prove themselves
On a local level, the issue of our times is how our newly formed school districts navigate through an era in which declining student numbers and rising costs make it difficult for small schools to operate economically, while also balancing the strengths that small schools derive from being a part of a very tight, supportive community.
These are weighty issues that do not have easy answers.
The economic facts that must be confronted are this: the demographics over the past 20 years have seen a consistent decline in most schools throughout Addison County; declining enrollment means declining state aid, and even though enrollment drops schools are not able to cut costs on a parallel track; health care costs are again rocketing upward with double-digit annual increases; then add the opiate epidemic and social ills that have been passed on to schools to resolve.
It’s a perfect storm of high costs running up against limited tax capacity. School boards, after all, have to get budgets passed.
That said, there is more than one way to skin this proverbial cat. In a Monday interview with former Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe, who helped pass Act 46 while serving under Gov. Peter Shumlin and is a 2020 candidate for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, she made several interesting points:
• First, that Act 46 should not be used by district school boards as an excuse to pursue school consolidations. Language in the legislation specifically states that the intent and purpose is not force schools to close. On the contrary, the intent was to strengthen smaller schools by allowing the larger school district to share resources under the principle that small schools banded together are stronger as a whole than separately.
• She said she was surprised by the thrust in Addison County to focus on the closure of elementary schools, which typically are not where the economic inefficiencies are greatest.
• And she noted that other school districts throughout the state are not making headlines by closing small schools, but rather are finding creative ways to put those assets to better use — by bringing in early education, adult job training and other compatible uses mixed with entrepreneurial solutions. And while sensitive to the challenges school districts face, she also recognizes that the best solutions may not be robbing small towns of the assets they need to remain vital.
The thrust through Act 46 properly supplied, she implied, was better governance of the whole to make each piece stronger. That may be a noble thought, but an impractical reality. But shouldn’t it at least be tried before putting small towns under the guillotine?
Those in favor of school consolidation may say small towns have had their chances. But have they? The prospect of a town losing its small school because of a district decision became a reality just this past year.
Played right, the preferred response is to build stronger communities so those elementary schools can stand on their own. As Holcombe noted, the question should be: “How do we strengthen our communities to save our schools,” not “Let’s try to use the school to save the community.”
That, however, takes a little time — and a little patience on the part of school district boards.
In Addison and Ferrisburgh, towns are openly talking of rebellion. And rightly so. There the district board has told the town of Addison that even if the town votes against voluntarily closing their elementary school, the district will shut it down anyway. (See our story.) Such an over-bearing use of force against a town’s democratic vote defies the Vermont tradition of self-rule through town government.
Whatever one thinks about the realities of limited finances, that is no way to govern. The result will be a broken bond of trust between residents and the school district that could fester for years.
With a vote set for Nov. 5 in Addison and Ferrisburgh, what can be done this late in the game to make amends? We see two approaches: The board could maintain its tough approach and live or die with the results. That means: if it passes, the school district gets its way and the town schools would close. If it fails overwhelmingly, those on the board who supported that approach should recognize the voters’ lack of confidence in their leadership and consider resigning, letting others take their place at the next Town Meeting vote.
Alternatively, the district board could admit town residents don’t have enough information at this point to make an informed vote, suggest the issues be defeated and be put to a later vote in 2020 or beyond. Whatever the outcome of the vote, the district board has placed an undue burden on the towns of Addison and Ferrisburgh with no-win choices. Surely, when the idea of consolidated governance was conceived in Act 46, no one imagined district boards would rule like kings.
Where, however, are the solutions? How can towns convince school boards that the school district is stronger when small schools and larger schools exist separately but work together?
First, give them the opportunity to fact-check the data. Would closing a district’s smaller elementary schools actually save money, and at what cost? Second, they could set short-term goals they must meet to keep their schools active: for example, if a town’s current school population was 50 students when it needed 65 to be run efficiently, the town would need to demonstrate its capacity to attract that many new students in a reasonable time frame. Third, its student performance could be put to the test versus the district’s larger schools. Think of that for motivation: the challenge would be beneficial to all students and we would all learn if small schools’ outcomes could match or even excel their bigger cousins.
Without a doubt there is more than one way to approach this issue. Area school district boards would do well to take a step backward, consider a broader perspective and give small towns and small schools an opportunity to prove themselves.