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Newly merged district considers consolidating elementary schools

(WCAX)
Published: May. 23, 2019 at 5:56 PM EDT
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Vermont has among the highest per pupil costs in the country. That's in part because of fragmented school districts operating dozens of small, rural schools. Now, following the implementation of Act 46, newly merged school districts are beginning to look at consolidating schools.

Our Christina Guessferd looks at how the idea is being received in one newly created district.

The Addison Central School District is composed of nine schools: seven elementary schools, a middle school and a high school. Right now, the school board is proposing closing one or more of the smaller elementary schools, some of which only serve about 50 students.

The consideration has many wondering if this is an example of what's to come for the school districts that consolidated under Act 46 and if merging schools to save money was the long-term intention, all along.

"You completely take away the opportunity for people who are looking for a small-school experience," said Samantha Isenberger, a Ripton Elementary School parent.

Isenberger says that intimate educational setting is exactly why she and her family moved from Middlebury to Ripton, where her two young kids would attend the local, 50-student elementary school. Now, she feels like that opportunity could be ripped away from her, as the school district considers consolidation.

"It really changes the essence of the school experience for the children and the parental involvement, and how we can communicate with the educators and the principal," Isenberger said.

The district has only just begun considering consolidation and it's unclear if Ripton would be targeted. But Isenberger says all of the district's small elementary schools are invaluable to their communities.

"The school is very much an important piece of the community," Isenberger said. "It connects us to elders in our community."

"It's what forms the basis for a solid person," said Susan Mock of Middlebury, a former Ripton Elementary School teacher.

Critics of consolidation also point to impacts on families and the cost of bussing students.

"They already, some of the students here, ride 45 minutes to get here," Mock said.

"Young families would be less inclined to move here," Isenberger said.

School board members say consolidation is something Vermonters have to face one way or another. The Addison Central School District is just one of the first to start the conversation.

"We're dealing with steep declines in our enrollment," said Peter Conlon, the chair of the Addison Central School District board of directors.

Officials argue closing one or more of the elementary schools could save taxpayers millions and improve the quality of education.

"Having special services available all day long for kids-- a nurse, behavioral interventionist, guidance counselors. It's a lot harder to provide those services in a smaller elementary school," Conlon said.

They say they do recognize the downfalls.

"We continue to look at our schools as being a very important part of our communities. There can be definite transportation challenges. And it's really something new and different, and change is hard," Conlon said.

But parents who have begun to organize in opposition to consolidation have other solutions in mind.

"We could really boost those populations instead of just closing schools and changing the heart of communities," Isenberger said.

School board officials tell WCAX News they will spend the summer weighing the pros and cons of consolidation, but if a decision is made to close some smaller schools, there won't be any changes for at least two more years.