January 29, 2023
Voters mentioned no to combining Addison Northwest and Mt. Abraham faculty districts. Now what?
Voters mentioned no to combining Addison Northwest and Mt. Abraham faculty districts. Now what?
Margi Gregory, from left, Nancy Cornell, Louis Dupont, Herb Olson and Susan Klaiber collect on the Robinson Faculty in Starksboro on Tuesday, Nov. 15. Photograph by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Within the subsequent 4 years, Ok-12 enrollment in each the Mount Abraham Unified and Addison Northwest faculty districts is anticipated to drop about 10%. 

In Vermont, the place native tax charges are primarily based largely on a district’s spending per pupil, declines in enrollment — a longstanding drawback in rural areas — go hand in hand with rising tax charges. So in July, after months of examine, directors endorsed an answer: merge the 2 districts. 

However final week, voters in each districts resoundingly rejected that proposal. 

The result’s a decisive victory for residents who fought to protect their small elementary faculty and mounted a monthslong marketing campaign towards the merger. However it additionally raises questions concerning the two districts’ future — and lays naked a longstanding debate over the destiny of small rural faculties. 

“There is no different plan,” mentioned John Stroup, chair of the Addison Northwest faculty board, including, “I do not know what the trail appears to be like like. I imply, we’re simply going to should determine that out as a board and a neighborhood.”

Addison Northwest serves the Vergennes-Ferrisburgh space; Mount Abraham covers the Bristol-Starksboro-Monkton space.

Rural faculty districts in Vermont have lengthy grappled with gradual declines in enrollment. By 2026, directors estimate, Addison Northwest and Mount Abraham must minimize a mixed 106 jobs, or face large tax will increase — in addition to a state penalty for spending an excessive amount of per pupil.  

A merged district — the Addison North Faculty District — would “improve instructional alternatives, present better fairness for college kids, and improve monetary and academic stability in our area,” a joint committee wrote in a July report.

That proposal, nevertheless, drew swift opposition. Starksboro Save Our Faculties, a gaggle of Starksboro residents and former faculty officers, noticed the plan as a risk to small elementary faculties within the districts — specifically, the roughly 120-student Robinson Elementary Faculty.

Lincoln residents solid their ballots at Burnham Corridor in 2021 to find out whether or not the city would stay within the Mount Abraham Unified Faculty District. Photograph by Abigail Chang/VTDigger

Saving small faculties

In December 2020, Patrick Reen, the Mount Abraham faculty superintendent, offered a plan to consolidate courses at Bristol Elementary Faculty and Monkton Central Faculty and “repurpose” the district’s different elementary faculties — together with Robinson. 

Residents feared that “repurposing” was merely a precursor to closure. In close by Lincoln, advocates who wished to protect the Ok-6 Lincoln Group Faculty mounted a profitable marketing campaign to withdraw from the district totally. 

Starksboro, too, tried to withdraw. However below Vermont guidelines, a city wants the approval of all of the cities in a district to secede, and in August, voters in New Haven rejected their neighbors’ bid to depart by a margin of 27 votes, in line with the Addison Unbiased. 

Reen’s plan was ultimately tabled amid discussions over a merger. However Robinson Elementary advocates nonetheless feared for the way forward for their faculty.

Beneath the proposed articles of settlement for the brand new merged district, an elementary faculty may very well be closed with the approval of two-thirds of the residents of all of the district’s cities — after an efficient four-year moratorium on closures. That meant that, if the merger have been accepted, Starksboro residents wouldn’t have veto energy over the closure of Robinson Elementary. 

“That was the largest stumbling block,” mentioned Nancy Cornell, a former faculty board member and administrator who’s on the Save Our Faculties committee. “There have been actually different issues with the merger proposal, however that was enormous for our city.”

Residents of the city of Addison voted in 2021 whether or not to withdraw from the Addison Northwest Faculty District after months of dialogue. Photograph by Abigail Chang/VTDigger

Reversing declines in enrollment

Cornell and different organizers at Save Our Faculties imagine that the dire monetary predictions concerning the district aren’t inevitable. For one factor, they argue, Vermont is present process main shifts in the way it funds its faculties — modifications that might direct extra money towards their district. 

Organizers additionally pointed to a February 2021 examine by an outdoor advisor that recognized a slate of cost-saving measures, together with reshuffling administrative capabilities and mixing some grade ranges between the districts.

Most importantly, the group believes that the district’s dwindling enrollment might be reversed over time. Vermont has had an inflow of latest residents in the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, they famous; plus, the state is anticipated to be a haven for individuals searching for refuge from the impacts of local weather change, and the statewide enlargement of high-speed web may very well be an additional incentive. 

Herb Olsen, a member of the Save Our Faculties committee, mentioned directors ought to think about the advisor’s suggestions from February 2021 and “do what you may with it to enhance pupil training.”

“Meantime, I do know our native planning fee has a hearth lit below them to attempt to be extra engaging to youthful dad and mom with children which might be shifting in,” he mentioned.

‘I don’t see one other resolution’

However those that supported the merger view it in another way. Marikate Kelley, a co-chair of the merger examine committee, mentioned she sees few different choices to handle dwindling enrollment, wanting state motion or a decision to Vermont’s housing crunch.  

“It does not imply another person smarter than me (received’t) give you one thing else,” she mentioned. “However I do not see one other resolution.”

In a joint e mail, Reen and Sheila Soule, superintendent of Addison Northwest, mentioned final week’s vote was a “disappointment.”

“Whether or not in our present construction or merged as one district, we face a future with fewer college students, restricted assets, and growing bills,” the superintendents mentioned. “The merger would have offered flexibility for us that doesn’t in any other case exist.” 

With no merger, the districts will face larger taxes or decreased faculty choices, or each, Reen and Soule mentioned. And the superintendents solid doubt on proposals to consolidate faculty employees or grades: Combining employees between districts is “very advanced,” they mentioned.

“The general public usually compares this doable future with a model of the districts as they as soon as have been, fairly than what they are going to appear like two to 5 years from now,” the superintendents mentioned.

However final week’s vote — during which voters in each districts rejected the merger by a ratio of greater than two to 1 — represented “a ringing endorsement of native management, smaller faculties, governance that’s nearer to each communities and to colleges,” in line with Louis DuPont, one other Save Our Faculties committee member.

“We’re very heartened by this end result, and searching ahead to working collectively as a lot as doable going ahead and therapeutic the rift that has been created,” DuPont mentioned.

Kelley, of the merger committee, agreed: “I simply hope that everyone pulls collectively and tries to search out options that everyone can agree on,” she mentioned. 

“However my fear is that youngsters are going to lose out earlier than we are able to try this.”

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