School consolidation: how did we get here?

By ARIADNE WILL

This is the second article in a series on school consolidation. Read the first article in that series here.

COURTESY PHOTO
Middlebury Union High School, abreast to the Addison Central School District Building off Route-7 in Middlebury.

Over the last three years, Middlebury and the surrounding towns have shifted from conversations about district consolidation to school mergers and closures.

Act 46, the 2015 legislation that is often connected to the closure of small Vermont elementary schools, was initially focused on the former and not on school mergers.

“The goal of Act 46 is to improve education outcomes and equity by creating larger and more efficient school governance structures,” reads the State of Vermont Agency of Education’s website. By this meter, many believe that Act 46 has been successful not only in saving money but in streamlining school governance structures: it is under Act 46 that Addison Central School District (ACSD) formed in 2016, a decision that joined eight different school districts into one governing body.

“Act 46 was not about closing small schools and it’s not to blame [for school closures],” said Amy McGlashan, a member of the ACSD School Board and the director of Adirondack House at the college. “What’s to blame is declining enrollments, increasing costs and the equity gap.”

The decline in enrollment, McGlashan says, has led to strains on resources. In smaller elementary schools, a drop in enrollment cannot be met with budget cuts, as can be done at larger schools, including Mary Hogan Elementary School in Middlebury.

McGlashan explained that at larger elementary schools like Mary Hogan, an enrollment decline of 20 students — about the number of students in a class — leads to the elimination of a staff position. At smaller schools with between 50 and 100 students, such as McGlashan’s local Rutland elementary school, the loss of 10 pupils does not affect the number of staff employed at the school.

That the smaller school continues to use the same amount of fiscal resources as its enrollment declines promotes tension between district schools. It is viewed as unfair that the loss of a larger percentage of the student body at these smaller schools does not affect their resources and staff, while larger schools are forced to cut positions in response to budget cuts.

Schools and districts, which are funded in part per pupil, lose state money when enrollment dips. Asking larger schools to support smaller schools takes a toll on the larger schools, since all schools in the district are sharing an amount of money decided, in part, by the number of pupils in the entire district.

Since the creation of ACSD, state funding for the elementary schools that previously resided in eight different districts is now given to the single, overarching district. This makes funding and resources easier for smaller schools to access but forces larger schools — in this case, schools situated in the town of Middlebury — to support funding shortfalls occurring at all schools in the district.

Because even larger schools are experiencing declining enrollment, pooling funds takes money disproportionately from larger schools.

In Middlebury and surrounding towns, it is this strain that brings up the prospect of school closures. With seven out of 13 ACSD Board Members representing Middlebury, it is likely that declining enrollment at smaller schools will eventually lead the board to vote to close and merge smaller schools.

Population distribution makes this representation possible, explained Angelo Lynn, editor in chief of the Addison Independent. This proportional representation gives Middlebury more sway within ACSD — the town holds a majority of the board’s votes.

Since Middlebury is the town that would benefit most from closures and mergers of smaller schools in the district, Lynn says that the representative makeup of the board has caused some smaller towns to worry about the wellbeing of their schools and has fostered an environment that may soon vote to close smaller institutions.

“When we created the articles of agreement for [ACSD], that took the power away from towns, and when that happened, the conversation around that was, ‘We need to do this because we need to run schools in a more effective economically efficient way. And we’re not going to close your school,’” Lynn said.

Now, the prospect of keeping small community elementary schools open appears overly optimistic to many, including Lynn.

 “I think there are lots of people feeling a little betrayed by where the board is at,” he said. He added, though, that there comes a point when the math does not add up: “Certainly some schools are going to be too small to continue,” he said. “I think there is a number that’s not efficient.”