By Nancy Cornell on behalf of the Starksboro SOS (Save Our Schools) Committee
This editorial appeared in the December 20, 2021 edition of the Addison County Independent
Many of us have wondered why the Mt. Abraham Unified School District (MAUSD) would be considering closing elementary schools, and MAUSD would support consolidating middle and high schools with Addison Northwest (the Vergennes area) and becoming one large uber-district. After all, the financial worries plaguing the MAUSD are the result of declining student enrollment and a state education funding system that was designed when student enrollment in Vermont was stable. Closing (or even threatening to close) town elementary schools; and consolidating (or even threatening to consolidate) middle and high schools with another district, will only make the enrollment decline worse. We are already hearing this concern from local real-estate agents. Why would young families move to our five towns without assurance that town schools will remain open and vibrant, and school bus rides will remain relatively short?
If declining student enrollment is part of the cause of the problem, let’s take steps to attract more families to our region. It seems to us that the solution consists of three key parts:
Increase the availability of jobs. Supporting the universal broadband efforts now underway across Addison County is one way to help here. Not only will affordable, universal high-speed internet enable many current and future residents to work from home, but it will promote economic development across our towns, creating more jobs and making it much easier for residents to find information that leads to gainful employment. For more information, please visit the Maple Broadband website.
Increase the availability of reasonably priced housing. The recent Population and Housing Report from the Addison County Regional Planning Commission suggests some solutions, including repurposing existing housing stock (Repurpose existing housing stock, not schools!). Our local and regional planning commissions have already been doing some great work on this issue. They need our questions and ideas, and they deserve our support in considering steps that will increase housing availability, especially for young families just starting out. There are a number of steps that towns can take, and a number of resource people and organizations that would help our towns with this part of the solution.
Increase the availability of early childcare. The scarcity of quality care for very young children is a huge obstacle to employment that discourages young families from settling in our rural towns. There must be ways to increase access to early childcare - including by locating it some of the extra space we currently have in our schools.
Wouldn’t it be a more productive and harmonious use of our time and resources to work together on these steps toward solutions, rather than just treating the symptom of the problem with measures (closing schools and further consolidating school governance) that would have so many negative effects on our students and our communities? Imagine MAUSD Board members, the MAUSD administration, and community members from across our five towns, intentionally collaborating to keep our schools open, vibrant, thriving and cost effective. With that kind of effort there’s nothing we couldn’t accomplish. While we’re at it, let’s also collaborate in calling on the Vermont Legislature to make needed changes to the state’s system for funding public schools, so Vermont’s rural communities won’t have to suburbanize our school systems in order to be able to afford them.