Letter Regarding Bill H.727

This letter to Senate Education Committee member Senator Ginny Lyons summarizes many of the Starksboro SOS Committee's concerns about Bill H.727, which would impose complex rules on towns that wish to withdraw from their school districts.

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April 3, 2022

Dear Senator Lyons,

I’m writing to you because, though we haven’t met, I heard you speak at a Lewis Creek event at the Mt Philo Inn a few years ago. I know you’ve been a strong voice for environmental legislation, and I really appreciate that. I’ve been on the board of LCA for many years, worked with Marty Illick on many projects, and miss her dearly.

Today I’m writing with a different concern which has bearing because of your membership on the Senate Education Committee. I am an environmental educator with the Four Winds Nature Institute, and I’ve taught the ELF/Nearby Nature program in Champlain Valley elementary schools (including Williston) for many years.

I am deeply troubled by the push to close small schools in Vermont. Having taught in so many of them over the years, I can say that they are treasures that should be cherished for their role in young Vermonters’ education rather than being cast aside.

I am a resident of Starksboro, and long-time volunteer in the Robinson Elementary School which my children attended. Our school faces special challenges because more than 45% of our population is at or below the poverty level. Our Food Shelf, Share-On, and Bites in a Bag programs serve more than 40 families each week. We have three mobile home parks in Starksboro and many children with special needs in our school. Thanks to our much-loved principal, exceptional teachers, and a dedicated staff these disadvantaged children find peace, hope, caring adults, food, stability, possibility, and love inside its walls.

How do we measure the value of our small schools? Do children from our small schools measure up when it comes to being accepted and attending colleges? Off the top of my head, I can name children that I knew from Robinson School who attended and graduated from RPI, Brown University, Harvard, Dartmouth, Williams College, Brandeis, Skidmore, Olin College, and UVM, to name a few. In other words, they received the preparation they need to be competitive with students from across the country. Or should we look at success in sports? Robinson School’s Ryan Cochran Siegle won a silver medal in the Olympics this year, three others were on the US Ski Team, and others were state champions in baseball, field hockey, or basketball. Perhaps a better measure would be community service and engagement. At this time three of the five members of our Selectboard graduated from Robinson School, as well as twenty members of our First Response and Volunteer Fire Department; others are mentors and community volunteers. By any of these measures, our small school is doing very well for our children, meeting their needs and helping them to become healthy, caring citizens.

As you probably know, the MAUSD district put forward a plan last year to close three of our five elementary schools, including Robinson. Initially we were told this was to save cost because decreases in our student population were bringing us close to the “cliff” the spending limit per student. Later, when the ceiling was suspended, we were told it was to achieve equity, by combining the children in need of special services under fewer roofs. Starksboro’s children would be divided, some going to Bristol and others to Monkton, with larger classes and longer bus rides.

It is inconceivable to me that we should close such an outstanding school where so much good is being done for so many needy children. Scattering these children to schools in different towns can only undermine their sense of belonging, and putting them in schools where there is less connection with their own communities, seems completely contrary to their best interests.

Small town schools are the heart of democracy in Vermont. In most towns it is the place where town meeting is held, where town and school budgets are voted, where neighbors come together once a year to do the business of the town. Participating in decision-making at the local level is how we Vermonters learn to be engaged citizens at all levels of government. Representatives on small, local school boards learn skills that often help them move on to become district school board members or state legislators.

Starksboro is petitioning for a vote to withdraw from the unified district. It is based on one condition. We believe that each town should be able to vote on whether or not its school will be closed. Our petition is a plea for democracy.

In the articles of agreement on which our unified district was created, each and every town had a right to a vote on its school being closed. This right has been acknowledged by the MAUSD school board. However, the Merger Study Committee (formed to consider merging with Addison Northwest), has authority that supersedes that of the MAUSD school board and it is so far unwilling to assure towns their right to a vote. Should the merger be approved, we could lose our school without a vote.

The bill before your committee is designed to prevent a town like ours from withdrawing, or at least present so many difficult barriers that it effectively prevents a town from withdrawing. Whereas Act 46 specifically gave towns that right and recognized that there may be good reasons for a town to withdraw, that the citizens of a town could be relied upon to make a good decision, this bill takes away that right.

The push to consolidate schools above all other considerations is not only changing the character of our schools but also the character of Vermont where each town’s individuality and right of self-government has been a time-honored and effective model of participatory democracy.

I fervently hope that you will steer the committee away from accepting H727 and putting our school, and many other treasured and outstanding small schools and small towns, in jeopardy.

Thank you for listening.

Respectfully yours,

Chris Runcie