Op - Ed, Opinion

Keeping small schools, small towns: ‘It just comes down to math,’ Gov. says

By Angelo Lynn

As advocates of small schools and those supporting school consolidation come to terms with declining enrollments and rising costs, here’s the conundrum both face: consolidation is the right short-term answer to cost-cutting to contain higher and higher taxes, but it’s the wrong answer to building a stronger, more diverse statewide economy.

It’s a trickier question when asking which most benefits the student, because no two people are the same and what benefit one may not work as well for another.

But no matter how you dice it, as Gov. Phil Scott said in a meeting in the Addison Independent’s office Monday, Nov. 18, declining student enrollment with escalating costs is not sustainable. “It just comes down to math,” he said.

But like in so many other areas of American economics, our collective focus is on the short-term fix, not the long-term answer.

It’s true that to reduce property tax rates for Vermonters, which are high and going higher, the most immediate fix is to reduce school expenses. And that can be done through consolidation of schools and letting teachers go because we have declining enrollment in many of Vermont’s rural schools. (That’s not necessarily true in Chittenden County, or in the few other Vermont communities with higher growth rates where student population is growing and relative costs per pupil are less.)

If the short-term goal is to keep taxes contained, consolidation and cost reduction is the logical process.

But, if the goal is to build a stronger statewide economy over the long-term, say the next 10-20 years, Vermont needs to change the metrics.

Bear with me for an explanation. Let’s first establish a few principles:

• Growth should not be limited to Chittenden County, and a few other hot spots, but spread across the state. We need an action plan per county to do just that, and it’s going to have to have at least one component that relies on a strong educational system in each county.

• We need to grow in places outside of Chittenden County for two reasons: we have underused infrastructure going to waste in counties that have seen a significant decline in population over the past 30 years, and we’ll have to build more infrastructure in high growth areas if all the growth is concentrated there. Neither is the highest use of current assets.

• To change the underlying dynamics that have caused current growth trends, you can’t stay with the status quo and expect rural areas to grow. Significant change has to be considered. For example, currently state aid is based on a per pupil dollar amount. That benefits schools that are growing and penalizes all rural schools that have been declining.

This formula feeds an ever-descending spiral of consolidation. First, we consolidate the elementary schools; the towns without schools eventually wither, and not so long from now, we make a move to consolidate all three union high schools into one. It’s what Vermont Secretary of Education Dan French noted in our meeting with the governor and several cabinet members, adding that Addison County was a prime candidate for such consolidation.

And we are. Absolutely. It makes economic sense. We could save lots of money with just one superintendent and one principal, and one primary facility but keeping the satellite schools in Vergennes and Bristol for some classroom space. And just think of the savings in athletic programs: instead of one team for each school, taxpayers would see consolidation into one unified county team with a third the number of teams to support. Not as many kids would be on the varsity, of course, and more would see bench time, but hey, those are necessary tradeoffs if economic efficiency is the holy grail.

And that’s where that line of thinking takes us over time.

It’s not all bad. Larger schools, theoretically, would have the money to offer more sophisticated programs. Larger class sizes to reach that optimal 14-17 pupil per teacher range would be a given (at least for a while.)

But the downsides are equally apparent: there would be a loss of community involvement and attachment. Parental volunteers rally around small schools partly because they have to, because without them the work doesn’t get done as well. That’s not the case, or the expectation, in larger schools where many towns are combined into one school district. There are transportation issues to work out. But it’s doable, if that’s the road we choose.

The flip side to consolidation is to change the funding formula to favor rural schools over those higher growth schools, which are currently benefitting from the financial aid formula in place. If high growth towns and their schools were seeing penalties because of their growth (instead of penalties effectively being placed on schools who lose student population), more Vermonters might choose to live in those outlying towns. And if rural communities were given incentives for lower-priced housing, for example, perhaps the growth curve could be bent outward from our population centers to diversify our population base and spread the wealth into those existing towns.

Admittedly, that’s a big lift — and stretch.

Conservatives argue effectively that many are the fools who try to buck the fundamentals of capitalism and economic growth.

But legislators need to have that conversation. If we are, 50 years from now, going to be a state with 151 towns, not the current 251, we need to embrace that reality now and build around that newer, sleeker environment with eyes wide open.

If we want to preserve our economy, and our culture, based on 251 communities, we need to change current economic realities and drive more of the state’s economic growth to its further reaches — and with it, justification to keep rural schools vibrant and in the mix.

Angelo Lynn is the editor and publisher of the Addison Independent, a sister publication to the Mountain Times.

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