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Voters said no to combining Addison Northwest and Mt. Abraham school districts. Now what?

Margi Gregory, from left, Nancy Cornell, Louis Dupont, Herb Olson and Susan Klaiber gather at the Robinson School in Starksboro on Tuesday, Nov. 15. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

In the next four years, K-12 enrollment in both the Mount Abraham Unified and Addison Northwest school districts is expected to drop about 10%. 

In Vermont, where local tax rates are based largely on a district’s spending per pupil, declines in enrollment — a longstanding problem in rural areas — go hand in hand with rising tax rates. So in July, after months of study, administrators endorsed a solution: merge the two districts. 

But last week, voters in both districts resoundingly rejected that proposal. 

The result is a decisive victory for residents who fought to preserve their small elementary school and mounted a monthslong campaign against the merger. But it also raises questions about the two districts’ future — and lays bare a longstanding debate over the fate of small rural schools. 

“There’s no other plan,” said John Stroup, chair of the Addison Northwest school board, adding, “I don’t know what the path looks like. I mean, we’re just going to have to figure that out as a board and a community.”

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

Rural school districts in Vermont have long grappled with slow declines in enrollment. By 2026, administrators estimate, Addison Northwest and Mount Abraham would have to cut a combined 106 jobs, or face massive tax increases — as well as a state penalty for spending too much per pupil.  

A merged district — the Addison North School District — would “enhance educational opportunities, provide greater equity for students, and increase financial and educational stability in our region,” a joint committee wrote in a July report.

That proposal, however, drew swift opposition. Starksboro Save Our Schools, a group of Starksboro residents and former school officials, saw the plan as a threat to small elementary schools in the districts — namely, the roughly 120-student Robinson Elementary School.

Lincoln residents cast their ballots at Burnham Hall in 2021 to determine whether the town would remain in the Mount Abraham Unified School District. Photo by Abigail Chang/VTDigger

Saving small schools

In December 2020, Patrick Reen, the Mount Abraham school superintendent, presented a plan to consolidate classes at Bristol Elementary School and Monkton Central School and “repurpose” the district’s other elementary schools — including Robinson. 

Residents feared that “repurposing” was simply a precursor to closure. In nearby Lincoln, advocates who wanted to preserve the K-6 Lincoln Community School mounted a successful campaign to withdraw from the district entirely. 

Starksboro, too, attempted to withdraw. But under Vermont rules, a town needs the approval of all the towns in a district to secede, and in August, voters in New Haven rejected their neighbors’ bid to leave by a margin of 27 votes, according to the Addison Independent. 

Reen’s plan was eventually tabled amid discussions over a merger. But Robinson Elementary advocates still feared for the future of their school.

Under the proposed articles of agreement for the new merged district, an elementary school could be closed with the approval of two-thirds of the residents of all the district’s towns — after an effective four-year moratorium on closures. That meant that, if the merger were approved, Starksboro residents would not have veto power over the closure of Robinson Elementary. 

“That was the biggest stumbling block,” said Nancy Cornell, a former school board member and administrator who is on the Save Our Schools committee. “There were certainly other problems with the merger proposal, but that was huge for our town.”

Residents of the town of Addison voted in 2021 whether to withdraw from the Addison Northwest School District after months of discussion. Photo by Abigail Chang/VTDigger

Reversing declines in enrollment

Cornell and other organizers at Save Our Schools believe that the dire financial predictions about the district are not inevitable. For one thing, they argue, Vermont is undergoing major shifts in how it funds its schools — changes that could direct more money toward their district. 

Organizers also pointed to a February 2021 study by an outside consultant that identified a slate of cost-saving measures, including reshuffling administrative functions and combining some grade levels between the districts.

Most significantly, the group believes that the district’s dwindling enrollment can be reversed over time. Vermont has had an influx of new residents during the Covid-19 pandemic, they noted; plus, the state is expected to be a haven for people seeking refuge from the impacts of climate change, and the statewide expansion of high-speed internet could be a further incentive. 

Herb Olsen, a member of the Save Our Schools committee, said administrators should consider the consultant’s recommendations from February 2021 and “do what you can with it to improve student education.”

“Meantime, I know our local planning commission has a fire lit under them to try to be more attractive to younger parents with kids that are moving in,” he said.

‘I don’t see another solution’

But those who supported the merger view it differently. Marikate Kelley, a co-chair of the merger study committee, said she sees few other options to address dwindling enrollment, short of state action or a resolution to Vermont’s housing crunch.  

“It doesn’t mean someone else smarter than me (won’t) come up with something else,” she said. “But I don’t see another solution.”

In a joint email, Reen and Sheila Soule, superintendent of Addison Northwest, said last week’s vote was a “disappointment.”

“Whether in our current structure or merged as one district, we face a future with fewer students, limited resources, and increasing expenses,” the superintendents said. “The merger would have provided flexibility for us that does not otherwise exist.” 

Without a merger, the districts will face higher taxes or decreased school offerings, or both, Reen and Soule said. And the superintendents cast doubt on proposals to consolidate school staff or grades: Combining staff between districts is “very complex,” they said.

“The public often compares this possible future with a version of the districts as they once were, rather than what they will look like two to five years from now,” the superintendents said.

But last week’s vote — in which voters in both districts rejected the merger by a ratio of more than two to one — represented “a ringing endorsement of local control, smaller schools, governance that is closer to both communities and to schools,” according to Louis DuPont, another Save Our Schools committee member.

“We’re very heartened by this result, and looking forward to working together as much as possible going forward and healing the rift that has been created,” DuPont said.

Kelley, of the merger committee, agreed: “I just hope that everybody pulls together and tries to find solutions that everybody can agree on,” she said. 

“But my worry is that kids are going to lose out before we can do that.”

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