In the summer of 2020, the Vermont Supreme Court ruled to uphold Act 46, a law passed in 2015 that is designed to consolidate school districts over the course of several years to manage costs and better the educational experience for students. Now, towns in Addison County are grappling with the dynamics of staying in or leaving their school district in the face of consolidation.
Ripton and Addison: Differences in decisions
In early 2021, the town of Ripton voted to withdraw from the Addison Central School District, with the Vermont State Board of Education (VSBE) approving the move later that year. However, Ripton is already facing difficulties with the responsibility of independence.
Small, independent school districts typically rely on an umbrella school district — called a supervisory union — to provide services such as transportation and data management. In a meeting with VSBE in September, however, it was recommended that it become its own supervisory union and provide all of their services themselves, largely because other neighboring unions refuse to take on Ripton. Addison Central School District refused to reorganize itself as a supervisory union to accommodate Ripton’s succession, citing that remaining a unified school district — with or without Ripton — is more efficient.
Board members of Addison Central School District have been considering consolidation for some time, possibly eyeing a four-school model that would keep elementary schools operating in Middlebury, Cornwall, Salisbury and Bridport. Advocates of Ripton’s withdrawal see leaving the district as the only way to keep their elementary school in operation.
Still, Amy McGlashan, an ACSD School Board member, expressed continued skepticism about Ripton’s withdrawal.
“I've never been in favor of it from the start,” McGlashan said. “I was part of a team that was encouraging our voters to vote no. And while I understand why Ripton people wanted to withdraw from the district, because they saw it as the only way to ‘save the school,’ I think it's ill-advised and bad for kids. I think it's bad for the town. I think it's bad for taxpayers.”
In contrast, Town of Addison voters reaffirmed their July 13 decision to stay in the Addison Northwest School District (ANWSD) in a revote on October 19. The ANWSD also includes Vergennes, Panton, Ferrisburgh and Waltham. Supporters (including Addison’s selectboard and the Educate Addison group) of Addison’s potential move to withdraw from ANWSD claim it would allow more school choice, paid in part by the Vermont Education fund, and the possible creation of Addison’s own schools.
They also emphasize the potential changes in tax rates that could come if ANWSD merges with the Mount Abraham Unified School District, another move being discussed in local circles.
Supporters of both the Addison and Ripton withdrawal movements focus on the morale boost to their towns in having an operational elementary school. Additionally, they claim open elementary schools would help attract young families to their towns and ensure long-term town viability. Opponents of withdrawal, including John Stroup, resident of Vergennes and Chair of the Addison Northwest School District Board, argue that informational material supporting withdrawal overemphasizes Addison’s potential financial gains from withdrawing from ANWSD. Stroup, in comments to the Addison Independent, has repeatedly emphasized ANWSD’s frequent budget cuts and the resultant tax rate decreases.
Both the Addison Central and the Addison Northwest Districts were created in July 2017 after the ratification of a new education bill, Act 46. The bill encouraged, with eventual requirements, school districts to merge and form larger districts over a four-year period. Per the Act’s second section, its intent was to maximize public educational quality while minimizing taxpayer costs.
“The intent of Act 46 was to look at the huge inefficiencies or, frankly, efficiencies that could be gained by consolidating districts, and it was not about closing schools,” McGlashan said. McGlashan added that Vermont has one of the largest school board members to student ratios in the country.
Due to the funding structure of school districts, schools with more students will be more financially efficient — the number of staff needed to educate and support 50 students may not drastically differ from the number needed to educate 150, even though the school with 150 students will receive more funding. Therefore, schools need a certain number of students to continue to provide a quality education without drastically increasing tax rates.
State funding also plays a large role in school funding. For fiscal year 2022, 58% of ACSD’s budget will be funded by state aid, per their budget newsletter. In Vermont, state funding is allocated to school districts based on “equalized pupil counts” — generally, secondary students each carry a weighting of 1.13, primary students 1.0, and pre-primary students 0.46, per Title 16 of Chapter 133 of the Vermont Education Statute. Arkansas is the only other state that follows this model; in other states, school funding is based on property taxes and, therefore, based on property wealth in a certain school district.
Weightings are based on the estimated costs associated with each level of education and other factors such as ESL students and the cost of educating rural students. Support for the 20-year-old system is far from universal — a state legislative task force has been investigating more equitable pupil-weighting metrics.
McGlashan said she believes the equalized-pupil funding method was the correct manner for the distribution of state aid. Per McGlashan, the system began “after a whole lawsuit and looking at huge inequity between each town in the state, and then examining the spending. And so they lead to very unequal and inequitable outcomes.”
One of VSBE’s roles is to determine the feasibility of school districts providing quality education to students. Per a Vermont statute, their role is to determine “whether it is in the best interests of the State, the students, and the school districts remaining in the unified union school district that the unified union district continue to exist.” VSBE must also ensure that any potential school district would meet educational standards set by the Vermont State Legislature.
Merging schools without merging school districts is impossible; as a result, school districts may merge to allow two specific schools to combine.
As of September 2020, Ripton had a student population (PK-12) of 52. In fiscal year 2017 (the last time Ripton had its own school district), Ripton’s education budget was $953,106, in line with the Vermont funding model of around $18,000 per student for a small school, or one classified as having less than 100 equitable pupils. The Ripton school district would fail to meet two criteria preferred by the state government for school districts: having at least 900 students and operating schools PK-12.
The per-pupil costs neglect many other costs that would impact Ripton’s school district formation, including business and administrative costs.
Vermont statewide spending per-pupil trends show a steady decline in per-student costs as school size increases — with the dramatic exception of schools with more than 1000 students, at which additional expenses are necessary.
VSBE further cited concerns over the increased tax rate that would be necessary for Ripton to maintain its own school district.
Vermont student populations peaked in 2004 and are expected to continue to fall until 2026; there will have been a predicted 40% decline in enrollment over the two-decade period. Data from a 2015 ANWSD forming report predicted a 30% decline in aggregate enrollment among forming districts from 2006 to 2020.
Stroup summed up his thoughts on Vermont school districts: “To provide public education, cooperation is going to be the key to help all of our children.”