Vermont’s public education system is at a crossroads — and school districts across the state are trying to determine a way forward in order to provide a 21st-century education to students in a rural state with declining enrollment.
Challenges include Act 46 and the amount of money we spend on schools, as well as the social services we now ask schools to help provide, and the testing and ratcheting up of expectations. And West River Modified Union Education District in Windham County is just one district trying to figure out the best approaches.
Ronan Foley, a fourth-grader at Townshend Elementary School in that district, showed up for the recent first day of school ready to go to work. He tracked down a fellow student who was new to the school and during the open house, he showed his new buddy around.
Foley said Townshend Elementary School is a special place.
“[It’s] an old school that, actually, that's pretty hip,” he said. And what exactly makes it hip?
“They actually are keeping up with new technology, surprisingly,” he added.
And Foley may or may not realize it, but his observation says a lot about the challenges facing Vermont schools this year: We’ve got a lot of old schools, and we’re trying to keep it hip.
Schools want to keep up on technology and offer programs like foreign language and sports teams. They’re trying to keep their bus services and serve their kids healthy food.
But all of it comes at a price, and school districts all across Vermont begin this year with some important choices to consider.
For some districts, the decisions are based around their recent Act 46 merger, while others must begin the year not knowing if the state will force them to merge when the statewide plan is issued in a few months. In every single district there’s a school budget to build.
But all of those decisions about school spending must be made with a lot of uncertainty still about the state’s ongoing fight over high property taxes.
State government almost shut down at the end of the last session, largely over education spending, and when lawmakers return to Montpelier, the issue will likely be debated once again.
And as this school year gets underway, aging school buildings, pressures to update technology and choices over how to get the most out of every dollar that’s spent will test administrators, school boards and the people in every town who vote on their school budgets.
“We have some structural realities that we have to face in the state of Vermont. And you’re at a natural tipping point for decisions that need to be made,” said West River Modified Union Education District Superintendent Bill Anton. “And I guess I’m unbelievably optimistic that we are in a historic time and we will find a way forward in a historic way.”
The West River District was formed when the voters in Townshend, Newfane, Jamaica and Brookline approved their Act 46 school district merger plans.
The tax rates in some of the towns in the West River district have risen more than 30 percent over the past five years, and Anton has been working to come up with a new budget that is a little easier on the taxpayers.
A few months ago, Anton floated an idea to merge the three elementary schools and send all of the sixth grade students up to the middle school; he said parents hated the idea.
“It is a scary time — I mean, change creates stress,” said Anton. “And so people are very rightly concerned that something different is coming on the horizon.”
At the Townshend Elementary School there is no librarian this year because the school board cut the position to save some money. The school also shares its art and music teachers with the nearby Jamaica Elementary School.
Townshend Principal Craig Roach said if he had any extra money to spend, he would add mental health counseling to better support his students
“We would love to spend a whole bunch of money on kids," Roach said, "because it’s important — make sure they’re taken care of in the classroom, mental health-wise, give them the experiences like art and music. Because who knows what they could be.”
The debates that happen at the Statehouse concerning per-pupil spending, tax rates and teacher-student ratios all start with the decisions that are made by school boards.
And over the coming few months, boards across Vermont will be trying to decide how to serve their students and what their voters can afford.
This is the first installment of a long-term VPR project called "Multiple Choice: The Price and Cost of Education." During the 2018-2019 school year, VPR's Howard Weiss-Tisman will follow the West River Modified Union Education District and file reports as the school district tries to navigate this change and uncertainty. In the course of the project, we'll meet the families, school staff and community members who make the whole deal work, every day.