Lawmakers want to change how the state’s small school grants are administered, and some of Vermont’s smallest schools say it would be tough to remain open if the annual payments were taken away.
There are 44 schools in the state that receive a small school grant. The grants go back to the late 1990s, when Vermont moved to a statewide education tax.
And the grants were an acknowledgement that if schools were now going to be paid on a per-student basis, then small schools needed a little extra help — and they were important enough to support.
But over the past few years, as property taxes grew and more Vermont schools moved toward consolidation, there have been some questions raised about continuing the grants.
Vermont Agency of Education consultant Donna Russo-Savage said lawmakers have raised a concern that the grants artificially pad the budgets of the schools that get the support.
“I believe that the Legislature moved to different criteria for eligibility for small school grants because either money is being given, or tax rates are being manipulated, in a way that isn’t necessarily showing what the real picture is in certain districts,” Russo-Savage said.
The grants have historically been determined based on how many students a school has, and schools that have student counts below the threshold receive the annual grants.
The Legislature says the grants will now be based on either academic excellence, or what officials are calling "geographic isolation."
And so the State Board of Education is now trying to come up with a metric that somehow measures the distance an average student has to travel. Those schools that are isolated will get the grants.
But at the last State Board of Education meeting, the board struggled with trying to come up with a fair way to measure distance.
Russo-Savage said the board is trying to come up with a fair and accurate way to determine what geographic isolation looks like across the state.
“There are so many variations in Vermont,” Russo-Savage said. “There are the, you know, quality of the roads and there’s weather in certain geographical areas. You know, whether things are more mountainous or not. ... There isn’t any one thing that is possible to say, ‘This is the right metric.’”
It’s still unclear how the State Board of Education will ultimately decide which schools will continue receiving the grants, but some of Vermont’s smallest schools are worried about losing the grants.
Marlboro Elementary School has 76 students in grades K-8. That’s fewer than 10 students per grade, on average.
The school falls well within the current small schools grant metric, and Marlboro Elementary receives about $116,000 each year. Marlboro Elementary principal Wayne Kermenski says the money makes a big difference when he’s putting together his annual budget.
“Quite simply, that’s one classroom; that’s a teacher and a half a paraprofessional that we wouldn’t be able to employ,” he says. “So that’s how detrimental this would be. That would really change our school, substantially, overnight.”
And Marlboro School Board member Dan MacArthur said the small schools should continue receiving the support, and that what lawmakers decide to do will affect more than just the schools in Vermont's smallest communities.
MacArthur said the small school grants are like investments in rural towns that are struggling on so many levels to survive.
“You know, what do we want Vermont to feel like?” MacArthur asked. “Do we want communities to remain small and vibrant? And close down these little schools, people are no longer going to be moving here. So, you know, we’ve got to decide which way we want to go.”
When lawmakers were hammering out Act 46 — Vermont’s school district consolidation law — they wanted to convince some of the smaller schools to go along with the plan. As a result, schools that received small school grants, and which also merged, were able to keep that money.
But the Legislature said schools that did not merge would have to meet the new criteria to continue receiving the annual payments.
Barnard is a small town just north of Woodstock. The rest of the school districts in its area have merged, leaving Barnard vulnerable and wondering what’s next.
There are less than 100 students in the elementary school, Barnard Academy, which serves pre-K to sixth grade.
Pamela Fraser, a former Barnard Academy parent and Windsor Central Modified Unified Union School District board member, said there’s been too much emphasis placed on all of the things that schools are supposedly lacking.
Fraser said when you really look at all of the educational challenges Vermont faces, the investments in small schools start to make more sense.
“So much of the pressure on education has to do with health care and has to do with special education, and the small school situation is a part of it, a part of the expense,” said Fraser. “But it just seems like undue attention is being placed on it. And I’m not sure why that is — maybe it’s easier to talk about or maybe it’s easier to try to make some changes than the other, you know, sort of gigantic issues that nobody can figure out yet.”
Barnard Academy gets about $87,000 annually for its small school grant.
The State Board of Education is supposed to come up with the new metrics for deciding geographic isolation before July 1, and the new rules will go into place before the 2019 school year.
Correction 2:38 p.m. 4/16/2018 A previous version of this post mistakenly attributed Pamela Fraser's quotes to Linda Treash. The post was also updated to include a clarification regarding Barnard Academy's enrollment numbers.