After years of declining enrollment, the Cabot School Board is considering closing its 55-student high school. But some residents believe they have a viable plan to keep it open.
Last week the Cabot School Board held a public forum to discuss the fate of the town’s high school. In recent years, programming and facility maintenance budgets were reduced as student numbers declined. It took three votes to pass the current budget.
The school board has given itself until Monday, Oct. 16 to decide whether to pursue closing the school and tuitioning out ninth through 12th graders, or find a way to keep the high school operating. One idea is a proposal called Cabot Academy, which school board chairman Chris Tormey described at the public forum.
"Cabot Academy is the idea that potentially, in the future, we might have families in town that could host students from out-of-state that are interested in going to Cabot as their tuition school," Tormey told a group of about 40 residents at the forum.
Tormey added that the Vermont Agency of Education isn’t fundamentally opposed to the idea.
"We’ve fleshed it out to the state AOE and they seem to have told us that, yes, it’s ... legal, potentially possible, but we need to do a good deal more work on it before it comes to fruition," Tormey said.
A Cabot Academy working group has been meeting for a couple of months. The idea grew out of a summer back porch conversation between Fran Voigt and Mike Rushman, whose respective children are graduates of Cabot High School.
"Mike and I thought we should make an effort," Voigt explains. "There ought to be some effort to try to save the Cabot School, especially if it can serve other students the way it served our children."
Voigt made a career out of bringing students to Vermont. He was co-founder and longtime president of the New England Culinary Institute. Voigt says Cabot offers some unique educational opportunities that might be attractive to suburban students outside of New York and Boston.
"People who’ve moved to Cabot have told us that Cabot, for them, is unique because it offers hands-on training through partnerships ... that are difficult to come by in an urban area," he says.
Specifically, Voigt is talking about agricultural opportunities through partnerships with local farms. At least that’s the initial plan for the proposed Cabot Academy.
"We’re not sure that this whole agricultural theme still has a lot of appeal," he says, "but that’s how we’re starting out and we’ll see. We’ll see."
In order for the plan to work, the town would need to make some initial investments in both facilities and programming. Cabot Academy would also need to market itself to out-of-state students.
Voigt says Cabot Academy could get off the ground using a pot of town money known as the UDAG fund, from a federal Urban Development Action Grant.
"These are funds that were given by the federal government to the Cabot Creamery for renovation, with the stipulation that the money be repaid to the community, not the government," he says.
Initial figures rely on the town giving Cabot Academy $250,000 from the UDAG fund, and loaning the institution another $250,000 from the fund. Voters in town would have to approve those expenditures.
In addition, out-of-state students would be charged $45,500 per year, and that charge breaks down to go to a few places. Tuition would go to the high school, and room and board would go to host families in Cabot.
And nearly $10,000 of that total charged would go to Cabot Academy, set up as a separate organization, which would use some of that money to fund enrichment programs for the entire Cabot High School community. Voigt says that enrichment program fee is a key component of the plan.
"This is a way to get extra cash to the Cabot School," he explains, "which it has done without because its enrollments have gone down."
However, the school board could decide Monday to pursue closing its high school. If that’s the case, it will ask voters to approve joining a high school tuitioning district with Walden, Waterford and Barnet.