TOWNSHEND — One thing feared in the wake of the new education law Act 46 is "greater inequity" for students, families and the West River Valley community.
"The promise of public education is that you bring lots of different types of students together so that they can all benefit from a high quality education in this diverse environment. They learn these skills together. They learn to communicate with people different from them and they can have experiences that only the school setting could provide," said Dorinne Dorfman, Leland & Gray Union Middle and High School principal. "This wouldn't necessarily happen with their families. It wouldn't happen if they were only attending school with people similar to them. And those are lifelong skills and it doesn't hurt the students at all. It only improves their achievement."
If there was "a break-up" of the district — currently being explored by member town Jamaica — Dorfman worries that Leland & Gray's environment could be jeopardized due to the smaller student population. Jamaica, with the school's second highest percentage of students eligible for free meals in the district and a household income of $4,000 less than the state average, is looking at ways to redistrict and possibly provide school choice to students leaving the elementary school. That could significantly change Leland & Gray's student make-up while "widening Jamaica's socioeconomic inequalities" as a result, according to Dorfman.
Over the last 10 years, enrollment at schools within Windham and Bennington counties is down 20 percent with similar trends seen around the state. This has caused Dorfman to start reshaping her school's fiscal plan, but it also caused legislators to think about the issue as they addressed inequities for students and complaints about high property tax bills. Thus the creation of Act 46, a law that aims to bring districts together to cut costs and realize efficiencies.
"Vermont had a bubble over time and Leland & Gray historically has ebbed and flowed between 30 and 70 or 80 kids per grade," said Dorfman. "Right now, our average is 53 students per grade."
Dorfman is requesting the Legislature "maintain current legal requirements for member towns to vote on a request to secede from the school district" and "thoroughly research the impact of any redistricting on Vermont's most vulnerable populations, low-income, special education and geographically-isolating students, and give their learning needs top priority."
She said it is critical that every town in a school district determine whether any changes are made to membership and governance. She believes population redistribution in schools and supervisory union districts could create higher concentrations of disadvantaged students and that would negatively affect programming.
"Amazed at the level of care" provided in her school's office of student services, Dorfman noted truancy is "painstaking work" involving police and the Department of Children and Families. She worries tracking this and providing other services could become difficult if students attend schools further away. Her school also offers mental health services, substance abuse counseling and a free dental clinic.
"Our geographic location is fundamental to our students' wellbeing," Dorfman wrote to legislators. "Our busing not only brings students to school but gives them access to medical services at Grace Cottage Hospital, a short walk down the block. If Leland & Gray were forced to close its doors because of the unintended impact of Act 46, hundreds of students would not only lose high-quality academic and co-curricular programs but also regular access to essential health care."
Her concerns come not only due to discussions in Jamaica; Dorfman is watching other schools and communities grappling with similar decisions.
"There's a nasty feeling of who voted which way and it's creating these rifts that weren't there before," she said, recalling an article about Elmore and Morristown. "It just can't be good for either of the schools or the students. So I would hate to see that happening anywhere else."
Leland & Gray sees high school students participating in over 20 advanced placement and dual enrollment courses. Nearly 70 percent of its seniors are accepted to college. Over 75 percent of its students participate in co-curricular activities such as sports, theatre, music programs and clubs. Dorfman said the data "qualitatively tells us that we're doing very good things in our school that strengthen our community" and several legislators have responded positively to her letter. The School Board is supportive as she presents her thoughts and information on the school's services to communities.
"I think it's important for the legislators to really fulfill the goals of Act 46. They're very admirable goals for any state to put as their top priority for education," said Dorfman, who says it would be unfortunate if the public and Legislature lost sight of all the law's goals while focusing in on specific aspects. "It has been a struggle around providing services safely and effectively to families who are really struggling. And fortunately, schools are still a place trusted by our member towns and I'd venture to say around Vermont."
Act 46's spending increase threshold on school budgets, opposed by groups and other communities, is being felt at Leland & Gray where a reduction in staff is being proposed. Schools in Vermont will face a 7.9 increase in health insurance.
"This law creates a spending increase threshold based on the maximum education spending of 1.24 percent increase per equalized pupil, which is Leland & Gray's threshold," Dorfman wrote in a budget rationale. "We have asked the Vermont Agency of Education for the equalized pupil count and will share that information when available."
The proposed Leland & Gray budget raises special education costs for out-of-district payments by 3.23 percent. But, Dorfman said this is allowable within the threshold since the school transfers these funds from the state to the special education placements.
A total reduction in 2.71 full-time equivalent or FTE positions is being proposed. This would affect visual arts and health/physical education departments by cuts of 0.17 FTE each. A math department will go from having five FTE positions to four. Study hall's one FTE position would be cut altogether. A school social worker's will be reduced by 0.2 percent in the budget but the costs will be picked up by the Stratton Foundation and the nonprofit Neighborhood Connection so no programming changes will be made.
An increase in the budget for security came after the school was assessed by a state consultant who recommended purchasing $13,095 worth of equipment including three additional security cameras, new radios and batteries, and a Knox box which allows emergency responders to gain immediate access to the building. An increase in music programming was seen as necessary after enrollment in music courses went up. A position considered 1.67 FTE is proposed to expand to 1.83 FTE. Another increase had to do with planning. Administrative planners are going from 1.5 to 2 FTE due to additional responsibilities assigned to staff members.
Leland & Gray's budget is voted on one month ahead of Annual Town Meeting on the first Wednesday of February. Five member towns will vote on Leland & Gray's budget before deciding on their elementary school budgets in March. The $7,120,218 budget proposes a 1.18 percent increase over the last fiscal year. It was approved and warned by the School Board last week.
Two years ago, Leland & Gray's budget was voted on three times. It was shot down by one vote in the first round. Then a re-vote on the same budget went unapproved by approximately 10 votes. A budget was reduced to pass in the third round. Dorfman said there was "overwhelming support" last year when a 0 percent increase was proposed.