TOWNSHEND — Long-term planning for the West River Education District has been a recurring subject for the School Board, as it grapples with declining enrollment and different desires in the community.
“The board has a tough decision to make and it’s definitely not going to completely please everyone,” board member Lindsey Bertram said at a board meeting Monday. “We really need to look for small wins. There’s a lot of things that everyone can get behind and the more of those things that we can put together, the easier it’s going to be for everyone to get on board with, whatever we choose to do.”
Last year, a committee presented an idea to host a single campus in Townshend and an immersive learning center in Jamaica. In October, the board voted 9-2 to budget for the current building configurations.
About 20 community members volunteered to serve on task forces, meeting six times since April with support from administrators and school staff. They surveyed residents from district member towns of Brookline, Jamaica, Newfane, Townshend and Windham.
Bob Thibault, principal at Leland & Gray Union Middle and High School who presented a report for the task force on secondary education, said public high school choice is already offered in the district.
“Any of our students can apply to any public school in the state of Vermont,” he said, adding that transportation responsibilities fall on the families, acceptance is based on a school’s capacity and no tuition money leaves the district. He estimated the number of students who come to L&G from outside the district is comparable to students in the district who go to other high schools.
L&G tends to get higher participation rates in co-curricular and extra-curricular activities than other schools because a lot of students join in and no one is cut from a team or group based on skill, Thibault said.
“We have a smaller pond, if you will, because we are small,” he said. He also pointed out a variety of unique or new programs and classes L&G offers.
At smaller schools, Thibault said, staff and teachers can get to know each other well. They can also “change and evolve quickly,” and “truly personalize experiences.”
A slide from his presentation shows L&G is approaching the statewide standard for academic proficiency, and so are Bellows Falls Union High School, Twin Valley Middle High School in Whitingham and Brattleboro Union High School. L&G is meeting personalization standards, and exceeding safety/health standards and high-quality staffing standards.
If the high school were to close, but not the middle school, administrators estimate the district would save about $4,389 in the annual budget. For the calculation, the task force used the statewide average tuition rate, increased transportation costs by 10 percent and cut out 27.8 full-time-equivalent (FTE) teachers, one FTE administrator, one FTE custodial worker and two-thirds of all supplies and equipment.
Jamaica residents preferred expanding on the school choice already offered in the district, which allows students to go to any elementary schools within the district and to apply to any public high school.
“I think the logic there is, a lot of folks travel in the opposite direction for work so that would make sense for them,” Thibault said. “That might be something you guys might want to wrestle with in the future.”
Patti Dickson of Jamaica said homes in her town didn’t sell to families who wanted to live there as sales boomed locally during the COVID-19 pandemic. She suggested the school system is turning people away.
“You can’t just keep doing the same thing,” she said.
Juliette Carr of South Newfane said she believes her town has the same issue.
“A large part of what’s going on is when you look at it online, you see a lot of low college readiness scores, you see a lot of low rankings on state testing and a lot of things about bullying, and you don’t see personalized education programming and that kind of thing,” she said. “So some of that is a branding issue but some of that is legitimate concerns of families of young kids who have to make educational choices.”
Closing the elementary schools in Jamaica and Newfane, then running a central campus in Townshend between the elementary school and L&G is estimated to save $1 million. However, Thibault pointed out, there’d be political ramifications.
Bertram, who presented the report for the task force on elementary schooling, said the district currently has inequities when it comes to the delivery of education and social/emotional supports. Declining enrollment and changing demographics also present challenges.
The task force compared two scenarios to the status quo of having three K-5 schools in the district. The other options include having two K-5 schools or having one K-2 school and a 3-5 school.
Teachers and principals want more collaboration, Bertram said. That’s believed to be best achieved with the third model, where classrooms for each grade can be next to one another.
Bertram said the level of individualization currently varies from school to school but having two K-5 schools would offer flexibility for instructional groups and a wider social circle for students in their age groups. She noted administrative and teaching costs could be reduced if schools start to be consolidated.
“Right now, there’s a very strong sense of community in each building. That exists and it’s wonderful,” Bertram said. “Whereas, if you start to consolidate, then you’re starting to need to redevelop that sense of community. It doesn’t mean it can’t be done. It just means it’s work to do it.”
Longer bus routes would have a big impact on families, Bertram said.
“When you have two schools, you can sort of split the difference,” she said.
Bertram said the K-2 and 3-5 models add an additional transition year for elementary school students, which can be difficult. She noted a lot of different choices are available for offering pre-K.
NewBrook Elementary, which was the result of a merger between Brookline and Newfane, is looked at as an example of school consolidation working out well — although it was stressed that the two communities are direct neighbors and were already sharing resources.
“I think it worked out beautifully,” board member Ken McFadden said. “It can be a great thing, if it’s done logically.”
Board Chairman Al Claussen said he anticipates the board will vote over the summer on how to move forward with long-term planning. Feedback and information on facilities will be collected during July and August to prepare for budgeting for fiscal year 2024.
Communities in the district would have to vote on closing schools.