By Laura Power
Special To The Standard
READING — Nearly 100 Reading residents gathered last Thursday night to open discussions about the fate of the town’s elementary school. “In 2001, we had 68 students, today we have 33,” says School Board Chair John Fike, “the ability to provide a quality education with the declining population and less revenue from the state and federal government makes sustainability an issue.” Last week’s meeting focused on a proposal to close the kindergarten-through-grade-six school, and to instead send children to Woodstock Elementary School (WES) as tuition students. If the Reading and Woodstock School Boards ultimately approve the plan, Reading voters will be asked to weigh in on it at the next Town Meeting in February or March.
The current year total expense budget for the Reading Elementary School (RES) is just over $800,000. After various specific grant and reimbursement programs, the $600,000 or so balance is paid from the unearmarked part of state’s Education Fund, which is fed mostly by local property taxes. A part-time principal oversees the school; each of three fulltime teachers leads a multi-grade classroom, with one full time paraeducator to help with the youngest children. A half-time and a single paraeducator covers special education needs. Students receive instruction one day a week from Spanish, art, music, technology, and physical education specialists; the guidance counselor, nurse and librarian are also part-time.
The school’s staffing level and curriculum offerings meet or exceed Vermont standards. But Alice Worth, Superintendent of the Windsor Central Supervisory Union, which includes RES, WES, elementary schools in Barnard, Pomfret, Bridgewater, and Killington as well as the Woodstock Union High School and Middle School, asked attendees at last week’s forum to think about the educational and social opportunities that a larger school might offer their children. “I absolutely can appreciate the challenges that you are facing as a small community, wishing to hold onto the small school that you know and love,” she told the crowd, “but I ask you tonight to suspend any of your preconceived notions.”
The meeting’s participants, who included residents with and without current students in the school, offered spirited and varied comments on the possible community, social, academic, and financial impacts of closing RES and educating the town’s young children elsewhere. “It’s sad when you drive through a town that has no school,” said one, “you don’t see the kids, you don’t see the activity, it feels desolate.” Another noted the “incredibly rich” opportunities for community members and RES students to interface, “as they have over the past few years, in dozens of ways,” she added.
Logistical and social issues were also cited as worries. Some parents fear long bus rides will exhaust young children and leave little time for after school activities. To get to Woodstock, students would have to be gathered up along country roads by bus; WES is 14 miles directly north of RES, up Route 106. There is also concern that Reading children, because of their relatively small numbers, might feel like outsiders at WES, but some parents feel that introducing their children to Woodstock during elementary school years will help ease the often difficult transition to the Woodstock Middle School, the public school that Reading children currently attend beginning at grade seven.
According to results available on the Vermont Department of Education website, RES students have, in many of the last five years, outperformed their peers, in aggregate. In every year from 2006 to 2010, nearly two-thirds of students of in grades 3 through 8 statewide scored “proficient” or “proficient with distinction” on the math NECAP. Results for the reading exam were similarly stable, with the like percentage statewide hovering at around 70 percent. At RES, in 2010, students were head and shoulders above the statewide average; 91 percent of them earned proficient or better scores in math as well as in reading. However, in the four years immediately prior, RES results moved up and down nearer the statewide average. In math, a low of 58 percent of the school’s students in 2007 and a high of 72 percent in 2009 scored proficient or above on the math exam. On the reading exam, the like percentages varied from 67 percent to 75 percent.
A comparison of RES and WES aggregate NECAP performance yields a mixed bag. In 2006 through 2009, WES outpaced RES in both math and reading by fairly wide margins; in 2010, however, RES was on the top side of ample gaps.
Analysis of the financial impact of continuing to operate RES versus tuitioning students to WES was not on last week’s meeting agenda, but School Board Chair Fike says the Reading school faces pressures. In the last few years, grant and reimbursement programs have covered about a quarter of the school’s expenses, but now some of those sources of revenue are at risk. For this school year, for example, RES had to eliminate a remedial reading specialist because the school lost a $28,000 grant under Title I, the largest Federal funding program for primary and secondary schools. Fike has said in other forums that Reading should also expect reductions in future state-originated grants. Since local education property taxes, which the state collects and redistributes, are insufficient to cover all of Vermont’s school expenses, legislators must allocate monies from the General Fund and other sources to make up the difference. Increasing competition among state programs makes cutbacks likely.
Parent Jeff Oney, who is also husband of the school’s librarian, argued at last week’s meeting that taxes should not be a pivotal factor in deciding what to do. “I want everybody to know that your property taxes will not go up based on whether we keep the school open or close it,” he said. Vermont has an income sensitivity program that currently allows homeowners with incomes of less than $97,000 to apply for property tax adjustments; that could, for some Reading residents, dampen the tax impact of any alternative.
Paige Hiller, Chair of the WES School Board, feels that the Woodstock school can comfortably integrate students from other communities. Of the 178 children currently enrolled at WES, about a dozen are tuition students from Plymouth, which closed its elementary school in 2010. “I think what we have to do is open our arms,” she says, “and not only welcome the [RES] students but welcome the parents as well.” Hiller emphasizes, though, that discussions with RES officials are in an early phase. “It’s like we are dating right now,” she says, “we are not engaged or married.”
An influx of thirty or so tuition students from RES would bring additional revenue to WES, but Hiller says it is too soon to speculate on how that money would be applied. Funds could be used for building maintenance projects and hiring additional staff. “We have to maintain the right teacher to student ratio and make sure our programming is solid,” says Hiller.
A series of events have been planned so that Reading parents and children can get to know the Woodstock school. Karen White, the WES Principal, will go to Reading to meet students on October 25, and will also be there for a parent coffee on November 1. A few days later, on November 3, White will hold an informational meeting in Reading for parents. After that, Reading parents are invited to make appointments to visit the Woodstock school.
In the meantime, the RES School Board intends to continue gather feedback. Earlier this week, the WES Board provided answers to questions that Reading officials had posed about current and projected class sizes, sports programs, special education costs, tuition estimates, and other issues. “We have to work through it slowly,” says Fike, “we have to move through the whole process, and since it is a process I can’t tell you the end [result].”
If the RES Board approves a plan to close the school and send students to Woodstock, it will develop two budgets for Town Meeting, one it will present if voters endorse the closing proposal, and the other if the voters choose instead to keep RES open. The WES Board will likely have to produce two budgets as well.
The Reading Elementary School Board meets every 3rd Tuesday of the month at 4:30 pm at the school and other times as needed and warned. The Woodstock Elementary School Board generally meets on the 2nd Monday of the month at 4:30 pm in the school library. Meeting notices are posted in the Vermont Standard.
This article first appeared in the October 20th print edition of the Vermont Standard.