As Vermont's school districts become larger and more centralized, some kids will feel the impact in how they get to and from school.
Every weekday, kids around the state get on the school bus. Damien is one of them.
“What the bus does is he goes by our house — ‘cause there’s more kids up [the road] — and then he’ll swoop around and then he'll come back to my house,” he explained.
Damien is 11, and a 5th grader at Castleton Elementary School. The bus picks him up around 7:10 a.m.
“There’s been one time where I missed the bus 'cause left at 7:04, it went by my house at 7:04, and then I realized when I was walking down [the hill] that I saw it go to the school,” he said in an interview that was fact-checked with his mom, who, according to Damien, “wasn’t happy that I missed the bus. Because she had a work day.”
Castleton Elementary is in the Slate Valley Unified School District, which straddles Addison and Rutland Counties. Slate Valley merged in 2019 under Act 46, Vermont’s school consolidation law, which has resulted in about 40 mergers.
As school districts become larger and more centralized, people like Slate Valley Superintendent Brooke Olsen-Farrell have to spend more time figuring out how to get kids to school.
“You know, our district is 50 square miles, so that’s a lot of road to cover. And we have a lot of back roads, a lot of dirt roads between here and there,” she said. According to Olsen-Farrell, some students in the district have bus rides of up to an hour and a half.
Damien lives pretty close to school — just about 4 miles. But there’s a plan on the table that would close his future middle school, and in two years, it’s likely he’ll have to go to school in the next town over. His bus ride will more than double.
The state does not track how many kids like Damien ride the bus, or how long their rides are. But rides of an hour or more are not unheard of in a state where 90% of school districts are rural. And when community schools close, bus rides for some kids get longer.
Last year was Slate Valley’s first year as a merged district. They’ve reduced the number of bus runs, but Superintendent Olsen-Farrell said there will likely be more changes in the future.
There’s a lot to think about, from road conditions and terrain, to the length of rides: “Making sure that we don’t have excessively long bus routes, especially when we have, you know, little kindergartners or first graders stuck on the bus for, you know, a huge amount of time,” she said.
This is the kind of thing that worries Barbara Wilson. She was just elected to the school board in the Addison Central School District. The district consists of seven towns that came together under Act 46 in 2016. There are some school closures planned, which would increase travel for some students.
Wilson is concerned that the impacts won’t be felt equally. For example, she said some parents might drive their kids to school to avoid the longer bus ride. But a kid whose parents work a lot “may not have that luxury, where they have a parent that is able to take them to school, let alone if it’s further away.”
There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that suggests a longer distance between home and school impacts families, from limiting parents’ ability to participate in school activities to negatively affecting students’ health and academic performance.
ACSD Superintendent Peter Burrows said the district is trying to keep ride times under an hour.
But it goes beyond logistics. Rural districts face high transportation costs; buses need fuel to drive long distances, and all those miles on Vermont roads increase maintenance costs and decrease vehicle lifespans. Making matters worse, the state has long had relatively few bus companies and a shortage of drivers.
And as school districts consolidate, they have to contend with larger swathes of Vermont’s unique landscape. The state has half-a-dozen distinct topographic regions, and terrain can vary greatly.
Cheryl Morse is a geographer at the University of Vermont.
“On a map it looks like two places are relatively close to each other and you should be able to get from here to there,” she said, “But really you have to go up and around and over to get between those two locations.” Even within a single town, Morse said, it might be hard to get from one end to the other because of a river valley or a hill.
For example, the town of Ripton doesn’t feel isolated, but in some ways, it can be. Laurie Cox is chair of the Ripton Selectboard, and an advocate for a plan to withdraw Ripton’s elementary school from its merged district, in order to keep the school open.
According to Cox, one of the reasons some residents want a school in town is because sending elementary students elsewhere would mean a bus ride on Route 125. It’s a road Cox has seen closed about a dozen times due to accidents on the hairpin turns, flooding and mudslides in the spring, or other damage.
“It’s probably the biggest reason why people with young kids don’t think it’s all that great of an idea to just stick them on the bus,” she said.
The district has been busing older students on the road for years, and Superintendent Burrows says it shouldn’t be a problem.
In southern Vermont, the town of Readsboro faced its own transportation challenge in 2019 when they had to send some middle schoolers to neighboring Halifax. The schools are part of a district that merged in 2017, and will be the first to split apart. A bus was too expensive for transporting those middle school students, so the district reimbursed parents $300 a month to drive students to school: a dozen miles over a winding mountain road. "It's not a cow path, but it's not a [Interstate] 91," said school board chair Homer Sumner.
On the other hand, there are places where it seems to work out, like in the White River Valley Supervisory Union. There’s a plan there where, starting in the fall of 2022, K-4 students will go to Tunbridge, and 5-8 students will go to Chelsea. These towns are about 10 minutes apart on a paved, uneventful road.
UVM geographer Cheryl Morse’s research focuses on rural communities, and the connection between people and the environment. She says that Vermont, like most colonized places, has arbitrary political boundaries drawn upon the landscape — those are our counties, towns and school districts.
“We have our human geography and the way we try to create communities and try to create efficiencies and try to create networks, but the landscape is in place as it is,” she said.
And as school districts change, the landscape doesn’t. Distances are as far as they ever were, and mountains can’t be moved.
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