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In Battle Over Act 46 Merger, Ripton Tries To Save Its School

A woman and two kids stand next to a black minivan with a painted message about saving small schools, parked in a pole barn.
Abagael Giles
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VPR
Erin Robinson is an organizer with the parent group Save Our School. Her two sons, Chase and Shepard, attend Ripton Elementary. She wants the school to remain open, even if that means leaving the district. Residents are divided over the schools future.

When lawmakers passed Act 46 they knew it would probably lead to some small schools closing. They also knew that the law, which encouraged school districts to merge, would kick up some tough discussions about education equity and property taxes. It was clear from the start that there would be winners and losers, and not everyone would go home happy. Five years later, all of that is playing out — right now — in the Addison Central School District, around Middlebury.

The town of Ripton recently voted to leave the district, in an effort to keep its school open.

Erin Robinson picks up her two kids at Ripton Elementary School a few times a week. And on a recent afternoon, as she got her five-year-old son Shepard settled into his car seat, she checked in on how the day went.

“Did you have P.E.? Yeah? What did you do in P.E.?,” she asked Shepard.

“I don’t know,” he said.

“You don’t know. You forgot? That’s silly,” said Robinson as she clicked in his seatbelt.

The Ripton Elementary School Community Garden, covered in snow
Credit Abagael Giles / VPR
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This year, residents of Ripton voted to leave Addison Central School District in order to keep the Ripton Elementary School open. If Ripton Elementary closes, Ripton students will attend Mary Hogan Elementary School in Middlebury, about a 15 minute drive away.

Robinson lives about seven minutes away. It’s a short drive, so she can come over and pick up her two boys when her schedule allows.

Robinson likes to volunteer at the school when there’s a need. She even subs when a teacher is out.

“Having a school in a town that you live in just makes being part of your kids schooling that much more accessible,” she said. “You know, for me, it makes it easier to be involved, and the kids really appreciate that, when they know that you’re invested in their future.”

But when it comes to where Robinson’s kids will go to school, the future is very much up in the air.

That’s because there’s a plan on the table to close the Ripton school.

Ripton is part of the seven-town Addison Central School District, which came together through Act 46.

The district recently studied the elementary schools in each of its seven towns. The authors looked at student count projections and construction needs, and weighed the best options for educating students and providing services, as student counts decrease across the district.

Signs at the end of a snowy driveway say "Keep Ripton School Open"
Credit Abagael Giles / VPR
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VPR
Advocates for keeping Ripton Elementary open led a campaign to get out the vote, when the town held a special election to decide in 2020. Now, the decision rests with Addison Central School District's board.

The report found that it would be best to close three or four schools and consolidate the kids in the remaining buildings.

The final decision rests with the 13-member district board, which is made up of people from all of the towns. They can close a school without a local vote, and they've made it clear that Ripton is one of the schools that will be shuttered. 

Robinson grew up nearby, in Middlebury, and she moved up to Ripton three years ago with her family, largely because of the small community school in town.

“Would we have moved this far in Ripton had there not been a school? No. We wouldn’t have done that,” Robinson said. “And if there wasn’t a school seven minutes [away] by car, it would absolutely change our decision. And I think that with it closed, it’s going to affect a lot of people who want to buy property in Ripton.” 

Declining enrollment

When the Legislature passed Act 46 back in 2015, Addison Central was one of the first districts to voluntarily merge.

At the time, all seven of the towns — even Ripton — thought it was a good idea.

The state offered financial incentives to towns that got on board early and those tax breaks — along with the promise that merging would be good for students — drove voters to overwhelmingly support the consolidation plan.

A man wearing a black mask and read, down jacket holds up a map of Ripton school districts as they once were in his snow-covered yard.
Credit Abagael Giles / VPR
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VPR
Former Ripton school board member Perry Hanson holds up an old map, depicting the seven historic school districts within Ripton at his home in town.

Perry Hanson was on the Ripton School Board back then. The way he saw it, Act 46 was a way to save money, and keep the town school open in the face of declining enrollment and rising costs.

“On our local school board, money was tight, so there was an incentive to say, ‘Well this is good, we’ll join a bigger group and see if we can cut costs, and so forth,’” Hanson said. “And I still remember, two or three of the Middlebury people came to me and said, ‘We don’t want to close your school.’ It wasn’t on the list of things that would happen — at all — at that time.”

But since then, the number of kids in the Addison County district has dropped even further.

Just between this year and next, student counts in the elementary schools are expected to drop by almost 14%.

And with the state's Act 46 incentives set to expire over the next few years as per-pupil costs are set to rise, Hanson now thinks it's time to close the Ripton school.

“We can’t deliver the services to the children in Ripton the way we’re structured now,” Hanson said. “And, yeah, that’s the biggest thing. Then you got to get realistic about the real cost. I mean, small doesn’t mean good, necessarily. It's a challenge. So, it ... it’s hard.”

The white, snow-covered Ripton Town Offices building, viewed from the side, looking from the old playground next door.
Credit Abagael Giles / VPR
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Like many small communities in Vermont, this is not the first time Ripton has consolidated its schools. Perry Hanson attended elementary school in what is now the Ripton Town Offices building. His children attended the current Ripton Elementary School.

But Hanson is in the minority. In a last-ditch effort to save their elementary school, Ripton residents recently voted 163-107 to break away from the merged district, and take back control of the school.

Hanson says the debate has been rough in Ripton, a town of about 550 people.

“It makes me sad that it’s so divisive in the town,” he said. “And I hope we can figure out a way to get past it, because it’s not healthy. It’s sad.”

This idea of trying to determine the best way to educate students in a rural state with a declining population has been ripping apart Vermont communities far beyond Ripton and the Addison Central district.

What does the research show?

The debate is playing out elsewhere in Vermont. The town of Westminster also held a vote recently to leave its merged district.

Around Brattleboro, there's an effort in the works to completely dissolve the four-town district that  includes Brattleboro, Putney, Guilford and Dummerston.

And one of the reasons why is that no one really knows whether consolidation works. That's according to Mara Tieken, an associate professor at Bates College in Maine who has written a book about the closing of rural schools.

A woman in a bright blue down coat stands with a light blue mask on her porch, with long icicles behind her.
Credit Abagael Giles / VPR
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Amy McGlashen of Ripton serves on the Addison Central School District board, which will vote on the fate of the town town elementary school on Town Meeting Day. She supports the move to a bigger elementary school.

“We were absolutely floored by the lack of research around what the outcomes [are],” Tieken said.

Tieken's research focuses on what happens to rural communities after a school closes. And she hasn’t found many studies that show that closing small rural schools is good for students — or communities.

“In terms of cost savings, there is almost, like, zero research on that,” Tieken said. “But what they tend to find, is that not much money was really saved. There’s so much writing about the claims of closure and the benefits it will bring. [But there's] very, very little followup afterwards.”

A matter of resources

One of the arguments put forth for closing Ripton Elementary is that the school is so small. Proponents of merging say that, with about 55 students this year across pre-K through sixth grade, high needs students can’t get the services they need.

But Britta Carlson says she wouldn’t want her son Anders to go to school anywhere else.

A boy in a green hat and snow suit outside of snow-covered Ripton Elementary.
Credit Britta Carlson, Courtesy
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Anders Carlson is a student at Ripton Elementary School. Britta Carlson, his mother, says the proximity and community a small school provides is worth keeping.

Anders is in kindergarten at Ripton Elementary. He has Down syndrome, and Carlson says having a small school located in her community has been working well for her family.

“We’ve got a son with a disability, and we feel like small schools keep our kids connected,” Carlson said. “You know: connected to each other, connected to teachers, to other staff in the school — and that’s a really strong component of growing really healthy kids.”

Amy McGlashan also lives in Ripton. Her two kids went to Ripton Elementary School, and she’s currently serving on the seven-town ACSD board.

McGlashan thinks Ripton should stay in the district and close its school. She says she's fully bought into that idea that Ripton has to see itself as part of a larger education community, and that the taxpayers in Ripton have a responsibility to think about their own kids, as well as the kids in nearby towns.

“I feel like the right thing to do is to say that these are all our students,” McGlashan said. “These are all our children, [and] the concept of a learning community doesn’t have to be by town. That was the agreement we made when we joined as a district. And so for me, it’s a huge step backwards.”

But Ripton can't just unilaterally leave the district. If even one of the other towns votes to not allow Ripton to leave, then the town has to stay within the Addison Central district and likely lose its school.

That vote is set to take place on Town Meeting Day this year.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman @hweisstisman.

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