Rivendell Residents to Hold Forum on School Spending

Orford — Residents concerned about their high tax bills to the Rivendell Interstate School District have planned a forum tomorrow to discuss why school spending continues to rise despite declining enrollment.

The K-12 Rivendell district has seen enrollment fall by about 100 students in its three Vermont towns, Fairlee, Vershire and West Fairlee, while its lone New Hampshire town, Orford, has held steady.

Partly as a result of these declines, Rivendell ranks 10th highest in Vermont in terms of cost per pupil, spending $15,755 a student.

But Rivendell isn’t the only school district facing high per pupil costs. Vermont has the third highest per pupil spending in the country, according to a report by California-based consult Lawrence O. Picus and Associates. The report was presented to the Vermont Legislature last year in an effort to present a “comprehensive evaluation of Vermont’s education funding system.”

Student enrollments have declined by 18 percent in the last decade. In 2000, Vermont had roughly 104,000 students. Today it has about 85,000.

One of the forum’s organizers, Chris Crowley, of Orford, said he has seen his tax rate rise dramatically since enrollment began dropping at Rivendell. He said hopes tomorrow’s forum will raise awareness that Vermont — and Rivendell — have a problem with declining enrollment and cost per pupil. Crowley plans for the discussion to move to possible solutions that can be made at the state level.

The forum starts at 10:30 a.m. tomorrow at the Emergency Services Building in Fairlee.

“Everyone is facing the same thing,” Orford resident Tom Thomson said. “This forum is what I hope is the beginning of forums all over the state. This is not just a Rivendell thing.”

And it’s likely that there will be similar forums across the state because the meeting will be moderated by Bruce Lisman, a retired Wall Street executive who cofounded Campaign for Vermont, an advocacy group that focuses on education, health care and the economy, among other things.

Campaign for Vermont published a 16-page paper in December that cited many of the statistics from the Lawrence O. Picus and Associates study. The paper is titled “Putting Children First” — the same title as Saturday’s forum — and it includes recommended reforms to Vermont’s education system. Among the recommendations is to eliminate supervisory unions and consolidate into 15 “educational districts.”

When Crowley and a small group of local residents from both sides of the river read the document, they decided they should have a “meeting of the minds” with Campaign for Vermont.

“We read their paper and we said, ‘This is exactly what we’ve been saying,’ ” Crowley said. “They had proposed these ideas about what could be done at the state level and we had proposed talking points about what could happen at the local level.”

School Board members have been invited to the forum, but board member Bruce Lyndes said he’s unsure if he’ll be attending. Lyndes has read the Campaign for Vermont report, but said he doesn’t think it’s a viable option; he’s unsure if Rivendell can consolidate with other Vermont districts because it has a New Hampshire town within its district.

Lyndes said he has heard Crowley and other residents — many from Orford — give presentations criticizing spending. At the same time, residents have a history of supporting the budget by a large majority. Last year, the budget passed at Town Meeting with a vote of 129-46.

“I don’t hear a lot of other people complaining about the cost year after year,” Lyndes said. “If there were more and different people standing up and saying we need to cut spending, then I think that would make a difference.”

However, Lyndes said he can’t deny that declining enrollment is an issue at Rivendell and across the state.

And he said he too thinks that cost per pupil could be lowered. For instance, Rivendell has a 10:1 student-teacher ratio, and he thinks it could be changed to 13:1.

Lyndes said he doesn’t think there’s any harm to tomorrow’s forum, but he said he thinks viable solutions need to be discussed, and he doesn’t think Campaign for Vermont’s consolidation recommendation would work for Rivendell.

“Year after year they’re critical and year after year people aren’t buying what they’re selling. And I think that meeting is more of the same,” Lyndes said.

But Crowley and Thomson both stressed that declining enrollment and high per pupil costs needs to be discussed at a statewide level — with or without the School Board.

“There is a broader picture that goes beyond the district,” Crowley said. “It doesn’t necessarily require the managers of the school board to be on board.”

Sarah Brubeck can be reached at sbrubeck@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.