Boards Weigh Closing Elementary Schools in Barnard, Bridgewater

Woodstock and Pomfret Would Pick Up Students

Woodstock — School boards in the Windsor Central Supervisory Union are expected to hear more information in coming weeks about a plan to close two of the district’s elementary schools, a consolidation that would leave Barnard and Bridgewater without a public school within their towns and reconfigure the elementary schools in Woodstock and Pomfret.

Closing Barnard Academy and Bridgewater Village School may be the best of 11 options considered by the Joint Elementary Study Committee, according to John Everitt, an education consultant who worked with the committee.

The advisory study committee has been meeting for almost a year and has been exploring how to ease the four school districts’ financial problems, which are expected to get more severe in the future.

The committee has weighed a variety of consolidation plans involving different configurations among the four districts’ schools.

Although the committee has not endorsed any one proposal, Everitt said, it is focusing on a plan that would close the elementary schools in Barnard and Bridgewater and have K-4 students from all four towns attend the Woodstock Elementary School and send all fifth- and sixth-graders to The Pomfret School.

“It offered the most for kids,” Everitt said. “It offered some cost savings as well as the best benefit for the kids.”

The advisory committee, which had school board representatives from each of the four towns along with Superintendent Alice Worth and Everitt, plans to meet first with each school board and then solicit public opinion.

Voters in the four towns will ultimately decide what type of consolidation, if any, to pursue.

Although Worth and Everitt say the advisory committee is focusing on the consolidation option that calls for closing the Bridgewater and Barnard schools, Bridgewater School Board Chair Greg Jenne thinks the committee doesn’t now have enough information to seriously consider any one option.

“We need to know, financially, the impact on teachers, students and administration,” he said. “We need to know the costs for having buildings unoccupied.”

Everitt said that specific numbers on the cost savings have not been released because the projections are still being finalized.

But the expectation is that combining schools will save money, he said.

“It costs the same to heat a building for 100 kids as it does for 50 kids,” he said. “When you’ve got really small class sizes, you have no economy of scale.”

Worth acknowledged it will be a difficult decision.

“These things are a trade-off,” Worth said. “Maybe we’re going to have to trade off the tiny school’s nurturing environment to have a richer curriculum.”

Schools in the Windsor Central Supervisory Union are not the only ones weighing such measures. Faced with declining student populations, districts that serve small communities across the state are feeling increasing levels of pressure to cut costs by consolidating.

Enrollment within school districts in the supervisory union has plummeted over the past 10 years, particularly in Bridgewater, which had 78 students in the 2004 school year and 35 in the most recent enrollment figures released by the school in June. Barnard, which went from 60 students a decade ago to 52 last year, has grades with only three students in them.

Worth said schools in the district have had even more extreme examples of small classes. She said there was one class that had only one boy in it.

When fewer students are spread out over more schools, it’s harder to give all of those students a full range of services, Worth said.

The smaller elementary schools get only a tiny slice of certain professionals. Bridgewater Village Elementary has a nurse on staff for only a half-day a week, for example, and an art teacher for one day a week. Woodstock Elementary School, on the other hand, has those services available every day, she said.

The continuing decline in enrollment is defying projections, Everitt said. While state education officials have projected a leveling off of enrollment declines, Everitt said he doesn’t have much faith in those estimates.

“So far their stabilization predictions have not been accurate,” he said.

At some point, he said, students begin to suffer the consequences of tighter budgets.

When a school is forced to cut its curriculum, Everitt said, “usually it starts in the arts and the physical education classes.”

So far, he said, the schools in the union have maintained them “pretty well, but the pressure from the costs are going to mount more and more and more.”

Worth said that the debate has centered on whether now is the right time to restructure a system that has served Vermont students for more than 100 years.

“We are reluctant to step away from the traditional local school,” she said.

Everitt said he has seen that sentiment in other districts that are confronting the same dilemma.

“It’s a very difficult decision for people to grapple with,” he said. “It’s a strong value for Vermont. It’s hard for everyone.”

On the other hand, Worth said, educators and parents are eager to see their children get the best education they possibly can. From that perspective, the consolidation is an opportunity not only to save money, but also to better prepare students for the future.

“We ask ‘What are we missing?’ and then we look at the possibilities by combining or sharing,” she said.

In the end, she said, she hopes the public debate will be a healthy one.

“There are a lot of issues, but it’s good,” she said. “It’s a great place to start holding up the mirror and looking at a very tricky issue.”