Rivendell board OKs plan that would close elementary school

From left, fourth graders Lily Colon, Xander Shedd, Madison Champagne, Sophia Sinsigalli and Mia King find the location of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance, which sunk in the Weddell Sea off Antarctica in 1915, on a world map in their classroom at Samuel Morey Elementary School in Fairlee, Vt., on Tuesday, March 15, 2022. The discovery of the shipwreck by a group of researchers nearly 10,000 feet below the surface was announced last week. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

From left, fourth graders Lily Colon, Xander Shedd, Madison Champagne, Sophia Sinsigalli and Mia King find the location of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance, which sunk in the Weddell Sea off Antarctica in 1915, on a world map in their classroom at Samuel Morey Elementary School in Fairlee, Vt., on Tuesday, March 15, 2022. The discovery of the shipwreck by a group of researchers nearly 10,000 feet below the surface was announced last week. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Alex Driehaus

By NICOLA SMITH

Valley News Correspondent

Published: 12-04-2023 4:25 PM

FAIRLEE — The Rivendell Interstate School District Board voted 6-2 last month to move forward with a plan from district administrators that would result in the closure of the Samuel Morey Elementary School in Fairlee. Two additional board members were absent for the vote.

The district, which was formed in 1998, includes Samuel Morey, the Westshire Elementary School in West Fairlee, and the middle and high schools at Rivendell Academy in Orford. In addition to Fairlee, West Fairlee and Orford, the interstate district also includes Vershire.

The proposed three-year plan comes after lengthy discussion in the community about how best to assure the quality of education while also reining in school budgets.

Numerous factors that are out of the control of school districts across the country — the increased expenses of housing, health insurance, property taxes and the cost of living — have contributed to rising school budgets, said Barrett Williams, the superintendent of the Rivendell district.

Two public forums were held in early November to look at the five major options that the board wanted to bring before the school communities, which range as far west as Vershire and as far east as East Orford. Surveys were also distributed electronically: there were approximately 200 respon ses, Hooke said.

After assessing the public feedback, the Rivendell administration and School Board developed a three-year plan for the school years 2024 through 2027, with the goal of making a smooth transition of students in Samuel Morey to Rivendell Academy. Samuel Morey currently has a student population of 113, while Westshire has a population of 74. Rivendell Academy has 234 students.

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Major objectives include:

Cutting $200,000 from the fiscal year ‘25 budget, which is currently under development, and supporting teacher training for multi-age classrooms;

In fiscal year ‘26, implementing multi-age classrooms in the elementary schools and planning the transition of students from Samuel Morey to Rivendell;

In fiscal year ‘27 actually moving the students into classrooms at Rivendell, and perhaps selling or repurposing the Morey building. Westshire students, who come from Vershire and West Fairlee, would remain where they are.

The proposal aims to address rising costs. In March of this year, voters approved, 134-111, a $14.7 million budget for the current academic year. That was up roughly 10% over the previous year. Among the questions facing the Rivendell administration and school board, said School Board Chairwoman Kathy Hooke, were how to shape the budget for the coming fiscal year and what, if any, significant changes they should be making.

“We just can’t come back to the voters with a status quo budget for another year, and another year after that,” said Hooke, who lives in Vershire. The administration and board had to hammer out the three-year plan before filling in the details of the budget for next school year, which will be voted on in March 2024.

“Even though we will only be voting on the budget for the 2024-25 school year, I feel that our proposal will be much stronger taken in context of this 3-year plan,” Hooke wrote in an email.

Since spring 2020, the administration and board focus has been on getting students, teachers and staff through the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. But now, Hooke said, the issues raised in the proposal are what “we really need to be thinking about.”

A Valley News story in 2019 reported that, according to town records, Samuel Morey Elementary was built in 1956, making it the oldest campus in the Rivendell district. As the oldest building, Hooke said, the school’s projected expenses show that it is “going to have the most cost associated with long-term maintenance.”

Barbara Griffin, the president of the Rivendell Education Association, the union that represents the district’s teachers, said that Samuel Morey has its challenges. Because the school is sandwiched between Fairlee Main Street and I-91, it absorbs the noise from the interstate. Windows on the west side of the building can’t be opened for that reason. Nor does the school have much outside space for outdoor classrooms.

However, Griffin said, there are still “a lot of unanswered questions” about the three-year plan. While she, and other teachers and community members, are “grateful for the research” that has gone into the proposal, there are salient concerns that need to be addressed, she said.

“What will happen if we get more students? Where will we put them?” Griffin said. Where will teachers be relocated?

She would like to see an enrollment study done. Although she said she believes that there will be more students enrolling, “we haven’t done a study to prove that. Which is what I think we need to do. It’s the first step in researching. … Where will we be in 10 or 20 years? If we close the school and sell it, then what? Most teachers want the status quo. But we all recognize that something has to change.”

There are other questions. If the Samuel Morey school closed and the students and teachers moved to Rivendell Academy, how would that affect teacher licensure? Teachers licensed to teach in Vermont but not New Hampshire would have to apply for a New Hampshire license. Who would pay for the licensure process? Would the Articles of Agreement, which determine the governance of the district, have to be changed? How would multi-age classrooms work, and what kind of training would be provided?

The possible closing of the Samuel Morey Elementary School “leads to many questions that don’t have immediate solutions,” said Andrew Stevens, a first-grade teacher at the school who lives in Fairlee and has two young children who will, in a matter of years, enter the school system.

“As a teacher, I feel that children are impacted, and their needs need to be considered every step of the way,” Stevens said. And how would teachers be supported through the process of not only training for multi-age classrooms but also closing the elementary school?

“I do recognize that some sort of change needs to happen. I don’t necessarily know if rushing into a plan where we close a school makes sense,” Stevens added. “For this upcoming budget to pass in March, the public needs to know what this plan looks like thoroughly and precisely.”

There is a commonality, said Superintendent Williams. “People want to provide a high quality education for our students, and we want to attract students to our district.”

Outdoor education and a farm-to-school program, as well as increased support for special education, would enrich education in the district, Williams said. But that is difficult to achieve, he said, when the pressure is on school districts to level-fund a budget or to make significant cuts. While he hopes that enrollment does increase, he said that seems unlikely.

At a November board meeting administrators showed board members a chart that tracked enrollment in the district from 2000 on. Overall enrollment in the four schools showed a peak at around 600 in 2000. Since then it has steadily dipped to a current district enrollment of around 420.

“People have expressed real concern about our declining enrollment and the rising cost of taxes and long term sustainability of the district. It is our job as administrators to look at and recommend to the board creative ways to decrease cost while improving educational opportunities for our students,” Williams added in an email.

Another consideration is a stipulation in Vermont law regarding repayment of school construction aid. Because both Westshire and a building at Rivendell Academy were built with aid from the state.

“If we were to sell one of these buildings, a portion of the construction cost would likely need to be returned,” Hooke wrote in a letter to the community that was emailed on Nov. 27.

At the Nov. 14 meeting, which was recorded on video, board member David Ricker, an Orford resident who was a ‘No’ vote along with board member Vanessa DiSimone, said “I would support this thing (the proposal) if we weren’t naming an elementary school that we were going to close.”

DiSimone, who lives in Orford, said, “I’d like to add to the language, ‘consideration of closing an elementary school’ for the third year.”

Board member Nate Thames, a resident of Vershire who was recorded speaking at the Nov. 14 meeting, called the plan a “promising proposal that doesn’t hit the district all at once.” Consolidating campuses has the potential to put the district on a better financial footing, which could permit for the addition of other programs, he said.

“I would rather spend money on outdoor education than maintaining a fleet of boilers across three schools,” Thames said.

Next steps include developing a budget for the 2024-25 school year and beginning planning for the move to multi-age classrooms the following year, Williams said.

“In addition to that, we need two years of planning to decide how and where it is best to fit students in the remaining academy buildings,” he said.

Nicola Smith can be reached at mail@nicolasmith.org.