K-12

Merger madness? When schools close — forever

Vermont’s push to consolidate school districts continues to provoke anger and debate

CHELSEA, Vt. — The previous few months had witnessed a handful of small endings, and now, with the school year drawing to a close, these events were piling up quickly. In February, hundreds had gathered in the school gymnasium for the final basketball games in Chelsea High School history. At the final prom in mid-May, the gym was festooned in Christmas lights and white-and-silver crepe paper; a DJ brought dancers to the floor with songs like “Don’t Stop Believin’”; and, in the photo booth, students leaned in close to one another for 2 x 6 inch mementos.

The Chelsea school building, which serves kindergarten through 12th grade, was built in 1912. Across the United States, it’s become increasingly rare for schools to serve K-12 students under one roof.

Now, spring Homecoming Weekend had arrived. On Thursday, several dozen people gathered in the 19th-century town hall for opening night of an original school musical, “But I Don’t Want To,” an homage to Chelsea High School musicals of years past. The last regular-season baseball game was about to unfold on the field behind the school, provided an approaching rainstorm held off long enough for Chelsea to face Sharon Academy. Twenty-five miles north, in East Montpelier, the girls’ lacrosse team was wrapping up their last regular-season game. There would be a bonfire on Saturday night, and a Memorial Day parade for alumni on Monday. After that would come the June graduation, where the school’s seven seniors would walk across the town’s South Common to collect their diplomas — the last to be given out by the school in its history — from the school board chair.

Ronald Johnson, a junior who’d helped organize an ultimately unsuccessful last-ditch revote effort to save Chelsea High School from closing, was on the baseball field, tossing practice balls with his teammates. This fall, he’ll trade his Chelsea Red Devils jersey for the green Phoenix jersey of Sharon Academy, a private school 18 miles away.

“It’s really, really weird,” said Johnson, a fourth-generation Chelsea student. “But for 11 years it seems like all I’ve wanted to do when I was at school was just go home or go to practice … I couldn’t wait until 3 o’clock.

But now that it’s closing, I just don’t want to leave.”

Mindy Farnham, the school counselor, was handing out Chelsea Red Devils T-shirts under a tent facing the outfield. “Our kids are having a very hard time with this,” she said. A 1996 graduate of Chelsea High School, she grew up in the apartment above the town’s grocery store (now a church) on the two-lane road that cuts through town. “I just hope these kids will be okay.”

In January, in a vote of 183 to 132, residents of this central Vermont town of roughly 1,200 decided to merge their school district with nearby Tunbridge, prompting the closure this month of the high school that has served as the linchpin of this small community for a century. The Vermont state government has prodded school districts to merge. The town’s approximately 64 high-school age students who will disperse next year can go to virtually any school of their choosing, even private schools, and local taxpayers will foot the bill. Many residents were drawn to the idea of Chelsea becoming a so-called choice district, in which kids can fan out to various schools, and the different educational opportunities they offer. Yet, even for some supporters of the merger, losing their high school was an agonizing decision.

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Like other parts of rural America, Vermont has a population problem that’s draining its schools. Since 2000, public school enrollment has shrunk by roughly 14 percent as Vermonters have fewer children and leave for jobs elsewhere in New England and beyond. (Desperate, Gov. Phil Scott signed legislation last month offering up to $10,000 in moving costs and other expenses to remote workers who relocate to the state.) One consequence of the population drain has been mounting education costs for the state’s remaining taxpayers: Vermont now spends more per pupil — roughly $18,769, according to one estimate — than all but three states.

In a bid to control costs and help kids at tiny schools access a wider array of educational opportunities, legislators passed a bill in 2015 to encourage school district mergers. Known as Act 46, the legislation promised financial incentives for districts that consolidated and intense scrutiny for those that didn’t. Controversial from the start — Vermonters are known for what former education commissioner Dave Wolk calls their “cherished penchant” for local control over schools — the act has so far precipitated voters in at least 141 towns to consolidate into 38 new districts.

As in other parts of Vermont, the push to consolidate in Chelsea was more of a forced march than a stampede. After brief flirtations with other nearby districts, residents began eyeing Tunbridge, six miles down the road. The town has a K-8 school but no high school, so its teens are allowed to attend public, private or even out-of-state schools through the state’s “choice” system that dates to 1869. Their tuition is covered by their town’s taxpayers. Under the somewhat byzantine rules of Act 46, if Chelsea closed its high school and partnered with another K-8 choice district like Tunbridge, it could become a choice district, too. For some residents, this idea held instant appeal.

“We’re in the middle of nowhere but we have opportunities all around us,” said Mary Ellen Parkman, a 1994 graduate of Chelsea High and a member of the town’s school board. “I thought we have to be really strategic about this; if we aren’t, we’ll end up in a union school,” she added, referring to public schools formed from merged districts.

Decades of championship banners line the Chelsea High School gym.

The Green Mountain State is not the first to consider closing schools in order to reduce education costs. The United States saw a wave of consolidation between 1930 and 1970, when the number of school districts fell by 90 percent. In the last two decades, mergers have again gained traction, with states as diverse as Maine, Kansas and Michigan considering or embracing school district consolidation.

The benefits of mergers are hardly unequivocal. One study of school consolidation at mid-20th century, for example, found that students at smaller schools tended to graduate at higher rates. Nor are mergers always practical, as in parts of Wyoming, where kids would have to spend hours on a bus to get to and from the next-closest school. But Vermont, with its canvas of single-building schoolhouses within several dozen miles of one another, is the sort of a place where consolidation will bring clear financial benefits, according to Bruce Baker, a professor in the graduate school of education at Rutgers University, New Brunswick.

“It’s possible for a school to be too small,” said Baker. “It’s possible for a school to be so small that it costs a lot to keep that school running … If it’s at all geographically feasible to think about,” he said, “then you should do it.” Districts with fewer than 300 kids, he said, are particularly ripe for consolidation.

Chelsea’s district has 189.

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And yet, there are other costs to consider. The Chelsea closure has opened a divide in the tiny community. In broad strokes, it pitted newer residents, who lack multigenerational ties to the school, against old timers, who worried about the town losing its nucleus. Some wanted to seize the opportunity to become a choice district; others, even those who felt the high school’s closing was likely inevitable, wanted more time to explore alternative options under Act 46. Current high schoolers, who overwhelmingly favored preserving Chelsea, felt their voices were never really heard. Some of their parents, too, wanted to keep the school going, whereas families with younger kids tended to see the allure of school choice.

Parkman, the 1994 Chelsea graduate, just doesn’t think it makes sense for a school to soldier on when it’s only graduating an average of a dozen students. She also wants her own kids — in first, fourth and sixth grades — to be able to access the academic and social experiences she feels she missed out on at Chelsea. She was valedictorian of her class of 36 students and the star basketball player.

Students bow after a performance of “But I Don’t Want To,” a tribute to Chelsea High School musicals of years past.

But the adjustment to New York’s Clarkson University, where she studied civil engineering, was difficult. Her first calculus test came back with a grade of roughly 25 percent. “I realized really quickly that our calculus here was not equivalent to what my roommate was getting in New York.”

Her children each have different interests and strengths, Parkman said, and she likes the idea that they will have an opportunity to choose high schools suited to their talents.

Maura Halaquist, a native of Brooklyn who moved to Chelsea 18 years ago for her husband’s job, also said a school as small as Chelsea just can’t be competitive. Her daughter, Lauren, got A’s as a student there; at the University of Delaware, where Lauren is now a sophomore, academics have been a struggle for the first time ever.

“They are not prepared,” Halaquist said of Chelsea graduates, as she sat on a blanket beside the lacrosse field at Union 32 High School in East Montpelier, with the Chelsea girls’ team up 4-1.

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The Vermont state government made the case for Act 46 based on two main rationales: saving money and improving educational quality. However, for many Chelsea residents opposed to their town’s merger proposal, there’s scant evidence the plan provides either.

Ronald Johnson, who loves numbers and plans to study accounting in college, began digging into the merger proposal and was struck by what he saw. Not only would the town lose its “small schools grant” from the state by merging, he said, it would have to foot the bill for kids to go to other, sometimes pricey, high schools. Thetford Academy, a nearby independent school that many Chelsea high schoolers have chosen to attend next year, costs nearly $19,000 annually, he said. That’s about $2,000 more than the per pupil tax burden for Chelsea.

Ronald Johnson, a junior, helped to organize a revote on the school district merger in January.

In fact, the Vermont State Board of Education didn’t see sufficient savings in the Chelsea-Tunbridge proposal, either. It approved the consolidation plan 4-2, but meanwhile criticized Tunbridge voters for not making bigger concessions. This coming academic year, as part of the merger plan, the towns are required to discuss combining their K-8 programs and identifying other cost savings. Chelsea’s per pupil tax burden only decreased by about $500 per student, according to David Larcombe, business manager for the White River Valley Supervisory Union, which encompasses the two towns.

Parkman said additional savings will materialize down the road, but they will likely require further staff cuts, which is a difficult conversation. All told, five teaching jobs and one administrative position were eliminated by consolidation and hours were reduced for another four positions.

For Chelsea High students, and some teachers and residents, there’s also the sense that the Vermont government — and even some community members — just don’t understand small schools.

Emma Colby, a freshman, considers attending a school the size of Chelsea to be a privilege, not a problem. “It’s hard to portray the type of community that’s inside this high school,” said Colby, who has attended classes in this same school building since kindergarten and whose great-grandparents, grandparents and father attended the school. The sort of bonds formed with teachers and peers over the course of a dozen years are unique, she said.

“They know how to build relationships with adults, which you don’t tend to learn at a school that’s larger because you don’t have the opportunity,” said Parrish Eiskamp, athletic director and student support specialist, of Chelsea students.

Nor do students and teachers tend to see the academic experience at Chelsea as limiting. While there’s just one high-school teacher for each subject, students note they can enroll in online courses in subjects not offered at their school. Johnson took ancient history and Vermont history. Twins Laurel and Keegan Marshia, both juniors, will be enrolling this fall in an early college program at Vermont Tech, which has long been an option for Chelsea seniors.

“Small schools provide a lot of things for students that they would maybe be missing in a larger school,” said Rachel Allen, who has taught Spanish at the school for seven years. “Just because a school is large doesn’t mean it’s an educational powerhouse.”

Rachel Allen, Chelsea’s Spanish teacher, is moving to Buffalo, New York, after her position was reduced to part-time.

Student test scores at Chelsea are around the state average. Last year, half of the school’s 14 graduates enrolled in college; in 2016, 15 of the 17 graduates did so. Recent graduates have attended institutions such as Lakes Region Community College, University of New Haven and Oberlin College.

“The old adage, if it’s not broken don’t fix it, is how I see it,” said Annette Johnson, Ronald Johnson’s grandmother.

For people like Johnson and her husband, Jack, who both attended Chelsea, losing the high school also risks saying goodbye to the town as they’ve known it. The town has never been much bigger — its population peaked at roughly 2,000, and that was many years ago, the early 1800s. For decades, there has been a single bar (today it’s called the Wagon Wheel); Will’s Store, which sells food and sundries; the town hall and adjoining library; and one or two other shops. And there’s been the high school, which has routinely drawn dozens — sometimes hundreds — of people to its basketball games and other events.

“Sitting in the gym, watching the game, people chat,” said Will Gilman, a Chelsea graduate who has owned Will’s Store for 33 years. “I’m afraid 10, 15 years from now, that will be gone, little by little, and it’ll get to be where folks don’t know each other.”

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Mark Blount, Chelsea’s principal, has tried to remain a neutral party. But he expresses a view shared by most people here, regardless of their stance on the merger: The Vermont government has made consolidation needlessly difficult for its citizens. Blount said Act 46 is overly rigid and confusing: “It’s been a very trying and frustrating process.”

In an email, Haley Jones, director of communications and legislative affairs for Vermont’s education agency, wrote that Act 46 laid out a specific, multi-step process in order to generate “significant thought and analysis.” She also noted that the act’s goal was not to shut small schools but to provide more “equitable, high-quality opportunities” and to use resources more efficiently.

Mike Kuban, a graduate of Chelsea who moved his family from nearby Barre, Vermont, a decade ago so his kids could have the small-school experience, calls consolidation “the most divisive thing I’ve seen happen to this town.”

And the acrimony isn’t expected to disappear immediately, as Chelsea and Tunbridge continue to discuss the consolidation of their K-8 schools. But at least now, with the academic year wrapping up, people are rallying to honor Chelsea High School’s legacy. “Everyone is valuing the good times they had,” said Ronald Johnson.

On Saturday, the rain held off long enough for the Red Devils to eke out a 7-6 win against Sharon. Students, parents and other residents prepared to gather that night for the bonfire and the final performance of the school play.

The play carried a message of optimism about the future that the town sorely needed. “Everything will be all right in the end,” says Tony, the patron saint of musicals and morals, near the end of the production’s final act. “If it’s not all right, it’s not the end.”

This story about rural schools was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education, in partnership with VTDigger. Sign up for our newsletter.

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