December 29, 2015

Tiny enrollment numbers affect education quality — and taxes

Dear Editor,

As as Rochester community member, I am writing to share some of my thoughts and concerns about the future of our school. My hope is that this will be the beginning of a conversation. I know there are lots of concerns and worries coming from all different points of view.

My concern is primarily this—next year the projected enrollment for our high school is 33 kids, 28 on campus. I believe our extreme smallness impacts student learning in big ways. It limits our ability to offer an appropriate range of courses, it limits extracurricular opportunities for our students and it limits the resources we have available to our students and teachers. I want to make clear here that I don’t think we have a “bad” high school. In fact, we have some really wonderful teachers. Instead, I think it largely is a factor beyond our control—enrollment—that undermines the quality of education we can offer.

Act 46, the new educational law, is another major player in the future life of our school. The goals of Act 46 are first, to provide equity in the quality and variety of educational opportunities statewide, two, to lead students to achieve or exceed the State’s Education Quality Standards, and, three, to maximize operational efficiencies.

To meet these goals, Act 46 asks towns to merge with other towns to form larger school districts governed by one board with a single budget. If a town does not comply with this request, the town does not receive certain tax incentives, among other things. As of last week, the state released the new educational tax rates (which will go in effect in 2017-18) for Vermont towns who do NOT meet compliance. If Rochester does nothing and remains a standalone school district with our current budget, our educational tax rate will increase from 1.3475 to 2.4105.  What that means is if you own a property worth $200,000, your education tax payment will go from $2,695 to $4,821— a 79 percent increase.

In addition, the Agency of Education and State Board of Education can ultimately override a town’s decision to not comply and place that town in a neighboring district of the state’s choosing. So basically, in my opinion, non-compliance is a dead end.

I don’t know about you, but I am eager to have more conversation about issues such as these. I think we need to come together and discuss our priorities— what we definitely want to preserve and what we are willing to change—as well as express our fears and questions. I think it is crucial to have all types of community members at the table, whether you have kids in the school or not. Everyone’s input is needed. And I strongly believe if we focus on what is best for all of our students and what is sustainable for our community, we will make sound decisions and our community will thrive.

It’s my understanding that the Rochester School Board is scheduling a community forum in January, but I’d encourage you to reach out to them and let them know you would like to see this happen. Other nearby towns have already had community forums of this sort, and I think the sooner we can bring people together, the better.


Carrie McDonnell, Rochester

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