On December 2, 2020

Slate Valley district considers sending middle schoolers to Fair Haven high school

By John Flowers

In the fall of 2022 the Slate Valley Unified Union School District (SVUUSD) board is considering a move to send its 7th- and 8th-grade students to Fair Haven Union High School.

The plan that’s being considered is part of a major reorganization proposal within the district aimed at saving taxpayer dollars amid an ongoing trend of declining enrollment and rising public school expenses. Many other local school districts are facing the same problems and some are also exploring school closures and/or mergers in an effort to control costs.

“We can’t continue on the same path and expect better results such as increasing opportunities, an increase in student outcomes and a decrease in taxes,” SVUUSD Superintendent Brooke Olsen-Farrell said. “The math simply doesn’t add up.”

SVUUSD serves children in the communities of Orwell, Castleton, Benson, Hubbardton, West Haven and Fair Haven. Here’s how Slate Valley officials are proposing to reshape district schools for the 2022-2023 academic year and beyond:

All local schools would start sending their middle-schoolers to FHUHS. There are currently around 180 middle-school students in the district, according to Olsen-Farrell.

She added there’s enough space within FHUHS to accommodate the new population. The building once served more than 600 students and now hosts about 300 on any given day, Olsen-Farrell said.

“We certainly have the room, but we need to spend some funds to reconfigure certain rooms, because we are trying to keep the 7th- and 8th-graders separated from the 9th-through-12th graders, to the best of our ability,” she said. “It will take some funds, but we’re anticipating we’ll be able to do that through the regular budgeting process. It would be work that would probably play out over three years.”

Olsen-Farrell anticipates being able to deliver the cost estimates for the FHUHS reconfigurations to the board by late winter.

“It’s not going to be ideal,” she said of merging middle-schoolers into the high school. “There will definitely be some compromises and sacrifices. Some of our space constraints will impact scheduling. We will have one gym. We’ll have to share, to some degree, spaces with the high school. But by and large, we think we’ll be able to do it.”

Benson’s transition would begin a year earlier, next fall, because its population in grades 7 and 8 is expected to drop to just eight children. Families of those eight children would be afforded in-district school choice (with transportation provided) to any SVUUSD middle school during the 2021-2022 academic year. They would then transition with the rest of the district’s middle schoolers to FHUHS during the fall of 2022.

The Slate Valley board is anticipated to vote on the Benson portion of the reorganization plan on Dec. 7.

Castleton Village School, which now serves grades 6-8, would be closed or repurposed following the 2021-2022 academic year. Beginning with the 2022-2023 academic year, its 6th-graders would attend Castleton Elementary School and 7th- and 8th-grade students would join other middle-schoolers at FHUHS.

“Castleton Elementary School has enough room to easily absorb the 6th-graders at CVS,” said Olsen-Farrell. “Closing CVS could potentially save the district over $1 million.”

Olsen-Farrell is confident the middle-school transition would produce savings beyond closure of the Castleton Village School. A consolidated middle school within the FHUHS building would allow the district to shed roughly 20 teaching positions “over the next couple of years,” she said.

“By having a fully combined middle school on the high school campus, we can increase opportunities and decrease costs,” Olsen-Farrell said. “This will allow us to address some of our infrastructure needs.”

The middle-school shift could be the first of other changes within the SVUUSD in its effort to cut costs and serve a smaller student body.

“I think after the board considers the middle-school piece, we certainly will be looking at other options within the district,” Olsen-Farrell said.

Orwell, Benson and Fair Haven elementary schools would of course lose student population with the middle school plan.

The student drain is undeniable within SVUUSD. District statistics show Slate Valley taught 1,417 students at its schools during the 2011-2012 academic year. Those same schools are currently educating 1,176 students, according to Olsen-Farrell.

“We’ve seen a substantial decline in student numbers,” she said. “When you have the infrastructure needs we have in the district and it took us three attempts to get our budget passed by 16 votes, I think all of those things have to be taken into consideration, and we can’t continue to do things the same way.”

Glen Cousineau is an Orwell representative to the SVUUSD board. He stressed the board has yet to make a decision on the middle-school issue, but added the district must do something to control costs and deliver quality education to a dwindling number of students.

“I think every board in the state is going to have to look at what we’re doing and how we’re going to pay for it, because our tax base is not expanding enough to keep up with expenses,” Cousineau said. “Last year, it took us three attempts to get a budget passed, and it only passed by 16 votes on the third attempt. We’re continuing to lose students. Costs keep rising. Health insurance is going up another 10% next year.

“I think taxpayers are reaching a point where they’re saying, ‘Enough is enough.’”

The SVUUSD board expects to vote on the middle school reorganization plan on May 24, 2021. There will be many opportunities for community input, officials said. This week, the district launched a week of “virtual listening tours,” Nov. 30-Dec. 3.  For more information visit SlateValleyUnified.org.

John Flowers is a reporter at the Addison Independent, a sister publication of the Mountain Times.

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