By Curt Peterson
The Windsor Central Unified Union School District board voted unanimously Monday evening, Feb. 1, to endorse the Configuration Committee’s proposal to move grades 5 and 6 from the Woodstock Elementary School (WES) to the rehabilitated Prosper Valley School in Pomfret next fall.
“The next steps, according to school district policy,” wrote board member Bob Coates (Pomfret) in a town listserv email, are required public information sessions in all affected district towns to gather feedback from the community.”
Thus informed, the board will vote on implementing the proposal at its next meeting. Approval requires 60% of board members (or 11) voting in favor.
Board policies committee member Pam Fraser (Barnard) said the decision will not require any town votes.
The proposal states two goals. The first is reducing the population at WES by 80 students in the two grades. Pandemic social distancing requirements have tested the WES facility’s capacity and the limitations have prevented the school from providing a four-day in-person learning schedule.
The second goal is identifying the best use for the long-closed Pomfret school property.
“The Pomfret school offers an incredible school and campus for fifth and sixth [grade children],” Coates wrote. “Big bodies on a much larger campus, with more space for them and freeing up space at WES to allow more in-person instruction …”
The TPVS campus includes an observatory, playing fields and a large wooded tract with hiking trails and outdoor education opportunities. Coates said the WES playground is too small for the larger 5th- and 6th-grade kids.
Overshadowing the discussion is the ongoing pandemic. The general consensus is that current social distancing and transportation challenges may persist into next fall, which therefore ought to influence any decisions about configuration.
Board member Anna Sessa (Reading) said there won’t be a vaccine available for children under the age of 16 until late summer, possibly much later.
Some Pomfret residents voiced preference for a separate option — to reopen The Prosper Valley School (TPVS) for kindergarten through 6th-grade local children. The “community school” cause remains popular, even in the face of historically small and stagnant or shrinking student numbers in Vermont’s small towns.
Coates said there are currently 38 K-6 students at WES, and no guarantee Bridgewater kids would opt to attend a Pomfret community school as they did prior to its closing.
Acting district superintendent Sherry Sousa said the cost to move WES 5th- and 6th-grades to TPVS would be $208,000 annually, including four teachers, part-time administrator and nurse, and a full-time food services person, which is contemplated in the FY2022 budget.
“Option 2,” as the community school choice is dubbed, wouldn’t relieve the population problem at WES, Sousa pointed out.
TPVS has been unoccupied since August 2018 when non-toxic mold and excessive moisture were discovered just as fall classes were to begin. Both Sousa and Facilities Manager Joe Rigoli assured board members the school will be “100% safe for students and staff” next fall.
From its closing to its reopening, the district will have spent over $700,000 rehabilitating the school, said district board member Jim Haff from Killington.
“Jim as chair of Buildings and Grounds has been incredibly supportive,” Coates said. “Jim has a very practical sense of things and understood that the Pomfret school was a multi-million dollar asset that needed to be brought back ‘on-line’,” he said.
“Bryce Sammel (Barnard), the board chair, has been supportive [as well]. This is leadership from Barnard and Killington who see the value of all of the schools in the new consolidated district,” Coates summarized.