By Brett Yates
Two Chittenden residents want to organize a year-round, “nature-based” preschool for local families who’ve struggled to find full-time, affordable childcare in the area.
Although the proposed Chittenden Forest School would offer most of its instruction outdoors — even in the winter — it would also need a facility for naptime and occasional indoor play for its 20 students. Its founders have asked for a three-year lease on one of two floors at the North Chittenden Grange Hall, a publicly owned building on Lower Middle Road.
The unexpected request has so far yielded a divided response among townspeople, as well as plenty of questions from municipal officials. The Chittenden Select Board received a 20-page plan not long before its Jan. 20 meeting, and discussion continued on Feb. 13 amid unusually robust public attendance.
A final decision still awaits.
“I’ve gotten multiple, multiple emails from both sides of the issue,” Select Board chair Kathie Pratt said. “I would really like it if we had this kind of passion for most of the stuff that goes on in the town.”
In their submission to the board, Clair Purcell and Kristin Lucas described “forest schools” as an increasingly popular “alternative to more traditional preschools,” citing examples in Burlington, Bristol, and Montpelier. They called Rutland County “an ideal location” for the model.
“Families love to spend time in nature during all seasons of the year, and we believe many of them would value a preschool experience where their children learn through exploring the outdoors in a child-led and inquiry-based manner. The only preschools that exist within a 30-minute drive are more traditional preschools, and many of them are only open part-time,” they wrote.
During the school year, Chittenden’s Barstow Memorial School offers 10 hours a week of free prekindergarten. In a public comment, Barstow’s administrative assistant, Kimberly Raymond, noted spatial and financial constraints that have prevented expansion.
“I answer the phone multiple times a week from parents all over — Proctor, Rutland, West Rutland, Killington — looking at do we have space at our pre-K,” she said.
Seven members of the public spoke out against Purcell and Lucas’s proposal, and eight spoke in favor. Much of the support came from families with young children.
“As a parent of a 4-year-old, I say, please listen to us that this is something that we need. Families are going outside of Chittenden to get their needs filled for this,” Erin Bodin said.
Opposition centered on the school’s desired location. Several residents urged Purcell and Lucas to seek out a different site.
Constructed as a church in 1833, the Grange Hall entered municipal ownership in 1906, becoming a town hall for the village of North Chittenden before falling into disrepair, according to the Chittenden Historical Society. Since 2001, taxpayer dollars and volunteer labor have served to restore the building, which now offers community programming and wedding rentals.
“Volunteers invested time and labor to make it what it is, a public space. The school daycare will essentially monopolize the building five days a week,” Bonnie Baird said. “It’s a private business in a public gathering space.”
Purcell asserted that most of the Grange Hall’s events take place on weekends, when school is not in session, and its weekday senior lunches could continue on the building’s ground floor while kids used the upstairs.
She also pushed back on characterizations of the school as a potentially profit-motivated privatization of public space. After setting up the program, she and Lucas — both volunteers — would turn it over to the teachers and staff, who would operate it as a worker cooperative.
“In my mind, it was always a public service. A preschool is not a business that makes money,” Purcell said.
Tuition would cost $275 per week, with class running from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. The founders anticipate that Act 166 vouchers, which entitle all 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds in Vermont to 10 hours a week of free prekindergarten for 35 weeks per year, would cover a portion of that price. Families making less than $80,000 annually receive additional subsidies.
The Chittenden Forest School would pay $6,000 in annual rent to the town for use of the Grange Hall. Bill Reuther called the figure “ridiculously low.”
But Lucas pointed out that, if the proposal were approved, a $25,000 grant from the childcare advocacy nonprofit Let’s Grow Kids would also go to the Grange Hall for building upgrades, such as carbon monoxide detectors, illuminated exit signs, and an outdoor playground. The Select Board would hold a $2,500 deposit for potential damages.
“This is the first really solid proposal we’ve heard for consistent use of the building, and from my perspective, actually having it used with greater frequency is better for the building,” Selectman Andrew Quint said. “We’ll have someone in there who’ll see if there’s a leak, who’ll be able to tell us if there are problems and where they are.”
By Pratt’s account, Chittenden wouldn’t be Vermont’s first town to host a private preschool in a municipal building. But she’d discovered that doing so would require additional insurance coverage for the town from the Property and Casualty Intermunicipal Fund (PACIF).
“PACIF is not in favor of this,” Pratt reported. “They feel that it would be a really big liability for the town to have a preschool there.”
After more than an hour and half of debate on Feb. 13, the Select Board was ready to move on to other business. It was too late for the preschool to appear on the Town Meeting Day ballot, but Purcell and Lucas hope to make an informational presentation before voters.
The town website also has published a link to the proposal. The board plans to review additional feedback before making a decision.
“I think taking more time is imperative because obviously there’s a lot to be worked out,” Selectwoman Julie Fredette said. “I think we have to be careful about our fear of change… It’s so exciting, I think, that there are young people in town that have the energy to make things happen. If we don’t accept this and it doesn’t go forward, then it’s upon all the rest of us to make the Grange vibrant and exciting.”