By William Mathis
Editor’s note: William J. Mathis, who lives in Goshen, is a former superintendent of the Rutland Northeast School District and former member of the State Board of Education.
There are few issues as controversial as school consolidation and closures. Whether as a member of the state board, a school superintendent, a local school board member, a parent, citizen, or academic policy researcher; I have found few topics that so unrelentingly generate such passion — and understandably so.
Although I live in Addison County, let me hastily say I don’t have a dog in this fight.
Stripping off the rhetoric and the academese, it comes down to keeping beloved small schools open versus the cost. The trouble is that citizens want both. Alas, there’s no magic wand and no renegotiation of boundaries that resolves the dilemma. Fixed costs have to be spread across fewer students which results in higher per pupil costs.
Basically, there’s no way that a collection of small towns will have the fiscal capacity to run a school system that meets standards. Life, laws and reality intervene. When you consider special education, curriculum, business operations and a continuous and unrelenting layering of federal and state mandates, expenses go up.
First, costs go up fastest for rural schools that seek class sizes comparable to larger schools. It is pure economies of scale. All things being equal, having a teacher in every grade level for a school of 70 students is double the per pupil cost of a 140 student school. A school bus with 10 students costs the same as a bus with 30 students. Gasoline costs the same but the per-pupil cost is very different.
Second, a small number of students with high-cost needs can easily cost more than can be budgeted. Guarding against explosive inflation, costs below the state “insurance” amount of $60,000 per student, is mostly a local obligation. In a nation of limited social support services the schools are often the source of last resort. While the need is undeniable, this can be a huge blow to a school budget.
There is some hope in the new state aid formula providing an extra dollop of money for the lower grades (K-8) and for rural districts but the amount is unknown at this time.
Third, we cannot ignore the ongoing precautions for an emergency. The pandemic may re-emerge. We have “hardened” schools that have entry traps and protections. Emergency services are a long way away and are not deep.
For the high schools, perhaps it is time for a completely new look at our model. Simply consolidating to drive longer distances to a high school which does not meet the social, economic, or democratic purposes of society seems a too hasty a leap. Given the cauldron of chaos we face, to simply replicate what we know is woefully inadequate. With threats of insurrection, the loom of artificial intelligence, a transformation of work, pandemics, environmental degradation and redefinitions of our social contracts; we cannot resolve these by adding more yellow buses.
If we are to reconceive of our schools, why not base them on the American dream of an egalitarian society where opportunities are available to all and the schools will be the wheel of this transformation.