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Sudbury and Whiting Schools Looking At Ways To Survivie a Decline In Students

Tuesday August 8, 2006

By Ed Barna

    Schools all over Vermont are coping with declining school populations, but few are facing tougher choices than Sudbury and Whiting.

Their two school boards held a joint meeting July 13--after holding discussions for more than a year--at which they decided to suggest a plan that would keep both schools open and make class sizes more workable. It would involve pre-K through 2nd grade students going to Whiting, while grade 3-6 would have their classes in Sudbury.

A public meeting in Sudbury has already considered the possibility, and Whiting residents will have such a meeting on Aug. 17. This November, when elections are likely to bring a good voter turnout, both towns would have non-binding, advisory votes to determine the public’s position.

Assuming both towns support the concept, planning for the towns’ 2007-2008 budgets would take place on that basis. The boards have also considered ways of helping students and parents in the two towns feel more comfortable with the arrangement, such as sports, open houses, and combining the school populations one day a month during the current year.

The background to the joint discussions, according to bi-county Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union superintendent William Mathis, is that the total number of students at each school has dropped below 30. Though there is a strong housing market in many parts of the state, neither town is likely to see a surge in number of families, he said, because Sudbury has 10-acre zoning and much of Whiting’s acreage is taken up by large farms.

“It would allow the kids to have a peer group,” Mathis said of the plan. In one town, there is only one fifth grader, he said.

But beyond the educational implications, the plan is meant to preserve the schools as community centers, Mathis said. The school buildings and grounds are so important in that regard, in the dispersed rural communities, that neither town wants to see elementary education tuitioned out to other communities.

Actually, in financial terms, each town would be paying tuition to each other for the grades that had to travel, Mathis said. The district has a single bus transportation system, so that aspect of the plan would have to be coordinated with the needs of the other schools (Leicester, Goshen, Brandon, and Pittsford and Mendon are also in Rutland Northeast).

The two boards will next meet jointly on Sept. 14, in Whiting at 6:30 p.m. Before that meeting, district bus coordinator Charlotte Dayton will develop a transportation plan.

Also in preparation for that meeting, district business manager Brenda Fleming will work with representatives from the town towns on how the plan would affect budgets.

Mathis said the consensus is that it would be good to try the arrangement for a year and see how it works. If it doesn’t, “everybody could go back to the old system with no pain,” he said.

If sharing students is a success, then it might be advisable to form a union elementary school district for both towns, Mathis said. Other towns around the state have such arrangements, such as Castleton and Hubbardton.

“That’s far down the road,” Mathis said of the union school district idea. “But it’s not really out of range.”

“They’re working well together,” he said of the two school boards. “They’re taking it a step at a time. They’re very sensitive about listening.”


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