Population and Education Part 1: What’s Up?

This article was written by Ari Chapin, a student in journalism class

 

This is the first article in a new three part series: Population and Education, to be published in the next few weeks. This first article explains the challenges education faces in Vermont. The second article will outline possible solutions presented to U-32’s administration to solve these problems. The third article will explore how the presented solutions are being received by the community and potential ways for school leadership and the community to move forward.

Over 30% of Vermont school budgets failed on Town Meeting Day this year. Students are concerned about class availability. Vermont residents are worried about their taxes going up. Meanwhile, Washington Central Union Unified School District (WCUUSD) is planning to reconfigure the school district by the fall of 2025. These challenges and coming changes to Vermont’s public school system are caused by many factors, including shrinking class sizes, the unaffordability of housing and childcare, and inflation.

 

Class Sizes

Using some numbers to quantify the situation, U-32’s superintendent Meagan Roy said, “In Washington Central, we have between 15 and 20% fewer kids in the districts than we had six years ago.” This impacts  student education and the availability of classes, because class sizes are likely to keep shrinking. According to Lisa LaPlante, the Director of Student Services at U-32, the “incoming seventh grade class next year is 91 students” in comparison to the current 11th grade class of 120 students. This is also represented by the current sixth grade class at Doty Elementary School, which has six students in total.

Lisa, the Director of Student Services at U-32, helps students get a high quality education. (Ari Chapin/Chronicle)

Schools get funding based on how many students are on campus. In addition, fewer students in the school district drive fewer options for classes for the students who are there. “There’s less money with less students, [so] there’s less opportunities for you guys to experience things, visit places, and have access to a large variety of clubs,” said Lauren Melkonian, a special educator for the 10th grade class at U-32.

Jaden Singer, a senior at U-32, chose to stay at his local high school for his senior year. Jaden wishes he had bigger classes. “A lot of the higher level classes that I’ve taken this year have had very small classes, just because there’s not a lot of people who are at U-32 right now.” Many students seeking higher levels of classes are choosing to take their senior year at Norwich, Community College of Vermont (CCV), or Vermont Technical College (VTC). He worries that in the future, some classes won’t be offered. “Schools can’t offer specialized classes if you don’t have the student interest.” For example, at U-32 this year, AP Spanish and AP Calculus classes had only one class of 4 people each, and AP Physics 2 and AP Physics C didn’t run because there weren’t enough people wanting to take the class.

Randy Brown, a science teacher at U-32, explains an AP Physics unit, one of the classes that is in danger of not running due to fewer students in the school. (Ari Chapin/Chronicle)

 

Unaffordability

In addition to the scarcity of students, Vermont is becoming an unaffordable place to live. Rising taxes are “really hard for families and for making Vermont affordable,” said Meagan. “Which then makes it hard for families to move to Vermont.”

Vermont’s younger population is decreasing steadily. According to Kate McCann, a Vermont legislator and U-32’s AP Statistics teacher, one of the reasons we have an aging population is that “families can’t find homes here that are affordable.” According to Kate, several legislative committees are working to relax Act 250, a law that regulates land development, with hopes to allow more houses to be built and support an influx of people to Vermont.

The lack of affordable childcare makes living in Vermont difficult and expensive for many families. To continue fostering a good environment for families to move to Vermont, the legislature passed a childcare bill. Kate said that this bill has “increased the amount of rebate you can get… [so] more people are eligible to reduce how much they spend on childcare.”

 

Taxes and Inflation

Vermont residents are scared of inflation and rising taxes. Both school budgets and taxpayers’ cost of living are increasing due to inflation. The current system is that property taxes fund school budgets. “Property taxes are going up at an unprecedented level,” said Kate. School budgets are one of the few things voters can vote against, in an effort to lower their taxes.

 

And More

Besides the visible challenges to the school system such as the decreasing enrollment, unaffordable living, and inflation, U-32 and many other school districts face unseen challenges. These challenges include staffing shortages in schools and state agencies, and arguments over whether educational funding in Vermont should include private schools.

WCUUSD employs several part-time staff positions, but part-time employees usually don’t last long. “Who can afford in this economy… to not be full time?” Lisa said. “It’s hard to keep people in those positions because a younger person may take [the part-time job] to get experience and piece [their work experience] together, but the second a full time position opens up, [they take it.]”

The organization overseeing Vermont’s school systems doesn’t work as well as it should. According to Kate, one of the legislators on the Education Committee, the short staffed Agency of Education (AOC) “can’t meet the demands of the legislature when we ask them to do something,” said Kate. The AOC of Vermont oversees and implements education policies and programs in Vermont.

When Title Nine funds were offered to Vermont schools by the federal government, the legislature asked the AOC to retrieve data about how many students were eligible for free and reduced lunch. According to Kate, “We were the only state in the US who lost out on… Title Nine funds of $100,000 to the Agency of Education because they didn’t [send in the numbers] correctly.”

Taxes on cannabis have created a pot of funds for education. Now, The legislature is arguing over what to do with it. “It’s not that much money.” Kate said. The amount is around $3.5 million, and “it’s coming from cannabis funds. So this is the first year that those funds actually exist.” Currently, according to an article on VTDigger, money like this would go to public schools and the laws applying to public schools would require the schools to comply with anti-discrimination laws like the “Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and Vermont’s public accommodations laws.”

Some legislators have proposed to make the money available to all schools. “And the agency of education would like to hang on to that money and they would like to issue the grants so everybody applies to them, and they get to decide who gets the money,” said Kate. But if a private school applied for funds, they wouldn’t have to use the money in compliance with the anti-discrimination laws.

 

What’s Up Next?

Vermont colleges and universities have created programs to try to keep students in Vermont. These include decreasing tuition and early college programs. “The University of Vermont, if you make less than $75,000, you can go there, tuition free,” said Kate. “And I know that if you go to CCV and you apply for early college, I believe that they will pay the second year for you so that you could go ahead and get an associate’s degree there.”

Will Johnson, a student at U-32 is applying to CCV for his senior year.  (Ari Chapin/Chronicle)

WCUUSD is proposing possible district reconfigurations in response to shifting demographics. The next article “Reconfiguration” in this series “Population and Education” will dig further into what that means.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.