FAIR HAVEN — The Slate Valley School Board is ready to teach middle schoolers a lesson in critical mass.
The board voted at its regular meeting Monday evening to create a unified middle school, which would bring all seventh- and eighth-graders in the six-town district to the Fair Haven Union High School campus beginning in the fall of 2022.
The vote was part of district-wide reorganization plan — one of several votes taken Monday — that will realign Castleton Elementary School, Fair Haven Grade School and Orwell Village School to serve grades pre-K-6 beginning in July of 2022, as well as close Castleton Village School at the end of June 2022.
All votes were unanimous.
Last December, the board voted to realign Benson Village School to serve grades pre-K-6 beginning this July. Benson Middle schoolers will have in-district school choice for the 2021-22 academic year.
The plan comes as Slate Valley, like many school districts in Vermont, faces declining enrollment, increasing costs and pressing infrastructure needs.
Earlier this year, district officials estimated that the entire unified middle school project would cost $2.3 million. The fiscal year 2022 budget includes $600,000 in funding for the project, with another $600,000 planned for the fiscal year 2023 budget. Another roughly $400,000 will come from the capital improvements fund.
The board has projected that a unified middle school will save $1 million in personnel costs.
The closure of CVS, meanwhile, will save the district another $170,000 annually, according to board projections.
While Monday’s vote ostensibly takes that building out of the district’s lap, Castleton voters will ultimately get to decide its future — which could include putting it up for sale — next Town Meeting Day.
Superintendent Brooke Olsen-Farrell clarified Monday that while taxpayers in
the towns of Castleton and Hubbardton share the cost of the building, the district’s articles of agreement stipulate that only residents of the town in which the building resides are able vote on the matter.
If the vote fails, Olsen-Farrell explained that the district would have to use it for an “educational purpose,” which could include using the gym for athletics or classrooms for additional programming. However, she noted a failed vote does not mean CVS would remain a middle school.
In addition to costs savings, administrators and board members have been consistently touting the social-emotional benefits and increased academic opportunities associated with having all middle school students under one roof.
“We’re trying to bring a critical mass of students together so that we can offer more robust programming,” Board Chairman Tim Smith said when the plan was first announced last November. “Doing that at an individual school setting is just very costly and very cumbersome.”
Before the vote, Olsen-Farrell spoke briefly to underscore why reorganization has become necessary.
“I know change is hard, but also with change can come a lot of opportunity,” she said.
Board members spoke as well, citing the various reasons they supported the plan.
Vice Chairman Glen Cousineau, who represents the town of Orwell, spoke anecdotally about how his two children and their friends, who have since graduated from the district, have stated they wished they could have been part of a larger middle school community.
“Most of the kids that I have talked with felt that their educational outcomes would have been better if they had been in some of the larger classes where they could have been challenged by more classmates who are on their own level,” he said.
Adding to Cousineau’s comments, Fair Haven representative Michael Bache said he was eager to see what new programming opportunities would be available.
“Putting them all in the same place is one step, but then enhancing the programming specific to that age group and targeting their interests — I’m really excited to see what happens and where it can go.”
Julie Finnegan, who holds one of Castleton’s three seats on the board, said she supported the plan but wanted to take a moment to acknowledge and address concerns voiced by families who were still skeptical.
Last week, board members held a series of virtual community forums during which district residents asked questions about the plan. While attendance at the forums was light and no one explicitly spoke out against it, several community members did ask clarifying questions about the plan’s timeline, the new middle school’s administrative structure and exactly to what degree middle and high school populations would co-mingle.
Finnegan asked residents to trust in the district administration’s expertise.
“I feel like they are doing it for the right reasons. It’s student-centered. It’s going to be safe. It’s going to be a great facility. It’s going to have opportunity, as well as support,” she said.
She encouraged families with questions to continue to reach out to the administration, other parents with middle school-aged students and even parents with children in neighboring districts with unified middle schools.
“We cannot address your nervousness or your fear of this change if you don’t bring that to us,” she said.
Benson representative Rebeckah St. Peter said the plan also creates better opportunities for the realigned elementary schools.
“They’re going to have some more room to do more programming at the lower levels, and I think that can only benefit the entire community and our entire district,” she said.
After the votes, Smith, who represents Castleton, thanked current and past board members and administrations for their contributions in getting the district to this point.
“The real hard work begins now,” he said, noting the work ahead in reconfiguring physical space of buildings and developing curriculum.
Most importantly, he said the district must continue to reach out to families and community members to address lingering concerns and bring them “underneath the tent of this big decision.”