With Fewer Students, Chittenden County School Faces Closure | Off Message

With Fewer Students, Chittenden County School Faces Closure


After years of shrinking enrollment, Underhill ID elementary school could close in the fall of 2019.

The school's 88 students would transfer to Jericho Elementary or Underhill Central under a plan proposed Monday night by Chittenden East Supervisory Union superintendent John Alberghini.

The final decision would be up to the board of the Mount Mansfield Modified Union School District, which operates schools in Bolton, Jericho, Richmond and Underhill. No date has been set for a vote.

The proposed closure of the prekindergarten-through-fourth-grade school comes as Gov. Phil Scott and other leaders pressure school boards to deal with steadily declining enrollment statewide, and the growing cost of maintaining small schools.

The debate has often focused on rural schools. The closure of Underhill ID would be a reminder that Chittenden County, Vermont's most populous region, is not immune to the statewide trend.

Alberghini presented a report to the board Monday that showed all three elementary schools in the north part of the suburban school system have seen sharp declines in enrollment totaling more than 300 students since the 1990s.

As he sees it, the proposal would not technically close the school, but "repurpose" it. Preschool programming would continue. The school system's central office staff could also move in, saving $60,000 annually that the district currently pays to rent space in the Richmond town center building. The privately run Saxon Hill School preschool would continue to rent space there.

The district could save about $456,000 annually in staff costs by closing Underhill ID and sending its children to the two other nearby schools, which have extra space due to their own drops in enrollment, according to the report. The principal and several other jobs at the school would be cut.

Parents are responding with mixed emotions.

“It’s sad to think that our school has to close, but I understand the idea behind it,” said Heidi Little, a Jericho resident and mother of two, including a second-grader at Underhill ID.

If the school closes, she’d like to see it used as a multigenerational center with programming for preschoolers as well as seniors. That sort of community facility might have broad appeal, Little said.

The discussion should consider not just dollars and cents, but broader issues such as “what do we do for the bigger community to attract more families to stay?’’ Little said.

Although the possible closure of the school has been talked about for years, Alberghini predicted it could be a difficult topic for the community. He expressed hope that, through a series of community meetings, a good consensus could be reached.

"This is an opportunity to talk about an issue that is personal and could be divisive and emotional, and really do it in a super civil and honorable way,” Alberghini told Seven Days.

Since 1995, Jericho Elementary enrollment has dropped from 357 to 244 students and Underhill Central has dropped from 212 to 97 students. Underhill ID enrollment fell from 153 to 88 over the same time period.

The school district is "not optimizing resources," according to the report.

The proposal does not call for the sale of the Underhill ID school building. That transaction would likely generate very little due to strict stipulations set under a school district merger that was completed in 2014-15.

The articles of that agreement specify that if the district were to sell the school, it should be sold to Jericho's Deborah Rawson Memorial Library for $1.