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Finances Threaten Local Schools Such as Lincoln's. Can Towns Afford to Lose Them?


Published February 17, 2021 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated March 16, 2021 at 3:33 p.m.

Lincoln Community School - CALEB KENNA
  • Caleb Kenna
  • Lincoln Community School
Anna Smith grew up in Lincoln, in a house just a stone's throw from the New Haven River and half a mile from the elementary school. Ever since she left, she's been trying to figure out how to get back.

For now, her job as an elementary school health teacher keeps her in another town in Addison County, Leicester. So her father, who's retired and lives alone, is doing his best to keep her childhood home in decent shape — affordable housing is scarce in the mountain town. "He said, 'I'm holding on to it because otherwise you won't be able to live here,'" Smith, 30, said. "I told him, 'If the school isn't there, I would have some hard thinking to do.'"

The school is the Lincoln Community School, which Smith attended from kindergarten through sixth grade. A new plan that would effectively shutter the school, as well as elementary schools in Starksboro and New Haven, is the cause for her concern.

On December 7, Patrick Reen, superintendent of the five-town Mount Abraham Unified School District, unveiled his plan to "repurpose" those schools and send their students to schools in Bristol and Monkton.

His recommendation, he explained, emerged from 18 months of deliberation and "hundreds upon hundreds of conversations" with community members. Those conversations, he said, had made it quite clear that communities did not want to close their local elementary schools and feared for their towns' future if they were shut down.

"Unfortunately," he said, "hearing this didn't make our financial challenges go away."

Anna Smith - CALEB KENNA
  • Caleb Kenna
  • Anna Smith

Those challenges have been a long time in the making. The problem confronting the Addison County district is emblematic of the structural threats to rural school districts across Vermont: Their costs keep rising, even as their student numbers keep shrinking.

This quandary is forcing hard choices on communities ranging from nearby Ripton — which voted to leave the Addison Central School District on January 12 in response to a plan to close its elementary school — to distant Canaan in the Northeast Kingdom, which is exploring a merger with another steadily depopulating school district across the Connecticut River in New Hampshire.

"I think Patrick Reen's proposal was seeking to turn and face the future," said Jeffrey Francis, executive director of the Vermont Superintendents Association. "And I think more districts are going to be confronted with that reality."

Vermont has the second-oldest population of any state in the country and the lowest birth rate. Student enrollment has been declining for the past two decades: According to the National Center for Education Statistics, Vermont's K-12 public school enrollment fell from 102,049 in 2000 to 88,028 in 2017, and it's projected to drop to 82,000 by 2029. Adjusted for regional differences in the cost of living, Vermont has the highest per-pupil spending in the nation.

Reen presented his plan as a painful but pragmatic response to these dire trends. Without some kind of drastic action, he explained, residents of the five towns face imminent and steep tax hikes that would make it even harder to afford to live there.

The plan caught many of those residents by surprise. At a series of public meetings, and in letters and emails to school board members and state representatives, many registered shock and outrage at the prospect of losing their local schools.

"I have not spoken with anyone in Starksboro that is in support of the proposal," parent Erin Huizenga said. Her daughter is a third grader at Robinson Elementary School in Starksboro — the same school Huizenga attended as a child. "No one here wants the school to be repurposed or closed, whatever you want to call it. Who will move to Starksboro and Lincoln knowing there is no elementary school in town? Knowing their kid will spend two-plus hours on a bus each day?"

Many others shared their fears that the schools' closure in all but name would depress property values, reduce local tax revenues and rob their communities of one of their few remaining gathering places. Some predicted a grimly ironic outcome: In attempting to address declining enrollment, the consolidation would likely wind up driving the flight of young families from their town — and perhaps out of the Mt. Abe district altogether.

What's clear from the heated discussions that Reen's proposal has sparked is that these, and many other, rural Vermont towns can't afford to keep operating their schools as they have. But what if they can't afford to lose them, either?

For Smith and many who live in Starksboro and Lincoln — where opposition to Reen's plan has been staunchest — what's at stake isn't just the fate of their cherished schools but whether Vermont's rural communities have a viable future at all.

"Town schools are a Vermont value," she said. "They are what make growing up and living here so good. Without a school, the local economy and culture and the reasons for being there and staying there change. And then these places just become roads to buildings."

"It's a self-fulfilling prophecy. Without a school, I promise you, what you're saying will be true," Smith added, referring to the grim enrollment projections underlying Reen's plan. "You won't incentivize young families to move to Lincoln." And those that do move there, she said, "won't be from the same socioeconomic bracket as me, and they won't be people who grew up there."

Threshold Anxiety

Patrick Reen - CALEB KENNA
  • Caleb Kenna
  • Patrick Reen

As fraught as they may be, these difficult conversations over school closures are happening by legislative design.

Rising spending and shrinking enrollment — key determinants in the state's dreaded "excess spending" formula — are closing in on rural districts like the jaws of a vise.

The excess spending threshold, established by the legislature, functions like a cliff — a fixed feature of the education finance landscape that school boards and administrators work feverishly to avoid. It is reset each year via complicated calculations reflecting the wider economy, but its basic function is to deter districts from spending too much more per pupil above the state average.

The Mt. Abe district is at risk of plunging over the cliff in the next couple of years. If it does, for every dollar it spends over the threshold, it would have to pay another dollar back to the state. Reen projects that the district's towns could be hit with as much as $8.7 million in tax penalties in 2026; property taxes for residents could rise by up to 90 percent.

The threshold's origins date back to 1997, when Vermont enacted a statewide education funding system through Act 60. It created a single statewide property tax to ensure that wealthier towns shoulder a bigger and fairer share of the cost of educating all Vermont students. The legislature passed Act 68 in 2003 as a course correction to deter richer districts from spending too much.

Mike Fisher is a Lincoln resident who represented his town and three neighboring communities in the state legislature for 14 years. The goal of Act 60, he said, was to "bring spending up in low-spending communities.

"That's what it was supposed to do, and it did," he said. "As soon as it started happening, we needed to put a governor on it." That governor was the excess spending threshold. "But I don't think we ever figured out how to do that right."

Then came Act 46. That controversial 2015 law has driven the relentless consolidation of smaller districts into larger units: Since 2013, the number of school districts in Vermont has declined from 276 to 120. The intent was to create a more efficient and equitable education system, saving taxpayers' money. For some districts, the mergers have worked well. For others, there's a feeling that the law has backed them into a corner.

Rob Backlund is a Lincoln representative on the district's 13-member school board. "I understand what the intent of Act 46 was," he said, "but I see the outcome being the inverse of the intent. Taxes are still increasing. We still have an over-administered K-12 education system." After the mergers, he said, there have been fewer savings available to wring out at the district level, and the never-ending quest for more efficiency landed on the next obvious target: local elementary schools.

"We're creating a situation where, for towns like Lincoln, Starksboro, New Haven and Bristol — which [have] declining numbers, too — the only way to fiscally stay in the black is to close schools," he said.

Whether one faults demographics or the policy architecture of Vermont's education funding, the district now faces a decision point. "I think that most people do not understand the significance of the financial crisis," Reen said. "It's upon us, not years down the road."

"We're losing students, costs are going up, buildings are less and less occupied, and we are getting more and more inefficient with our staffing," Reen said. He discusses this dilemma regularly with his counterparts in Addison County's other two districts. "We're all either at or above the spending threshold now. It's getting worse each year because costs are going up faster than our allowed spending is."

About 75 percent of the Mt. Abe district's budget is personnel-related (staff salaries, pensions, health insurance and other benefits). The spending threshold is adjusted at the rate of 2 percent or so each year to keep pace with economy-wide trends and inflation. But health care costs have been increasing each year by 10 to 15 percent. Meanwhile, the Mt. Abe district's student population — which today stands at around 1,470 — has declined by more than 30 percent since it peaked in 1998.

A few weeks after Reen's presentation, a pointed rejoinder appeared in the yard of Smith's childhood home, and in many other yards throughout town, in the form of signs that read: "Local Schools, Thriving Towns." The posters now line River Road all the way to Bristol and dot some yards and storefronts there, too.

Reen, a Lincoln resident, drives past them on his way to work at the district's central office in Bristol. He wasn't surprised to see them go up.

"There wasn't a way forward that wasn't going to be controversial," he said. "That was inevitable." The passion around protecting local schools didn't surprise him either. "I am happy people love their local elementary schools," he told me. "I wouldn't want it any other way."

"Believe me, if there was a way forward that wouldn't be controversial, that's the one I would have picked," he said.

He laid out his logic. He began with the assumption that local residents wouldn't accept large increases in their property taxes to pay the penalty imposed by going over the spending threshold. (Results from a survey conducted by the district in January largely support that thesis.)

Given that constraint, no matter what the district board chooses to do, Reen anticipates needing to eliminate anywhere from 75 to 90 staff positions by 2026.

"So let's say that, in any circumstance, we have to cut 90 positions," he said. "Do we want lesser-quality education in the buildings we currently use? Or do we want better-quality education in fewer buildings?"

In Reen's analysis, bringing students together under fewer roofs not only leads to cost savings but also preserves and possibly expands their access to language and art instruction, special education, and other resources and programs.

Toward the end of his December 7 presentation, Reen gave the board and community members a tour of what their schools would look like in 2026 without any action. It was a dark vision.

"At Lincoln, you would be greeted by the administrative assistant," he said. "The principal may or may not be there, because they are only half time. Most days there would be no activity in the gym. In fact, depending on the day, the only place you might find anyone would be in one of the three classrooms. All of the other rooms would be empty or would be occupied between half a day a week and one day a week."

Defending a School

Lincoln Community School - CALEB KENNA
  • Caleb Kenna
  • Lincoln Community School

Soon after I moved to Lincoln, in March 2014, I saw a notice inviting townspeople to a play put on by the fifth- and sixth-grade students of the Lincoln Community School — a yearly ritual. On a lark I decided to go, though I wondered whether I'd be a conspicuous stranger among a smattering of proud parents in an otherwise empty gymnasium.

Lincoln is home to roughly 1,200 souls spread out among its wooded hills and hollows, and I didn't yet know a single one. It seemed like a fifth of them were in the gym that day. I could barely find a place along the back wall to squeeze in.

The students' play, Mud and Water: Flood Stories From Potato Hill and Downstream, held me rapt for the next hour. Interspersed with original numbers and old folk songs, choreographed dances and science lessons about the global water cycle, they acted out oral histories from Lincoln residents and other Vermonters who had lived through disastrous floods in 1830, 1869, 1927, 1938, 1998 (when a swollen New Haven River destroyed the town's library) and, most recently, in 2011, when Tropical Storm Irene struck.

As a fresh arrival, I marveled at being plunged so deeply into the town's history, its youngest inhabitants as my guides. And I remember marveling, too, at the students' poise and confidence and thinking to myself, What kind of school is this?

In conversations with my new neighbors, I quickly discovered how universally beloved the school was — even by those who didn't have children in the system. So, like Reen, I wasn't surprised by the surge of negative reactions to his proposal. They called to mind an organism protecting a vital organ.

In December and January, a steady parade of school board, community information and selectboard meetings about Reen's proposal stretched the capacity of virtual Zoom rooms. Posts about the school dominated Front Porch Forum for weeks. "Superintendent Reen's proposal is unacceptable and quite frankly, sneaky," wrote one young parent from Lincoln the day after Reen's presentation.

Reen, ever unflappable, listened patiently and offered measured, analytical responses in those meetings. Still, when we spoke, he admitted he doesn't enjoy being the focal point of so many neighbors' ire. (He's been avoiding the Lincoln General Store lately.)

But he pivoted quickly to a positive framing of the angry Front Porch Forum posts and yard signs. "We've exponentially increased the number of people paying close attention now," he said. "More people are tuned in, and that's a good thing."

That may be an understatement. At a December 18 emergency Lincoln Selectboard meeting, more than 120 people logged on to air their concerns and strategize about how the town should respond. "This is more people than at town meeting!" one participant marveled.

One detail in particular rankled many. Reen's plan to "repurpose" the schools rather than close them outright could deprive town residents of the opportunity to vote on the proposal, as the district's articles of agreement adopted in 2017 seemed to require. Paul Forlenza, a Lincoln Selectboard member, described having a "visceral reaction" as he realized that the board might decide to shut down the school without holding a town vote. "That really disappointed me in a big way," he said.

The chorus of concerns only grew in the wake of those meetings. Some pointed to the thinness of details in Reen's proposal, especially with regard to the "repurposing" of schools. Starksboro and Lincoln would become lightly staffed "innovation sites," hosting a yet-to-be determined slate of activities for periodic use by the entire district's elementary school students.

Lincoln Community School - CALEB KENNA
  • Caleb Kenna
  • Lincoln Community School

Some described Reen's projections as overly pessimistic and wondered whether COVID-19-driven migration might not boost enrollment numbers come fall 2022. Others questioned the wisdom of making such a radical move amid a pandemic, when school staff, students and parents were stretched so thin and no one could meet in person to discuss it.

A few days later, at a meeting of the Mt. Abe district school board, Kevin Hanson, a member representing Bristol, was dismissive of these objections. "The amount of emotion that's out there right now — there's nothing logical happening," he said. "It's all emotion."

"Lincoln is disproportionately vocal on this issue, compared to some other towns," Hanson told me later. "There's not a sense of needing to move on, past 'I don't want anything to change.'"

Actually, a group of Lincoln Community School backers called LCS Reimagined began meeting well in advance of Reen's proposal to reckon with some of the implications of the financial outlook. One of several ideas they are exploring is turning the elementary school into an environmental science magnet school, which would be open to all K-8 students in the district and could attract tuition-paying students from beyond it. Another, perhaps complementary scenario envisions expanding all five elementary schools to grade eight and either "tuitioning out" high school students to other districts or sending them to one high school that serves the entire county. (The district spends at least $1 million each year just to keep the aging Mount Abraham Union Middle/High School campus usable; voters have rejected three bond proposals in recent years ranging from $30 million to $35 million to finance a renovation of the 52-year-old building.)

"We know that the school as it currently exists will not be exactly the same moving forward," said Jim Warnock, a member of that group. Warnock, who has lived in Lincoln since 1977, worked for more than 40 years as a teacher, school administrator and education consultant, including a stint as assistant superintendent of the Burlington School District. "I remind the group on occasion that change is inevitable but growth is optional."

January 20 had been slated as the date for the board to make its decision, but the prospect of future legal wrangling loomed over its deliberations. The Starksboro Selectboard sent a strongly worded letter to the school board on January 11, threatening to pursue legal action if the "effective closure" of Robinson Elementary School was not put up to a binding public vote.

While the Lincoln Selectboard didn't go that far, it did seek legal advice from a Montpelier firm, whose attorneys wrote a 10-page memo outlining their view that, under the Act 46 articles of agreement, Reen's plan must indeed be approved by voters.

In late January, the board decided it needed more time to weigh Reen's proposal, gather more information about its legal and financial implications, solicit more community input, and explore possible alternatives. Ultimately, board members decided to extend the timetable for a decision until August.

Small Is Beautiful?

Tory Riley - CALEB KENNA
  • Caleb Kenna
  • Tory Riley

On a late January morning, Lincoln Community School principal Tory Riley stood outside the school's main entrance and greeted each of her students by name, even though their features were hidden by masks and hooded snowsuits.

We walked around the building, past the students of the combined third- and fourth-grade class standing in a circle in the snow, as their teachers led them through an analysis of a poem.

The red-painted, L-shaped building sits just below River Road, flanked by outdoor classrooms and a wide field on the banks of the New Haven. The original, core structure was built in 1951 by townspeople, using their own tractors and tools. Riley has been there through each of the three additions built since.

Riley has worked at the school since 1989, when she started as a substitute teacher, and was a third/fourth-grade teacher for several years. She helped write the curriculum that still forms the core of the two-year overarching theme for those grades today: "How does where we live affect how we live?"

As we walked, Riley explained how students and staff alike adapted readily to outdoor learning and other pandemic-related restrictions. "There's just ongoing vibrancy, innovation and extraordinarily positive attitude," she said of her colleagues. "I know I keep saying everybody's amazing, but it's true. We have such an awesome staff."

Riley described the school as an ecosystem of sorts — one that leverages the unique assets of its particular environment, the human resources in the wider community, and the strong relationships that are possible in an intimate school setting. She explained how explorations of the ecology of the nearby New Haven River, hiking field trips to the forested slopes of Mt. Abe and visits to neighbors' maple sugaring operations were all woven into the curriculum.

"Kids at our school might have more outdoor experiences, and at Robinson they may have more opportunities for art, but they are getting nourishment in different ways," she said. "I don't need every kid to have the exact same [experience]. I think about equity in terms of every student getting what they need to thrive."

Those kinds of benefits for young students can be difficult to quantify relative to more easily measurable forms of educational resources, such as hours of weekly math or art instruction per pupil — metrics that are still essential to both track and improve, given that disparities are often still uncomfortably wide both across and within many school districts.

She's familiar with the perception among some board members and residents of other towns that Lincoln is a stubborn obstacle to necessary change. But she gently suggested a different framework for understanding why so many community members in Starksboro and Lincoln are devoted to these schools.

Riley lamented the fact that the pandemic has prevented board members from holding their monthly meetings at different schools, as they used to, and worried that the current board has "little idea what's going on up here."

"COVID has contributed to the separation of schools at a time when experiencing, understanding and valuing our different strengths, as well as our common assets, is crucial," she said. "I don't fault board members for not having a direct sense of each school, but I do think it is a loss."

As we sat by the banks of the river, in one of the school's multiple outdoor learning spaces — surrounded by stone walls, benches and tree identification paths all made by students — I could hear the veteran educator kicking into gear when she added, "I'd like there to be some curiosity about: Why are people so passionate about their school?"

She acknowledged that change is inevitable. She understands the grim fiscal constraints on the district — and credits Reen for tackling them head-on. She, too, has studied the enrollment trends.

Although, over the past two decades, Lincoln Community School's enrollment has been the most stable among the district's five elementary schools, this year its student numbers have dropped sharply, to 84, from 117 in 2018. Next year's enrollment is projected to be 77 unless some students being homeschooled during the pandemic return.

"We will have to cut a certain number of positions," Riley said. "Next year there will be five classrooms instead of seven at the school, and four classrooms the year after that."

That experience of schools with fewer staff and students will inform whatever path forward the district board — or town voters, should they get the chance — might choose.

"Then we'll be better poised to evaluate the quality of our adapted learning communities," she said. "At the same time, preparation for the following years will continue."

Edorah Frazer - CALEB KENNA
  • Caleb Kenna
  • Edorah Frazer

Edorah Frazer knows that the incremental approach to managing the slow contraction of a rural school can be a rough road to travel.

"I lived that reality," said Frazer, the principal of the Robinson Elementary School in Starksboro. She used to be principal of Isle La Motte Elementary School, which had fewer than 30 pre-K through sixth grade students. Frazer was half time but worked many more hours, because that's what the job demanded. She performed maintenance work and served food at times — "whatever needed to be done."

The Grand Isle Supervisory Union today has about 560 K-8 students spread across its five schools on the Lake Champlain Islands, including Isle La Motte Elementary, and tuitions out its high school students to neighboring districts. "That's the direction we are going in if we don't have a new model," Frazer said, referring to Grand Isle's trajectory.

"We definitely had students who were missing opportunities that they would have found in a bigger pond," she said. "But we also had students who were saved by the intimacy of that environment. They came from other schools and were healed in that smaller school setting. We were essentially an extended family."

"The value of community schools can't be measured and put into a spreadsheet," she said.

The entire staff of Robinson wrote a letter to the board in January making the same point. "On behalf of the Five Town Community, we urge you to go back to the drawing board and come up with a plan that is better for kids, and continues to assure that all kids in the 5 Towns will have the support and love they need to grow," they wrote.

Reen told me he is open to considering fresh proposals, as long as they put students' best interests first. "It feels like there are decisions that are better for student outcomes, [and] those are different than those that are better for towns. If that's true — and I think it is to some extent — the only disposition I can take as superintendent is thinking about what's better for students."

Nancy Cornell - CALEB KENNA
  • Caleb Kenna
  • Nancy Cornell

Nancy Cornell is a former associate superintendent in the Addison Northeast Supervisory Union, a predecessor to the Mt. Abe district. "I understand Patrick's perspective," Cornell said, "but I think that he doesn't understand the full benefit to kids of going to school in the community where they live." She also thinks Reen's analysis overlooks a key source of abundance among the district's resources: namely, the wherewithal of its staff to creatively adapt to the fiscal constraints.

She also thinks his assumptions are too pessimistic. "I'm pretty convinced that the problem of enrollment is temporary," she said. "Looking out more than two years, those projections are notoriously unstable. We're already seeing evidence that lots of people are starting to want to move here who weren't thinking about it before [the pandemic]." And she finds it unlikely the state would let Mt. Abe and other districts fall off the cliff. "I am hopeful that the legislature will take some small, specific steps that will let the board feel it's got some extra time to consider their options."

Seeking Solutions

Robinson Elementary School in Starksboro - CALEB KENNA
  • Caleb Kenna
  • Robinson Elementary School in Starksboro

Krista Siringo of Bristol, the board's vice chair, would like to use the coming months to study ideas from the wider community.

"At the very least, I think that openness and invitation to hearing different ideas gives the board more to grapple with and more questions to ask about what's been laid out," she said. "For example, if a proposal were brought forth that says K-8 stay in the five elementary schools, and we tuition high school kids out, I would love to hear more about that from both Patrick and people in the community."

Reen is wary of delaying this decision too long and inching ever closer to the fiscal cliff. But when we spoke, he expressed support for the extended timetable. He even mentioned the possibility of exploring a plan encompassing all three of Addison County's districts, which, combined, have fewer than 4,000 students.

"Looking at the whole county creates an interesting opportunity for options to work through these concerns" about enrollment and spending, he said. "If the state were to get involved, Addison County could become a model, a pilot for a way to address these challenges."

He and the 13 board members weighing the Mt. Abe district's future may get a little breathing room in the form of near-term legislative relief. Two bills, both sponsored by Rep. Peter Conlon (D-Cornwall), would exempt certain types of spending — for construction and annual increases in health care premiums — from the per-pupil spending threshold calculation. Together, they would provide some near-term relief to Mt. Abe and other districts.

"The pressure on our district is a statewide problem," said Fisher, the former Lincoln state representative who has led calls for taking more time to study alternatives to Reen's proposal. He called the threshold a "blunt" instrument. "With inflation, every school district in the state will cross it. That doesn't seem reasonable."

Amid all the disagreements over the path forward, one thing that everyone I spoke with — including Reen — seemed to agree upon was this: The structural problems they are wrestling with simply aren't fully solvable at the scale of a single school district.

To see why, consider how the logic behind Reen's plan breaks down the farther out you go in time.

Barring some surprise surge of young families to the state, the vise will keep closing out to 2030, 2040 and beyond. The crunch facing rural districts will only continue. And the dark vision of empty gyms and part-time principals will come true for most of them.

"If you ... push out to fiscal year 2030, the numbers become staggering on a worst-case scenario," said Floyd Davison, business manager of the Mt. Abe district. "And the best-case scenario is still: How in the world are we going to do this?"

If, eventually, every rural district in Vermont will plunge over a per-pupil spending cliff, one has to question the utility of both the mechanism and the metaphor. Invoking a cliff is meant to induce fear and caution. But when a cliff, or any other such vivid threat, is approaching, other risks and opportunities tend to get crowded out of the field of vision.

"If we want to curb or slow the demographic crisis, you don't get rid of a resource that is actually bringing people back into your communities or that is attracting people from other parts of the country into Vermont," said Backlund, the school board member from Lincoln. "If we're not going to invest in this precious resource, it's really shortsighted by the state to let us go off this cliff and put people like Patrick and boards across the state into these impossible situations."

Backlund offers a different metaphor: investing "upstream" in kids in their most formative years and in small rural communities. "I would like the state to help us out, sure, but I also think the only solution is to really think more creatively about small-town schools at every level. We should be opening small-town schools, not closing them."

He sketched out a vision for making schools into platforms for a wide range of services in rural communities: expanded early childcare programs, telemedicine services, Wi-Fi access points. Nurses and librarians could serve both students and townspeople via school partnerships with local medical centers and town libraries.

This new paradigm of local schools as multifunction community hubs would require a much wider lens and more systematic approach from state policy makers, one that offers meaningful incentives for this kind of entrepreneurial, local problem solving and cost sharing rather than penalties and cliffs. In the absence of such a pivot, some worry that Reen's cautionary vision of empty schools could wind up playing out on a much larger scale in the form of a hollowed-out rural Vermont decades from now.

"Really, the question is, Who do we want to be?" said Bill Jesdale, a former Lincoln Community School principal. "What transcends all of this is: How are we going to deal with this issue in Vermont? That's got to get handled at the state level. You can't say you value the rural quality of Vermont and then advocate for closing schools."

What a School Can Be

A wellness class for kindergartners at Robinson Elementary School - CALEB KENNA
  • Caleb Kenna
  • A wellness class for kindergartners at Robinson Elementary School

I recently rewatched Mud and Water, the performance I stumbled upon soon after moving to Lincoln. I was struck anew by the students' clear, confident voices — how they projected through the school gym, over the heads of their parents and neighbors — and how animated those kids were, reenacting those past visitations of larger forces to their little town, and people rallying together in response.

I was reminded of something Riley had told me about an overarching objective at her school. "We want our students to find their voice and express it in this safe, nurturing environment," she said. "The idea is, if they practice expressing their voice here, practice and practice, it will serve them well when they encounter more difficult situations later in life."

I was also struck by a scene in which one boy played a grandfather who, while being evacuated during Irene in 2011, recalled to his grandson helping his own grandfather escape past floods. It was a rather dizzying reminder of how a school can stitch the generations together in one sweeping, place-based, collective project.

That production was spearheaded by Alice Leeds, who co-taught the combined fifth- and sixth-grade classes at Lincoln Community School for 25 years. "Each school carries its community's stories," she wrote recently in the Addison Independent. It is, on its face, a statement of fact. But it's also an expansive vision of what a school can be: a vessel for the accumulated stories of the distinctive communities of rural Vermont.

When I cast forward to 2040 — when today's elementary students will have kids of their own — I can't help wonder who will be here to remember, to carry forward the stories yet to be lived, and told.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Cliff Notes on Rural Education | Finances threaten local schools such as Lincoln's. Can towns afford to lose them?"

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