By RUSSELL JONES
BRANDON — The Otter Valley Unified Union school board held the first reading of a new classroom viability policy at its meeting on Wednesday, Oct. 16. The board approved the policy unanimously, but it will still need to be approved at the second reading next month before it is ratified.
The policy sets guidelines on what size classes can be throughout the district, which will go a long way in determining the future of some of the district schools.
The guidelines set class minimums in K-3 at 12 students and in 4-6 grades at 16. Adding all the minimum class sizes together means a K-6 elementary school would need 96 students to remain financially viable.
This could be cause for concern for parents whose children attend Otter Creek Academy, the combined Leicester, Sudbury and Whiting schools. Last year the student enrollment at OCA was 93 and the school is down five students this year with an enrollment of 88.
However, Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union superintendent Jeanńe Collins said that the policy should reassure parents.
“This policy should relieve folks that it’s not an arbitrary, capricious decision,” she said. “It’s not going to be a scenario where the Governor one day says, ‘the sky is falling,’ and we close a school. It is a thoughtful decision.”
But even if a school falls below the guideline, there’s a thorough review process before any action is taken.
When the enrollment of a school falls below the minimum recommended, the board will hold a public discussion about the future viability of the school and gather community input prior to closing a school.
According to the policy, the enrollment numbers will be looked at in a rolling, three-year average starting in 2019. This means that a decision to close a school that is under enrollment numbers, like OCA, won’t occur until 2021 at the earliest.
This policy lines up with the 10-year plan laid out in August by the Planning Task Force. That plan includes moving the fifth and sixth grades out of the elementary schools and into a middle school with the seventh and eighth grades, which are currently in the high school.
After looking at all the available buildings as possible locations for the middle school, the task force determined the best course would be to build either onto the existing high school or a new building on the same campus as the high school.
Taking the fifth and sixth grade students out of the elementary schools would have two effects. First, it would lower the enrollment of a Neshobe school that is already closing in on capacity and second, it would lower the enrollment of a dwindling OCA student population even more.
“The fifth through eighth grade middle school will enhance the seventh and eighth grade experience and fully separate them from the high school,” district communications consultant Alyson Popa said in an email to The Reporter. “It also delivers the best educational model for all age groups, uniting the already developed five through eight curriculum into one central location.”
“This coincides with the districts further expected 10 percent reduction of the student population,” she continued, “allowing for a two school solution.”
Popa also said that as the plan was developed to create a better future for education in the district, they will simultaneously plan, in conjuction with small town communities, what the best use for those buildings will be.
In the end, it comes down to education, Popa said. The board recognizes that as a school’s enrollment dwindles, it just becomes too expensive for the community to afford to offer the kind of quality education that it can provide in larger schools.
“There are schools open in the state that are open at the expense of the kids,” board vice-chair Bonnie Bourne said. “I’m not anti-small school, but to keep a school open at the expense of the only voice not at this table (students) is not where we want to be.”