FAIRFIELD – Much of the conversation about Act 46, Vermont’s statewide school consolidation law, concerns fears of a small, rural school being lost in a merged district where the board may be made up primarily of residents from larger towns.
In these smaller towns, a school might be a cornerstone of the community, a place where multiple generations of a family came up or the draw for a new family looking to settle. It can both be the economic driver and the center of a small town’s identity.
The possibility of ceding control of that school to a wider district centered in another town, some argue, puts that cornerstone at risk.
In Franklin County, such a merger took place. As a part of a larger series on the impact of the county’s largest school consolidation, the Messenger visited Fairfield Center School, the smallest school from the smallest town of the county’s largest consolidated district.
At 250 students, Fairfield Center School is the smallest in the Maple Run district. The school teaches students from Pre-Kindergarten and Kindergarten to eighth grade, afterward sending its students on to Maple Run’s high school, Bellows Free Academy (BFA) – St. Albans.
According to the school’s principal, Dr. Sean O’Dell, the merger has been only beneficial for the smaller school. “It puts us in a place to bring us up to speed,” said O’Dell.
The Fairfield school had historically been pressed against a steadily rising tax rate caused by rising high school tuition, increased health insurance costs special education, services and a slow, gradual decline in students that increased costs per pupil, the primary determinant of tax rates.
The Franklin Central Supervisory Union (FCSU)’s Act 46 Study Committee Report projected Fairfield’s tax rate to continue its steady rise. While the tax rate might still increase under Maple Run, those rates still remain below the projected increases had Fairfield remained on its own.
FCSU is the supervisory union that would ultimately become Maple Run.
Those tax increases translated to difficulty in passing budgets. In 2014, for example, it took three tries to pass a school budget, when $100,000 – a bus to BFA-St. Albans and a special education position – were cut from the budget and only saved the town a cent on its tax rate.
Among the cuts made to try and contain tax increases were library hours, a foreign language teacher and a math specialist.
A full-time math interventionist was one of the first positions added to Fairfield after the merger. The school has also been able to share a Spanish teach with BFA and a librarian with St. Albans City school.
Extra computer owned by city school before the merger are now being used by Fairfield students.
There have also been improvements to the building.
The school has upgraded its phone lines and extended its intercom system to the nearby Common School, an older building rented from the Town of Fairfield to house its arts and music classes.
A security door can now firmly lock down a wing of the elementary school during emergencies or at night, when people might be attending events in the gym.
A comprehensive identification system meets visitors in the front office, requiring a scan from the visitor’s state ID and a photo when signing in.
There are even new bathrooms.
“I feel like we would still be where we were… with phones that didn’t work,” O’Dell said. “We’d still be stuck with outdated computers. We’d be in real trouble with a student who couldn’t get into the Common School.
“A lot of these things would’ve been hard on Fairfield.”
The merger has also allowed some flexibility for students. A family moving from Fairfield to St. Albans, for example, is able to keep their student in Fairfield’s school in the same small classes they grew up with.
Meanwhile, students that may struggle in that small school environment can switch to one of St. Albans’s two elementary schools.
Teachers communicate more between the districts, with ideas for improvements going both ways.
A large capital project has been brought before the Maple Run board that would add a new wing to the building, bringing the school’s arts classes from the Common School into the school itself.
The Common School isn’t ADA-compliant, and its short distance from Fairfield Center School still requires dressing up the school’s younger students for winter weather, eating into class time, O’Dell explained.
The Maple Run board opted not to make a decision on the Fairfield changes until after a bond vote on Town Meeting Day for improvements at BFA.
Still, even the talk of long-delayed investments to Fairfield Center School has raised morale.
“When you see something like that… you know the school isn’t going to go away,” said Kelsey Malboeuf, a Fairfield resident and special educator at Fairfield Center School. “I’m trusting that vision.”
Malboeuf has worked as an educator in Fairfield for 11 years, as a classroom teacher, a paraeducator and a special educator. She and her husband moved to the town four years ago, largely because of the community’s school.
She now has a daughter in Fairfield’s preschool program.
As a special educator, Malboeuf has seen the special education needs of Fairfield school rise. Special education is a large piece of a district’s budget and has steadily increased in recent years as schools statewide see more students with specialized needs.
How those needs are met is mandated by state and federal governments, leaving schools little room to cut that portion of the budget.
“A lot more would fall on the teachers,” Malboeuf said. “It’s still a huge conversation now… but I feel like I can have a little more wiggle room.”
When the possibility of a merger was floated to Fairfield, Malboeuf said she was hesitant to support it, a sentiment shared by other members of the community. “It’s an integral part of the community,” she said. “I love that parents come in here… that I know all the kids’ names.”
“We don’t want to lose our identity,” Malboeuf continued. “[But] it was getting out of control. We cut so much out of the budget… and [the school] was asking for more and more money.”
In some of the conversations about Act 46 circulating around the state, representation has taken center stage. Unified boards would have to be proportional by population, a federal requirement.
How that translates for a forced merger might be a proportional board, where towns elect a set number of school board members based on their respective populations.
Alternatively, a unified board might be formed with an equal amount of representatives from each member community, a legal structure so long as voters from the whole district are allowed to elect each representative.
Maple Run’s school board is a hybrid of sorts. St. Albans Town and St. Albans City are each represented by three members, while Fairfield elects two members with half-a-vote each. Those representatives are elected by the district at large, meaning St. Albans residents can vote for the Fairfield board member and vice versa.
“I feel we’ve had a voice on this board,” Malboeuf said. “Hearing the future of Fairfield… they believe in our school.”
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