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Proposals to Close Calais, Worcester Schools Discussed at Forum

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WORCESTER — Pizza, nostalgia, tears: Residents packed the gymnasium of this small town’s small school, extolling the virtues of Doty Memorial in the face of its possible closure. 

About 100 people attended back-to-back community forums Wednesday evening, the first organized by concerned residents and the second by the Washington Central school district. The crowd, larger than Doty’s student body, posed questions regarding the future of the Worcester village school. 

Chani Waterhouse helped organize the first event, which featured food, brainstorming, and the airing of concerns.

“This has been a truly organic process,” Waterhouse said. Her youngest graduated from Doty this year, and she herself is an alum. 

“We all really agreed that it was important for our town to figure out the future of our school,” she said. “A lot of people in town still don’t know this is happening.”

The organic process, as Waterhouse described it, originated from the Washington Central board’s consideration for the future of the district’s five elementary schools, in Berlin, Calais, Worcester, East Montpelier and Middlesex. Board members held similar forums at schools across the district Wednesday evening.

Proposals floated by the district  involve closing the Worcester and Calais schools. Another idea is to close the two schools and turn the Berlin elementary into an early childhood education center. A third proposal would move all 6th graders to the district’s middle and high school, U-32.

The Worcester and Calais elementary schools are the two smallest in the district, with projected enrollments next year of 79 and 92 respectively, according to the Washington Central board.

Under the current timeline, the board would choose a plan in September, and district residents would vote on it in November. Washington Central rules require a majority vote of a town’s residents to approve the closure of that town’s school.

The consolidation proposal comes amid an affordability crisis in Vermont’s public education system. Statewide, residents will face an average education property tax increase of 14.8% next year, with actual bills varying widely town to town. A historic proportion of school budgets failed on Town Meeting Day, including Washington Central’s. And both school leaders and legislators fear that next year’s budget cycle might be just as challenging. 

After voters in the nearby Montpelier-Roxbury district rejected a first school budget in March, the school board decided to put forward  a reduced budget that involved closing Roxbury’s elementary school. A majority of voters ultimately approved that consolidation, though Roxbury voters opposed it. 

photo by    Ethan Weinstein, VTDigger
Worcester residents gathered at Doty Memorial School to discuss the future of the small elementary on June 26.

The Washington Central board, however, has characterized consolidation as a chance for expanded academic and extracurricular opportunities, placing less emphasis on the financial implications. Closing elementary schools could lead to more ideal class sizes, and full-time positions for nurses and counselors, the board has said, and the ideas have been in the works for some time. 

But the lack of focus on the economics may be because the district doesn’t yet have financial modeling on the potential closures, data it hopes to have in the coming months. 

Wednesday night, residents’ impassioned monologues on the virtues of Worcester’s Doty school drew applause time and again.

Ethan Tyrrell, who grew up in Worcester, said he believed the value of Doty outweighed any financial burden caused by operating the small school. 

Worcester’s character as a small, rural town “has to stay,” he said, choking up. “That’s why I’m here.”

Many speakers highlighted Doty’s central location both physically and socially in Worcester’s village. 

“I don’t think any of the other schools are at the heart of their communities,” Mick Eckart said. 

While most people spoke vehemently in support of keeping Doty open, some considered the perks of consolidation, ranging from expected lower taxes, increased educational opportunities, and the possibility of expanded before-and-after-school programming. 

As the evening pivoted from the community-organized forum to the board-organized forum, tensions arose when board members suggested breaking into small groups rather than continuing a whole-room discussion. 

A quick show of hands resolved the dust-up: one large discussion would continue.

“This is our meeting,” Flor Diaz Smith, Washington Central’s board’s chair, said, referring to the whole audience. “There’s no division here.”

Washington Central held a virtual forum July 2, and is soliciting resident feedback through an  online survey. 

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