by Rob Roper
School choice advocates were watching as the citizens of Woodbury turned out to decide whether or not to close their local public school. Closing the school would have turned Woodbury into the 92nd “tuition town” in Vermont, where parents are able to use their share of education tax dollars to send their children to the school(s) of their choice.
However, despite serious quality of education issues brought on by declining student enrolment, Woodbury voted to keep the school, 129-63.
Retta Dunlap, a school choice advocate and resident of Woodbury summed things up, “The vote was not about money, it was not about quality, it was not about school choice, it was about nostalgia. It was about a town full of people who have been using this school for centuries.”
Although the vote settles a debate in Woodbury for the time being, it doesn’t fix the underlying problem with the school. “The biggest problem here, and this is not just particular to Woodbury it’s all over Vermont, is the declining student population,” said Dunlap. “That was the initial straw that brought this discussion on. When you have the population falling, the question becomes a cost/quality equation. How much to you pay for what kind of quality and for how long. And that question is still out there for Woodbury.”
And what is that cost for Woodbury students? “If you use plain old ordinary math and you take the budget and divide it by the number of students in the school, you get something like $25,000 per student,” said Dunlap. Although she also cited official numbers from the Department of Education, which are lower.
The vote and the debate surrounding it did yield some positive elements. “We had over two hundred voters show up. Now, Town Meeting is about 130 to 150 people. We had people showing up to vote who hadn’t been out to vote in years,” Dunlap recalled. “I hope in encourages them to come out again and remain involved in hard work of supporting the school.”
“For those who voted to close, I know a lot of them voted on the quality issue. They should not be discredited. I know it was a two to one margin, but those sixty-some people have some very valid points… They should be listened to. We should say is there any validity here? Is there any way we can make this school better by listening to those with whom we might not agree? I hope the school board listens to those concerns and works them into the solution.”
Retta Dunlap will keep on fighting for school choice in Vermont, and for the kids in her own community. “It’s not over, but this piece of it is over. There’s two or three years here [in Woodbury] where work needs to be done and at least the people in the town know this is what we’re doing.”