Home Commentary Two Villages, One Child: Support the Montpelier-Roxbury Community

Two Villages, One Child: Support the Montpelier-Roxbury Community

Photo courtesy of RVS.
By Benjamin Pincus

It takes a village to raise a child. 

—Pan-African proverb
Two laws have destroyed our public elementary school, ending a 230-year legacy of rural education. At the March 20 school board meeting, the Montpelier Roxbury Public School Board voted to bus Roxbury Village School (RVS) students to Union Elementary School (UES) in Montpelier.  In September, RVS will be silent, its windows shuttered.

It is hard to raise a child anywhere, but Act 46, by mandating school consolidation, meant that it now takes two villages to raise a child. Consolidation allowed Roxbury students to attend resource-rich schools (Montpelier High and Main Street Middle schools), and protected Montpelier’s majority control over the school board. As a result of the merger, both towns also benefited from state-subsidized property tax stabilization. 

Act 127 sounded like a great plan: let’s keep taxes low and provide more equitable educational funding, redistributing resources to schools that need more support. Unfortunately, the law’s rollout evokes Vermont’s mud season: rough on our suspension system, and a bumpy, lethal downhill ride for RVS. 

In Montpelier, the 24% proposed tax hike resulted in Montpelier residents voting against the school budget. Overriding pleas from Roxbury families seeking time for a thoughtful, fair process, the board majority quickly voted in favor of a revised budget proposal that closed the school and reduced the Montpelier tax increase to 14%. 

On paper, Montpelier’s tax hike sounded unfair, especially to those living on fixed incomes, but the school board did not explain the actual impacts to income-sensitive homesteads eligible for education tax credits. For example, the city has 1,894 homestead parcels, but 1,212 homeowners (64% of property owners) would have seen little or no changes in their property taxes regardless of any changes in the school budget! The school board held an informational hearing after polls had already opened on Town Meeting day, further reducing voter awareness, and possibly violating state law. 

This process was way too fast and violated the MRPS mandate of equity for all district children. If you contrast a Montpelier property tax hike for the one third of homesteads most affected by budgetary adjustments against the irrevocable loss of a school, there is little parity. 

School closure has major economic and social impacts on rural towns. Property values plummet, negatively impacting financial assets of homeowners and discouraging new families from buying property. Who wants to move to town without a school? A small population and shrinking tax base increases property taxes in order to maintain essential services such as roadwork and education. We also lose a vital community center that provides camaraderie and cohesion for young families. 

School closure also harms our children. A 5-year-old child from East Roxbury will travel by bus for almost three hours a day in order to attend UES. The stress of sleep deprivation from a long commute means that a Roxbury child’s readiness for learning is in no way comparable to a Montpelier youth. The current budget does not address these egregious failures in equity as a result of school closure. Our most vulnerable kids will pay the highest price. 

Although our towns share a school district, we haven’t made community connections based on empathy and understanding. Negative, classist stereotypes of rural Roxbury further divide us, contributing to the decision to shutter RVS. There is no question that UES provides a great education. But some Montpelier residents and school board members have expressed the patronizing sentiment that a big city education is better than our small town, rural experience. However, RVS offers something that Montpelier does not acknowledge: the connections and sense of belonging that comes from growing up in a small community. 

Hopefully, Montpelier residents and legislators understand that Roxbury needs a great deal of support and advocacy during this difficult transition. We need time to determine potential uses of the building in the event MRPS sells the facility back to our town. We cannot afford a financial liability like an empty school, especially if our tax base is shrinking. 

Legislators need to amend Act 127 in order to support small towns like Roxbury that slipped through the cracks regarding the allocation of educational funding. It is especially sad that a law intended to increase support to rural students will ultimately ask Roxbury children and their families to pay for it in painful and complex ways that are not obvious without careful research. 

Economic revitalization of Roxbury will be difficult without our school, in particular funding for major municipal infrastructure improvements. While it may be too late to save RVS, there is time to nurture a partnership based on common values of equity, empathy, and community. Don’t abandon our kids on the muddy road and remember that it takes two villages to raise a child.

Benjamin Pincus is a graduate of RVS (back when it was a two-room schoolhouse), a board member of Roxbury Community Trust, a wholesale cut-flower farmer, and he teaches the aikido at Cloud Mountain Aikido in Roxbury and Aikido of Champlain Valley in Burlington.