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Students are serenaded by teachers as they arrive at Vernon Elementary School on Aug. 31 for the first day of classes.

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Vernon Elementary spared enrollment hit — for now

The first big round of layoffs happened earlier this year at Vermont Yankee, but the school across the street has the same number of students as last year

VERNON—Though Windham County is taking a big economic hit from the closure of the Vermont Yankee, it’s business as usual — at least, so far — at the elementary school across the street from the nuclear plant.

Despite worries that Vernon Elementary School would see an enrollment dip after the first significant layoffs at Vermont Yankee earlier this year, officials are reporting the same number of students — 160 — as last year.

Officials are offering demographic and financial reasons, including the availability and price of homes in Vernon.

While there still could be impacts from the next round of furloughs in 2016, there’s a sense of optimism that the school in the shadow of Vermont Yankee will weather the storm.

“It’s looking like we’ll be fairly stable,” said Mike Hebert, Vernon School Board chairman.

“I tend to be optimistic by nature,” Hebert added. “I’m thinking we’re going to take a hit in residential [property] values. But as time goes on, I think the folks that are going to buy homes are going to be younger people with families, and we may even see a rebound in the school population.”

No change

Vermont Yankee ceased producing power at the end of 2014, when employment stood at about 550. The following month, employment was cut to 316 and recently was estimated at approximately 300.

Yankee employees are spread throughout the area, but they’re concentrated in Windham County with a large Vernon contingent. So it stood to reason that, when school began Aug. 31 at Vernon Elementary just across Governor Hunt Road from the plant, there would be fewer students roaming the halls.

But Principal Dana Gordon-Macey said that’s not the case, reporting “the exact same number [she] had enrolled last year” at the school, which houses students from kindergarten through sixth grade.

There’s a discrepancy with state statistics, with Agency of Education records showing 176 students at Vernon last year. But Windham Southeast Supervisory Union officials said that likely is because the state included students at the town preschool, an independent entity.

“As far as in-house enrollment, I haven’t seen any change,” Gordon-Macey said. And she’s not surprised, sharing Hebert’s optimism about the small district’s prospects.

“I do not expect that Vernon will see a big hit in enrollment,” she wrote in an e-mail response to questions from The Commons.

“Although my historical memory is obviously limited, given that it is only my second year as Vernon’s principal, I think we are seeing families move to Vernon for a variety of reasons. This year, for example, we have seen some new students who were previously in other schools in the supervisory union as well as students whose families moved back to the area after years away. So, while some may be leaving, others are coming in to take their place.”

Windham Southeast Superintendent Ron Stahley echoed that sentiment, saying that “the housing prices have been pretty reasonable, so young families may be moving to Vernon.”

Hebert, who also serves the town as a state legislator, also thinks Vernon “still has a lot of positive things to offer.”

One example is the town’s public recreation facilities and year-round recreation programs, he said, which have been spared big budget cuts in part because officials believe such amenities may lure young families.

“I think we have a reputation as having a first-rate school,” Hebert said. “I also think our rec department is a draw to the town.”

Additionally, Vernon is unique among local elementary schools in that its charter offers school choice for seventh-graders: Students can go anywhere they want for middle school, including across the border to Massachusetts, with Vernon paying the state average tuition rate and parents picking up the remainder of the tab.

The perceived virtues of Vernon aside, Hebert thinks a demographic issue is at work. He cited recent projections of Vermont Yankee’s impact throughout the supervisory union.

“We were surprised when we went through the district — the whole supervisory union — that there was not more [projected impact from the plant closure], because there’s certainly a lot of VY employees,” Hebert said. “But the employees tend to be on the older level, and most of their kids have gone through Vernon.”

School budget impact?

The impact of Vermont Yankee’s closure also hasn’t really been felt in the school’s budget.

Due to the structure of Vermont’s complex school-finance system, local education tax revenue from Yankee — like all such revenue across the state — is sent to Montpelier for redistribution based on state funding formulas and local spending.

While noting that Vermont Yankee has been “a good neighbor,” Hebert said school board officials have enough to think about without focusing on the plant. “We’ve never talked about VY on a regular basis,” he said.

That’s not to say it’s been easy to draw up a school budget in Vernon. The fiscal 2016 spending plan was rejected twice by voters earlier this year before winning approval in late June, just days before the fiscal year began.

The Vernon School Board made some cuts to get that $4.31 million budget passed, including not replacing a departing teacher and eliminating a paraprofessional position. But officials balked at major budget reductions, citing the needs of the student body.

As the new school year began, Gordon-Macey reiterated that stance.

“Over the past several years, Vernon has seen a significant increase in students requiring special-education services,” she wrote. “In addition, like other local communities, our families are struggling more than in the past. For example, in 2015, 38 percent of students at Vernon Elementary qualified for free and reduced lunch.

“In the 2006-2007 school year, that number was 19 percent. That’s quite a significant increase in need. As families struggle more, the needs of our students shift, and often those shifts require staffing numbers that allow us to provide individual and small-group instruction to a vast array of learners.”

Uncertain times still lie ahead, both for the town of Vernon and its school. A Yankee-related tax break is set to incrementally expire starting in 2017, meaning Vernon property owners soon will be paying the same statewide education tax rate as everyone else. Currently, they get a 25 percent break.

And the next big job cuts at Vermont Yankee — set for spring 2016, when the current workforce will be cut by roughly half — could have a bigger impact than this year’s layoffs have.

“2016 is the [next] big one,” Hebert said. “Then, we’ll really know.”

For now, though, the first week of school had few thinking about Vermont Yankee. In fact, there are more students present at the school because the town-run Vernon Preschool — while retaining its autonomy — has relocated from the town office to a classroom at Vernon Elementary.

“So far, the transition seems to be going well,” Gordon-Macey said. “We are trying to give the preschool the space it needs to re-establish itself in its new location and retain its autonomy within our school building. Still, everyone is very excited and full of ideas about how our students might be able to mentor their younger peers.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #322 (Wednesday, September 9, 2015). This story appeared on page D1.

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