No More Pencils, No More Books, No More Teacher's Dirty Looks

NASA spent almost $130 for one mechanical pencil in the 1950's

Act 46 Saves Us Money on Pencils

On June 9, 2018, Rochester High School —which began as an entity in 1894— will graduate students for the final time.

This decision has been made to comply with Act 46, and for the purpose of this essay, the “Findings” published by the state of Vermont will be quoted directly in bold.

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Pencils have been painted yellow since the 1890’s, about as long as the Rochester High School has existed. The yellow pencil has its own history. Back then, the best graphite was imported from China, where traditionally the color yellow is a symbol of respect and royalty. Companies boasted the best graphite through the color of their pencils.

Rochester’s School colors are yellow, white and blue. Graduation traditionally happens on the Rochester Park, where students, dressed in caps and gowns, cross Route 100 from Pierce Hall, walk through seated attendees, and settle in chairs beneath the oldest Civil War Monument in all of New England.

Act 46 Sec. 1.


(a) Vermont’s kindergarten through grade 12 population has declined from 103,000 in fiscal year 1997 to 78,300 in fiscal year 2015.

When I sharpen pencils in my kindergarten, the electric sharpener eats half the pencil before the tip is finally pointy. Pencils are not made well anymore; not as well as I remember.

Because of its remote location, Rochester High School has never had big classes. The largest class in recent history had 34 students. The current kindergarten, “class of 2030’ has 13.

(b) The number of school-related personnel has not decreased in proportion to the decline in student population.

Next school year, 2018-2019, the number of personnel has decreased by 50% at Rochester School. My kindergarten will remain the same size next year. 13.

There are also two buildings to consider (the High School and the Elementary School which were built next to each other in the 1970’s.) The elementary building will stay “open” and certain sections of the high school building will be “shuttered” and the temperature will be set to 50 degrees in those areas so the pipes won’t freeze.

(c) The proportion of Vermont students with severe emotional needs has increased from 1.5 percent of the population in fiscal year 1997 to 2.3 percent in fiscal year 2015. In addition, the proportion of students from families in crisis due to loss of employment, opiate addiction, and other factors has also increased during this time period, requiring the State’s public schools to fulfill an array of human services functions.  

High school students must choose another school (tuition paid) and travel by car or bus, depending on where. The White River Valley lost its mills (plywood and bowl) because things (like plywood and bowls) can be made cheaper elsewhere. Few jobs remain, making it difficult for families to live in an isolated place. The cost of living is high. Families feel the stress and will spend less and less time together as a result of travel time to and from Union schools outside this valley.  

Rochester Elementary students are no longer responsible for bringing pencils to school, because it puts a strain on families.

Pencils come 12 to a pack, so when I buy pencils for my students, I must buy two boxes at a time so each child can have one.

At the bigger schools outside the valley, supply lists are sent home. Students are expected to come to school prepared.

(d) From July 1997 through July 2014, the number of Vermont children ages 6 through 17 residing with families receiving nutrition benefits has increased by 47 percent, from 13,000 to 19,200. While other factors affect student academic performance, studies demonstrate that when the percentage of students in a school who are living in poverty increases, student performance and achievement have a tendency to decrease.

More than 70% of the students at Rochester School utilize the Free-and-Reduced lunch program.

(e) With 13 different types of school district governance structures, elementary and secondary education in Vermont lacks cohesive governance and delivery systems. As a result, many school districts:

    (1) are not well-suited to achieve economies of scale; and

    (2) lack the flexibility to manage, share, and transfer resources, including personnel, with other     school districts and to provide students with a variety of high-quality educational opportunities.

In Great Britain during WWII, rotary pencil sharpeners were banned because the waste of graphite and wood was considered to be “too excessive.”

During WWII in Britain, sharpeners like this were considered excessive and wasteful.

Economies of scale: our school district is now purchasing pencils and other supplies in bulk from distributors. Management is handled from a distant Supervisory Union and merged board, rather than by locals. Students drive a greater distance to “get more” in a bigger school.

(f) 16 V.S.A. §4010(f) was enacted in 1999 to protect school districts, particularly small school districts, from large, sudden tax increases due to declining student populations. The steady, continued decline in some districts, together with the compounding effect of the legislation as written, has inflated the equalized pupil count in some districts by as much as 77 percent, resulting in artificially low tax rates in those communities.

A package of pencils in the local small grocery store is double the price outside the valley.

Isolated places have both lost jobs and tax-payers and suddenly, must be accountable for the State’s previous legislation gone awry.

(g) National literature suggests that the optimal size for student learning is in elementary schools of 300 to 500 students and in high schools of 600 to 900 students. In Vermont, the smallest elementary school has a total enrollment of 15 students (kindergarten–grade 6) and the smallest high school has a total enrollment of 55 students (grades 9–12). Of the 300 public schools in Vermont, 205 have 300 or fewer enrolled students and 64 have 100 or fewer enrolled students. Of those 64 schools, 16 have 50 or fewer enrolled students.

I always used a No. 2 pencil to bubble in the answers on all of my Standardized Tests in school. I graduated with under 90 people. Mechanical pencils are used by high school students these days, though computers are the more favored tool. Pencils can write upside down, underwater, and even in zero gravity, but Wifi is not always reliable in isolated Vermont towns.

There are mountains all over Vermont. There are small towns all over Vermont. The day before school started in 2011, Tropical Storm Irene isolated 13 towns. There was no way in or out.

(h) National literature suggests that the optimal size for a school district in terms of financial efficiencies is between 2,000 and 4,000 students. The smallest Vermont school district has an average daily membership (ADM) of six students, with 79 districts having an ADM of 100 or fewer students. Four Vermont school districts have an ADM that exceeds 2,000 students.

In towns (like Rochester) of about 1,200 people (some are second-home owners) in the middle of the National Forest, it is impossible to have “thousands” of students and it takes time and resources to travel to other places. Involved families are spending money outside our valley. Sometimes to buy pencils.

When I was in high school, the No. 2 pencil  —which sharpened with ease and possessed a soft, effective eraser— was a required supply for taking every test. We weren’t allowed to use pen. Teachers said pen was “too permanent” and  the “machines couldn’t read our answers.”

(i) Vermont recognizes the important role that a small school plays in the social and educational fabric of its community. It is not the State’s intent to close its small schools, but rather to ensure that those schools have the opportunity to enjoy the expanded educational opportunities and economies of scale that are available to schools within larger, more flexible governance models.

And speaking of larger, more flexible governance models, Scientific American reports, “NASA ordered 34 mechanical pencils from Houston’s Tycam Engineering Manufacturing, Inc., in 1965. They paid $4,382.50 or $128.89 per pencil."

Well, though it was “not the intent,” we just closed our small school to save on the cost of pencils.

(j) The presence of multiple public schools within a single district not only supports flexibility in the management and sharing of resources, but it promotes innovation. For example, individual schools within a district can more easily develop a specialized focus, which, in turn, increases opportunities for students to choose the school best suited to their needs and interests.

Mechanical pencils are fun to use, until the lead wears out. Then it has to be replaced.

A single No. 2 pencil is said to hold enough graphite to draw a line 35 miles long. That is about the same distance as a student will commute from Rochester to Middlebury Union High School. Students may also choose to attend a school with a specialized focus, but they will also have to travel a minimum of a half an hour to get there.

Before Rochester High School opened, erasers didn’t exist, and bread crumbs —of all things— made pencil marks disappear.

Another word for money is “bread.” Interesting how “bread” managed to erase our small school. It's as if it never existed. No worries... the bigger schools can buy all their pencils in bulk. Pencils made in China, of all places.

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