Challengers emerge for Mt. Abe board spot

BRISTOL — Two fairly recent Mount Abraham Union High School graduates are part of a three-way race for a three-year term representing Bristol on the MAUHS board of directors.
Challenging incumbent Gary Farnsworth on the Town Meeting Day will be Abby DeGraw and Justin Bouvier.
DeGraw, 25, is the owner of the Rainbow Room store on Main Street in Middlebury. She worked at the business for several years before acquiring it. And DeGraw continues to have some family ties to Mount Abe — she has two brothers who currently attend the school there and her grandfather, Dick Merrill, currently serves on the MAUHS board.
Bouvier, 29, is a former MAUHS classroom assistant who is currently studying to become a school teacher and administrator. Bouvier faces the added challenge of running as a write-in candidate in his bid for the Mount Abe school board seat. He missed the candidates’ filing deadline by a week, but pledged to use social media, a large network of friends and good old-fashioned grassroots campaigning to get his name out.
Both candidates will have some hot-button issues to discuss in these last few weeks leading up to the elections. Mount Abe last week narrowly averted a teachers’ strike. School officials are confronting questions about what appears to some to be a six-figure budget deficit for the second year in a row due to accounting practices. And MAUHS last year was flagged by the Vermont Department of Education as one of 10 underperforming schools in the state.
DeGraw graduated with the Mount Abe class of 2004. After graduating, she briefly attended art school in Florida before returning to Bristol. She soon joined the staff at the Rainbow Room in Middlebury and ended up buying the business, which employs five people.
DeGraw said she has long thought about running for the Mount Abe board, and believes this is the right time in her life to do it. She has been attending recent MAUHS board meetings to get a grasp of the issues.
“My biggest issue is getting young people’s voices heard,” DeGraw said.
She believes it would be beneficial to have someone on the board who recently attended MAUHS and could offer a fresh perspective on day-to-day happenings at the school.
DeGraw said she has had mixed feelings about the teacher contract dispute. As a business owner, she said she understands the need to hold down expenses and the pain felt by local property taxpayers. But she recalled, as a student, the valuable tutelage she received from several teachers. She is particularly fond of her experiences in the Mount Abe music program.
If elected, DeGraw said she would advocate for programs that allow high schoolers to become more marketable upon graduation.
“Education is changing, and not everyone is going to college these days,” DeGraw said. “We need to make sure everyone is ready for life after school, even if they are not going to college.”
Public schools need to do a better job imparting basic life skills — such as balancing a checkbook, she says. She also believes schools could do a better job influencing youths to become more invested in their community.
DeGraw said she was alarmed to hear about the Mount Abe business office’s accounting questions.
“As a business person, I can’t survive having missing money,” DeGraw said. “I don’t know how they have gotten so far without fixing that.”
Bouvier graduated with the MAUHS class of 1999. He stayed with the school for an additional eight years, however — as a para-educator. He became supervisor of that department by the time he left in 2008 to further his studies at Castleton State College, where he is majoring in math with a theater/arts minor. He will graduate in eight weeks, then go on to get a master’s degree in education leadership.
It was the Mount Abe board’s imposition of a teachers’ contract and the prospect of a strike that prompted Bouvier to run for the MAUHS board.
He contends the issue should never have come as close to a strike as it did, and that the lines of communication were needlessly severed.
“I don’t ever want to see that happen again in our community because of the strife that it caused,” Bouvier said.
He noted that Addison Central Supervisory Union teachers are rounding out their second year without a new pact — yet both sides are still talking. They continue to operate under terms of the previous pact, which expired at the end of the 2008-2009 academic year. That contract assures step salary increases (but no bump in base pay) and the same health care benefit terms.
“I know there comes a point (when a contract needs to be settled), but I am not sure that point was reached after eight months,” Bouvier said of the Mount Abe teacher contract negotiations.
In the long term, he said he would like to see “performance-based evaluations for teachers, which would be tied to their raises.”
Like DeGraw, Bouvier said he is concerned about the Mount Abe budget accounting. While district business manager Greg Burdick has announced plans to resign, Bouvier believes others need to share the blame.
“At some point, we have to hold accountable the people who are in charge,” Bouvier said. “For an accounting error for two years in a row… there has to be a time when the superintendent is held accountable for the financial reports.”
Another one of Bouvier’s priorities calls for making Mount Abe a “greener” facility, and having students participate in the design of that renewable energy technology. He believes the school district could save a lot of money simply by converting to more energy efficient lighting throughout the building.
Both challengers said they are not running in opposition to Farnsworth’s record, but rather are looking for an opportunity to serve on the board.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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