Editorial: Crucial vote for Mount Abe impacts future of its five towns

For much of the past decade, residents of the five towns that comprise the Mount Abraham Union High School district have discussed various ways to solve the facility’s shortcomings. There have been piecemeal patches, which have included pricey fixes, yet the overall deterioration of the high school building today is beyond dispute. Action needs to be taken.
Construction and architectural experts attuned to the needs of educational facilities have studied the building’s status and each time recommendations are much the same: to address the problems in the most cost-effective manner, the high school needs a full-scale renovation.
On Thursday, Nov. 2 — today! — district residents will again vote by Australian ballot on the fate of a proposed $35 million bond that does just that. Admittedly, it is an expensive fix, but no one in the past several years has come up with a better alternative. Responsible residents don’t just defeat similar proposals repeatedly, then do nothing to help formulate a plan they would support.
The reality is that continuing to kick this project down the road will only cost residents more in the long run.
But rather than look at the bond vote as a negative, consider the flip side.
The bond looks to the town’s future by creating a high school facility that will not only serve today’s students well, but those for decades to come — and that’s a crucial point. Small rural towns across America are in competitive race for their survival. That survival depends on at least an inkling of growth, because without it towns begin to fade; stores go under, restaurants struggle, and friends and neighbors move to greener pastures.
Schools play an important role in keeping towns vital ifthey are excellent facilities for learning. Whether deserved or not, the physical appearance of the high school — and the working classroom space inside — are crucial first impressions for families choosing a place to live. A run-down facility with leaking roofs, stories of snakes squirming through the walls, and a single gym serving 660-plus students grades 8-12 (requiring parents to consider waking up at 5 a.m. to get a child to sports practice by 6 a.m., or picking them up at 10 p.m.) is reason enough to choose another school.
And that’s a loss for Bristol and its neighboring towns, who share many compelling assets. Bristol is never more picturesque than from the high ledges on Deer Leap in the fall looking down on the town, tucked into the side of the mountain as cozy as a brimming sugarhouse in spring. The New Haven River carves its way through the rocky ledges of Lincoln, cascading into Bristol and flattening out into New Haven, both a kayaker’s playground and a fisherman’s dream for its abundant trout. Bristol Cliffs Wilderness offers its own unique terrain, while Lincoln captures the majesty of the central Greens, sporting some of the most spectacular scenery with its vistas of Mount Abe — and Starksboro’s easterly border has a grandeur all of its own.
For those who suggest Bristol and the five towns are doomed to see a declining school population, that’s the pessimistic view. Optimists would look at other metrics, including the area’s inherent beauty; the state’s most populous and fastest growing county just a few miles to the north; housing prices that are far lower than Chittenden County; towns with a sense of community; a growing trend to allow employees to work from home; a relatively safe and low-crime environment; two of Vermont’s most iconic ski areas just 15 miles away; good elementary schools and the potential to have a stellar high school. The opportunity is there for the five-town area to flourish.
Or not. A deteriorating high school is one reason for families to pick another nearby town with similar assets and with better school facilities.
As much as anything, Thursday’s vote on the school bond is a vote on the future of the five towns.
Angelo Lynn

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