Community input, brainstorming focus of Mt. Abe facilities meeting

BRISTOL — Close to 60 five-town residents gathered at Monday night’s meeting of the reinstated Mount Abraham Renovation Committee. It was overwhelmingly the largest draw of residents on the subject of what to do with the 49-year-old facility that houses Mount Abraham Union Middle/High School.
Although no final decisions were made — the evening was devoted to public input and collective brainstorming — there was one insistent takeaway for those who participated in the three hours of discussion:
Schedule the next bond vote on Town Meeting Day.
This goal was echoed by citizen after citizen who stood up in the first part of the meeting to give their individual ideas and feedback.
Many residents also thanked the committee for their public service on the project, starting with Bristol state Rep. Dave Sharpe. Both Sharpe, a Democrat, and Republican colleague Fred Baser were at the meeting.
On Nov. 2, five-town voters defeated the Addison Northeast Supervisory Union’s proposed $35 million bond to finance an estimated $36.6 renovation project for Mount Abe. School officials have called renovation necessary to support students over the next 50 years.
The 1,261-to-1,168 vote yielded a 93-vote margin of defeat but engaged only about 32 percent of registered voters. In 2014, five-town voters defeated a $32.6 million Mount Abe repair plan by a more substantial, 3,328-to-1,239 margin, and with more voters participating.
The reinstated 18-person Renovation Committee is charged with coming up with a new bond proposal and setting the date for the next bond vote. The committee has been given a Dec. 15 deadline to report to the full Mount Abe school board, in preparation for an all-ANESU boards meeting on Dec. 19.
As the public has become increasingly active on the bond issue, the supervisory union has been criticized for not holding an inclusive-enough process. At the same time, the Renovation Committee, formed last February, took all interested comers, began and held comment periods at the beginning and end of each meeting, and reached out to the community via various social media sites and other forms of communication. The lead-up to the vote itself involved a series of presentations. Neither the Renovation Committee meetings nor the vote information sessions were well attended by the public.
The reinvigorated public discussion — both before and after the bond vote — has also resulted in the dissemination of some inaccuracies. School officials and committee members have encouraged the public to get informed and to speak out constructively as the process moves forward. Occasionally, the committee has had to remind others that it too is made up of community members and that the defeated bond proposal went through its own process of due diligence and opportunities for public input that went largely unavailed.
A group of five-town citizens has begun its own series of meetings and plans to hold a stakeholder brainstorming session on Jan. 6, and is working on securing a place to hold the meeting. Mount Abe is holding a wrestling tournament on Jan. 6 and is not available.
Many have encouraged the committee to hire a professional facilitator to engage the public in discussion, brainstorming, ascertaining a bond amount the community can support, and sifting through of priorities.
Monday’s meeting was indeed the first at which the 2017 Renovation Committee took a different tack and structured a meeting as a public brainstorming session. Critics of the process thus far have stressed that given the second “no” vote on a Mount Abe bond, this kind of public engagement is critical to passing a bond.
On Monday, citizens embraced the opportunity to weigh in — both by showing up and by standing up and speaking out.
In addition to encouraging the committee, repeatedly, to hold any vote on a new bond proposal on Town Meeting Day, residents offered a variety of opinions and perspectives on the Mount Abe renovation project. These included:
•  Finding a price point the community can support.
•  Concerns from both individuals and local business owners about rising taxes.
•  Separating perceived wants from needs.
•  Better engagement of students in the renovation process.
•  Better engagement of the community in the renovation process.
•  Improvements in school-community communication.
•  The challenges of renovating a building in an era of declining enrollment.
Several attendees spoke to:
•  The need to provide an up-to-date infrastructure for science and technology.
•  The need for a middle school gym; students in six grades share one gym.
Others encouraged the renovation project to embrace solar energy or in other ways to make the building more sustainable. Others suggested expanding the building’s purpose to include adult education. Still others suggested the school scrap the current facility and build from scratch.
In its earlier deliberations, the Renovation Committee was told by its architectural and engineering consultants that new construction would cost around twice as much as renovation.
The evening was marked overall by frank opinions, courteously offered. At various times, however, tensions did spark. At one point after the public comments section had ended, a man stood to tell the committee that they’d been going at the project all wrong and should lease the building through public-private partnerships and then build a new facility. He gave his opinion and then walked out.
As the evening moved on to small group brainstorming, others left but many stayed to hang in there and engage in the collaborative process. Mount Abe Principal Jessica Barewicz led attendees through a brainstorming exercise, which took up the remainder of the evening. Attendees counted off by fives and formed small groups. Each group worked together to make a list of priorities, starting from a list of priorities gathered through the community-engagement sessions that lead up to the 2014 bond vote. Individuals could also add new priorities to the list, which they did.
As the exercise progressed, smaller groups then melded and repeated the process, which culminated in each individual getting to weigh in on his or her own priorities. These were then tallied.
In the group process that this reporter observed, the clear top vote-getters were “fiscal responsibility” and “community engagement,” variously defined. Both categories were offered spontaneously by group members, as the original list of priorities focused on the needs of the building itself.
Top priorities for renovating the building included, in order of voting tally:
•  Adding a second gym.
•  Addressing safety and code issues.
•  Improving air circulation and ventilation.
•  Improving science classrooms.
•  Bringing in more natural light.
•  Moving tech education to the first floor.
•  Revamping the school entryway to make it less “prisonlike” and more “welcoming.”
•  Moving the library to the front of the building.
The same series of processes yielded yet another final brainstorming of priorities from another group.
The evening concluded with another chance for public comment in which concerns were raised about being “corralled into the same conversation” and about needing more avenues to think “outside the box.”
The Mount Abe renovation committee next meets on Wednesday, Dec. 6, at 6 p.m. at Mount Abe. Committee members encourage the public to attend. Additionally, the committee has created a survey about the Nov. 2 vote and about Mount Abe renovation and are encouraging community members to respond before the Dec. 6 meeting at surveymonkey.com/r/JYMS7ND.

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