Community Forum: A slight course correction needed at Mount Abe

On Town Meeting Day this March, voters of the five towns of the Addison Northeast Supervisory Union school district will be asked to approve a bond request for renovation of the existing building at Mount Abraham Union High School in Bristol. As we consider this third request, I would like to suggest an alternative approach that enlarges the objectives, reduces the cost and produces a result that is far more appropriate to our existing challenges.
Let’s build an enhanced campus renamed “Gateway Park” that offers the following to the community:
1) A newly built, first class, contemporary academic teaching building for our middle and high school students. (60,000 square feet)
2) A connected and supportively operated incubator facility (existing Mt. Abe building) available to local nascent business enterprises; (50,000 square feet, available in 2,500-square-foot chunks) with meeting, exercise, research and learning facilities to be re-envisioned as The Eagle Institute. It would be open to the Five-Town community for the benefit of students and citizens alike.
The Future of Addison County Public Education: The problems we face are much bigger than renovating one of 55 Vermont public high schools. The means and methods we have all come to rely upon for creating educated, responsible citizens is breaking down due to a number of forces beyond our immediate control. These reasons include:
•  A statewide student enrollment decline, down from 100,000 to 76,000 in the past 20 years.
•  A statewide decline in population among young home-buying, family-starting citizens.
•  Unsustainable Mt. Abe budget increases (between FY16 and FY17 of 10.4 percent, and a projected increase between FY17 and FY18 of 4 percent, for an average annual rate increase of 7.2 percent). This rate of increase will double our tax burden for public education in 10 years.
•  A cost per student per year of $16,932. Each Mt. Abe 7-12 graduate will cost us taxpayers a total of over $118,520, an investment far too dear to send away without any retention effort.
•  A brain drain of our current graduates, where one in four will leave Vermont to attend post-secondary education, and not return.
In the words of Will Rogers, “When you find yourself in a deep hole, the first thing to do is stop digging.”
We need to seek a solution that does not rely upon an expensive, taxpayer financed “gut-renovation” of every square foot of a 50-year-old, oversized, outdated school building. I would like to suggest a modest alternative.
Enrollment Expansion: We can reverse our student body decline by creating a new school based on contemporary thinking and clarity of purpose. Vermont continues to thrive in certain areas. Chittenden County is currently home to the most robust growth and the finest public secondary schools in the state. Bristol can become the “next Hinesburg,” home to a school of fine reputation and dedicated to attracting new young families into the area. Let’s give Chittenden County a neighboring place to grow.
By undertaking the design and construction of a new, right-sized and contemporary academic center in a reinvigorated Gateway Park, we can engage the best thinking of the country’s most successful schools. Together, our staff and students can drive a stake in the ground for academic excellence.
Population Increase: The statewide decline in population is not inevitable for the 5-Town area. We can become a beacon for young families looking for a quality of life for themselves and a fine public education for their children. As every organization with a bright future understands, “Engage the kids and the parents will follow.”
Tax Containment: This type of growth is the best way to bend down the curve of rises in the annual cost per student. By increasing the student body, and the taxpayer base that supports their education, everybody’s individual burden is eased.
Talent Retention: By simultaneously developing the Eagle Institute, we can foster native business concepts that reside on the same campus as Bristol’s students, otherwise known as tomorrow’s employees. Imagine a school environment where students can watch new ideas spring to life – where they can involve themselves on the ground floor of tomorrow’s products and services, even participating in exchange for academic credit.
I have watched a parade of businesses slip through Bristol’s fingers over the years, taking their energy and the employment of hundreds of people with them. A short list includes Danforth Pewter, Maple Landmark, Vermont Coffee Company, Aqua-ViTea and Autumn Harp, all of them built by dedicated and resourceful local residents frustrated at the beginning of their business growth by the inability of the Bristol area to support their need for shelter, resources and space. This is starting to change, the effort needs a boost.
Finally, imagine an Eagle Institute also serving as a center for research and development of strategies and solutions to our most pressing social problems. Think of local, non-polluting agricultural practices, think of new and more productive use of our currently underutilized timber resources, think of safer, less poisonous transportation solutions, just think…
These are not outlandish pipe dreams that we can’t afford, these are objectives we need to adopt that require nothing more than a slight course correction.
To get to “Yes,” we have to first say “No”:
Please join me in voting “no” for the third (and fourth time, if necessary) to the District’s requests to renovate Mt. Abraham Union High School. Let’s shift gears and take the time to think creatively together about spending less money while achieving a more sustainable future, right here in the community and state we all love.
Will Rogers also said, “You’ve got to go out on a limb sometimes because that’s where the fruit is.”
Editor’s note: Steve Harris is a principal of Harris & Harris Consulting Inc., employed as an Owner’s Representative for clients designing, permitting and constructing municipal and commercial projects throughout Vermont and the Eastern seaboard.  He has been a Lincoln resident and taxpayer since 1984.

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