Editorial: Mount Abe’s ‘what if’ scenario

“What if” is the question we ask in the third of a three-part report on the $29.5 million bond Mount Abraham district voters will decide this Town Meeting Day. That is, what if the bond gets defeated. Then what? What are the options? What is the next likely step?
We don’t ask the question with any bias toward the result, but rather to provide readers with a context to the upcoming vote (see story, click here). In this case, a vote to reject the $29.5 million definitely would not end the discussion because the community mostly agrees that improvements must be made. But a third defeat would require a hiatus of several months, with the next vote to be held no sooner than next November — a time to review and think anew.
So, where are we? Let’s recap:
• Architects cut about $7 million, or 20 percent, out of the $36.5 million bond that was defeated on the second vote. The basic concept of the existing high school renovation remains, but significant amenities were cut. If that bond passes, work will start this summer and students over the next couple of years will be co-mingling their school lives with a construction zone. That’s option one, and the preference of the administration and board.
• A second proposal is to further cut the proposed renovations to, say, under $20 million, and see if  voters would pass it.
• And Lincoln resident Stephen Harris, who works in large-scale construction, has proposed the outline of a third option we’ve reported before and briefly revisit in today’s third story. That proposal builds a modern, state-of-the-art 60,000-square-foot building for new classroom space adjacent and connected to the existing building, while using the cafeteria, gym, library and other larger spaces of the existing facility to prevent duplication and save money. The remainder of the existing building would be used as community incubator space for new entrepreneurs. Cost, Harris predicts, would be close to $20 million, but few details are available and no formal cost estimates have been made. While cutting the cost was one concern of Mr. Harris, it  was not his primary objective. Rather, it was to create a magnet school that would attract new families into the district and would prepare the district’s high school students for tomorrow’s jobs.
Now add two other concerns: the so-called “brain drain” and the possibility that student population could decline still further. The “brain drain” is defined as when a student who was educated in Vermont takes that investment and moves to another state, thereby depriving Vermont of a return on that investment in educating the student. From a strictly business perspective, we spend a lot of money educating kids only to see them use that investment elsewhere. How, then, can we keep those youth fully occupied here?
That’s a lot to contemplate. Probably too much and some of the balls are still up in the air, leaving voters to wonder if postponing a decision to just get started on the project and get it over with isn’t the better choice.
That’s a reasonable line of thought.
But here’s another. What is so special about the current facility that voters are willing to spend $29.5 million on renovations? Do they think academic performance will be improved, even though that performance has been in the bottom half of the state for several years? Is there some unique aspect of the existing building district residents can’t live without? Does it make sense to pay for space (heating, cooling and routine maintenance) that is not needed for the next 50 years? What part of the status quo do residents not want to change?
If there is not a good answer to that question, then spending a year to talk about the possibilities with fellow residents could be more productive than one might imagine. And the resources are plentiful for a vigorous discussion. In our quick research we discovered several expert sources, such as the Center for Reinventing Public Education, UP for Learning, or broader sources like the Rural Opportunities Consortium, as well as regional experts like Prof. Catharine Biddle at the Educational Leadership at the University of Maine. Ample information is available online.
To go down that path is a lot of work to embrace, but then, it just might lead to a sterling success. But the real question voters should ask is this: Do they think the renovation plan would ever yield an outstanding result?
Angelo Lynn

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