Wary of a big bond, some eye alternatives for Mt. Abe

Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of stories by Middlebury College intern Charlie Mitchell about the upcoming $29.5 million bond vote for the renovation of the Mount Abraham Union High School. Last Thursday, he gave a brief overview of the plan and looked at demographic and workforce trends in the district. This third story reviews other options as the district looks forward.
BRISTOL — While the ANESU board has been quiet in the months since the second bond was defeated, that failed vote mobilized other community members, who have held meetings attracting up to 70-plus residents with new options being discussed.
But first things first, and that means district voters need to focus on whether to pass the $29.5 million bond.
If the bond fails for a third time, no further bond action is possible until November of 2018. And because of board consolidation mandated by Act 46, the new Mount Abraham Union School District Board will most likely take up the mantle of repairing the building.
Superintendent Patrick Reen says that this new board “will need to regroup and consider what next steps it wants to take. One option would be to convene another study committee to explore putting forth another bond vote. However, there may be other options the board would want to consider.”
What might these “other options” be?
Groups have been convening from across the five-town community to share ideas and trade opinions for the future of the school. One such group, which started to call itself the Mount Abe Steering Committee, met several times for just over an hour with impressive attendance of more than 70 residents.
“We felt like late comers and we knew we were late comers, and we were apologetic, but interested. So we jumped in,” recounts David Brynn, one of the organizers of the Steering Committee.
The Steering Committee enjoyed wide representation from many corners of the community, including the Mount Abe community. “The idea was to find a bond that our community could rally around,” Brynn said. “We didn’t want to get to, ‘no.’ We wanted to get to ‘yes.’”
The Steering Committee shared concerns about the “brain drain” that plagues rural communities, asking, in Brynn’s words, “what is the experience at Mount Abe that will allow people who are local, who would like to stay local, to work locally?”
However, with the renovation project already at such an advanced stage, it was clear to Brynn that “this thing was moving very fast,” and that they “probably were not going to be having input that would significantly alter the proposal.” Therefore, before they pursued their concerns further, they’ve been focused on whether to support the next bond vote. Many in that group had lobbied for far deeper cuts to the third proposal.
Another frequent topic of discussion is a proposal developed by Steve Harris, a veteran of the construction and architecture industry, who lives in Lincoln. Harris circulated a provocative alternative proposal to the renovation in a concept paper for what he calls “The Eagle Institute.”
The paper contends that current project costs are not estimated accurately for a number of reasons and labels the renovation proposal an “insulting waste of resources based on an inability to think creatively.” He suggests construction of a new building adjacent to the school at almost half the cost of the renovation, while collaborating with a nonprofit or local developers to reimagine the current building.
Declaring that the “high school has been isolated far too long,” Harris said The Eagle Institute is imagined as a school that also provides “incubator space for nascent business enterprises, environmental laboratory space” and more.
Harris’s vision has drawn the attention of many, but the plan also has its critics. Supt. Reen points out the deep regulatory complexity of sharing a campus with private partners, saying, “I wonder what we would gain in (a public-private partnership) from a cost perspective and the complexities of sharing the use of those spaces that we struggle to have enough time in as it is now.”
Nonetheless, across the country while multi-use high schools, along with public-private partnerships, are rare, they are not unheard of and are being noticed. A public high school in Swampscott, Massachusetts shares much of its campus with an elderly services agency. Tech giant Oracle built a public “magnet” design and coding school to share with its employees in Redwood Shores, California.
While these may appear to come out of left field, Bristol businessman Kevin Harper asserts that “these aren’t hair-brained, impulsive concepts” and believes that “everything should be on the table.”
Acknowledging the regulatory hurdles, Harper says “it sometimes takes a person or group of individuals who are somewhat outside the system to be able to provide a fresh look at the challenges a private/public partnership might encounter.”
It was Stoney Hill Properties that orchestrated a successful public-private development project that resulted in the design and building of the new Bristol Fire Department building on land Stoney Hill Properties owned. Even though “it takes time” and “you have to build trust,” he’s shown that these partnerships are possible.
“I had the most amazing year-long experience working directly with the community that includes the administration, the select board, the planning commission, and most importantly, the community of firefighters who are so committed and so devoted to helping their neighbors,” Harper said. “We designed (the firehouse) together. And we trust they got what they wanted.”
Harper sees patterns of decline in rural communities as an important starting point, but also an opportunity.
“If you don’t accept the reality of some consolidation, and you don’t start with the demographic reality of an aging population, shrinking enrollments and the need for communities to aggregate their resources in more efficient ways, then we are going to get it shoved down our throats. Why not lead instead?”
A report from the Rural Opportunities Consortium of Idaho outlines that opportunity, expressing the hope that rural schools can be “hotbeds of innovation.”
“States might view the challenge for rural districts as one of harnessing the independent, nimble, and entrepreneurial spirit of rural communities, and empowering rural districts to innovate toward improved services in the context of limited resources,” stated the report by Marguerite Roza titled “Innovation Amid Financial Scarcity: The Opportunity in Rural Schools.”
“There are some communities that can galvanize and respond to these opportunities, and some that can’t,” says Paul Hill, founder of the Center for Reinventing Public Education, in challenging schools and communities to step up to the plate.
With the growing amounts of resources it takes to provide a high school education, “especially with the new demands on STEM and the constant developments in biology, the addition of coding and other STEM skills,” Hill says, rural superintendents are being forced to find new solutions.
“Often to the superintendent in a given town (or district), it’s totally clear to them that (their) school doesn’t have all it needs, and what we’ve seen is superintendents trying to collaborate with one another nearby and asking, ‘how can we do better for all of our kids?’”
According to Hill, the “best example” of these solutions is when districts keep their structure intact, but share resources regionally by “trying to find complementaries,” such as an area that lacks strong STEM programs, but has a healthy drama department.
“Educators say, ‘let’s see whether we can offer better, more thoroughly rounded high school education including STEM, to kids in this several-town area by collaborating … regarding the families of all the different schools as assets for the whole group.’”
No matter what, Hill says, districts should be in dialogue.
“Isolation hurts because it means districts can’t share specialist teachers and pool resources to hire people, e.g. science teachers, that one district might not be able to fully use,” he says.
Whatever the result of the March 6 bond vote, it seems clearer than in recent memory that the five-town community is eager to stay engaged with the future of the high school. And many are calling for a time of reflection in the event of a third rejection.
“Were the bond to fail, I think the town and school district could benefit tremendously from having a year-long conversation,” Harper says. David Brynn agrees, suggesting the town “have the process be facilitated by an outside group, so that it doesn’t land on the school district to facilitate that.”
UP for Learning, an organization led by education consultants and facilitators and based in Montpelier, is currently working with 11 Vermont schools to convene teams of students and adults to communicate and envision a school’s educational future. The teams are led through a course that provides support and context for the process. (More information is available at upforlearning.org.)
In that context, members of the various groups seem upbeat as the district heads toward this third vote.
“Whether the vote goes forward or is defeated, there is a very significant commitment to Mount Abe,” Brynn said. “It makes me proud of my community.”
Still, there is much work to be done.
“When you’re facing the kinds of complex set of challenges that rural communities are facing, having some kind of intentional plan is pretty important,” cautions Professor Catharine Biddle, assistant professor of Educational Leadership at the University of Maine. “And it needs strong leadership.”

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