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Letter to the editor: Latest Mt. Abe renovation plan still unaffordable

The March 6 vote on the revised $29.5 million Mount Abraham Union High School renovation bond brings to mind the quote often attributed to Albert Einstein, who may or may not have said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
And indeed, here we go again with yet another round of the same Mt. Abe remodeling madness and another largely identical bond issue just as objectionable as those before and for the same familiar reasons.
While officials of the Mount Abraham Unified School District (MAUSD) are presenting this as a different vote on a new bond for a lower amount, in both spirit and expense, this “new” bond remains much the same as the others, one with an equally unaffordable budget and the same general level of unacceptable liability that taxpayers have already vetoed twice.
Much has been written and said about this “bond of the living dead” and the two that failed before it. Our community and its cash-strapped citizens have spoken out wisely about the alarmingly outsized burden a more than $30 million public debt represents in a community our size. The dubious merits of spending such an excessive amount in an era of declining student enrollment have been well discussed. And the unacceptable toll any additional education taxes would take on family budgets and housing security at a time when those taxes are already ballooning beyond the ability of many to pay — an estimated $0.07 statewide increase this year alone — has been correctly pointed out.
These arguments should all be foremost in every voter’s mind as he or she confronts this “new” Mt. Abe bond ballot. But there are two more factors to consider, and though they have received little attention, they may be the most important of all.
First, it has become increasingly apparent that the traditional public education model employed by Mt. Abe is failing our kids. According to 2017 figures from the Vermont Department of Education, a startling 53 percent of Mt. Abe 11th graders scored “below proficient” in language arts testing. At 67 percent, the figure for math non-proficiency was even more alarming. Clearly, the old educational ways no longer work in today’s world. We need to dramatically reinvent the way we teach our young people — new educational thinking, innovative teaching approaches, and much different learning tactics. It would be criminal to spend $29.5 million on such a clear, backward-looking boondoggle.
Second, and equally important, I resent the apparent current intent of MAUSD officials to govern by fatigue. The operative approach to the Mt. Abe renovation dilemma is one of unaccountable defiance. The thinking of the administration seems to be that if they just keep foisting the same problematic bond on the public for vote after slightly altered vote, eventually they’ll wear our community down to the point of exhaustion with the process and get what they want by default and quite regardless of the taxpaying majority’s wishes.
Such a management approach by a public entity is not just ill conceived and insubordinate, it is damaging to the fabric of our community. The troubling we-know-better attitude that sits between the lines of yet another de facto $30 million bond proposal belittles public concerns and completely disregards the now twice expressed will of the voters. Worse, these recalcitrant attempts to repeatedly flog a dead bond-issue horse despite clear majority public opinion against it leaves us all banging our proverbial heads against the metaphorical wall and slowly drains everyone of the will to participate in the process at the very moment when that participation is needed most.
Our democracy suffers the consequences of this frustration and the apathy it engenders, and our schools and its students do, too. Our community must stand strong against this repeated public agency refusal to yield to the voters’ explicit democratic wishes.
And that’s really the crux of the issue: it’s our money and our school. We, the community, pay for it, and we, the community, own it. That’s why we vote on school budgets and boards in the first place — because everyone at the district and its high school ultimately works for us.
The reappearance at the ballot box may signal another need entirely, one for a new administrative regime that will actually listen to what our community has been consistently saying and produce the type of rational bond proposal its voters have repeatedly asked for, one built on the fiscal prudence and outside-the-box thinking that have been sadly lacking in this process.
That spirit of economic sanity and creative imagination is not hard to find. It was on abundant display on Jan. 6, where astonishingly more than 70 members of our Five-Town community defied absolutely bone-breaking temperatures to participate in a forum at Bristol Elementary School focused on designing a renovation plan that would cost half as much and get at least 60 percent of the voting public’s support. So far as I can see, in a single morning, this citizen-led effort was far more constructive, productive, and respectful of our community’s very real concerns and wishes than its school officials have been throughout most of this bond ordeal.
No one, myself included, is questioning the urgent need for certain necessary repairs and improvements at Mt. Abe. There’s much work to be done. But like the previously rejected bond issues, the “new” bond proposal once again goes beyond essentials to include too many wish-list luxuries like a second gymnasium, a swankier lobby and front office, and a relocated library. In refusing to budge on these and other items, officials continue to ignore taxpayers’ mandate and traffic in the unrealistic, the unnecessary, and the unaffordable. They’re refusing to yield to what is now a clearly expressed taxpayer directive and wasting our community’s time with repeated re-votes that do nothing but defer vital maintenance while the clock ticks needlessly on and our local high school falls further into disrepair.
We can have a high school building everyone can be proud of, one that our children can use as a springboard to bigger and better things, one that won’t bankrupt homeowners, and one that taxpayers will fully support. But we won’t get it until and unless our school officials begin to sincerely listen to the community they are supposed to serve and respond accordingly. That’s the only route to a genuinely viable solution that will work for all, and at this point a “no” vote on the bond seems to be the only way to halt the insanity and get there.
Geoff Davis
New Haven

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