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Voters reject Mount Abe bond for third time; new approaches sought

ADDISON COUNTY — After voters in the Addison Northeast Supervisory Union on Tuesday defeated a $29.5 million bond for the renovation of Mount Abraham Union Middle/High School, 1,785–1,196, the pressing question is, “What now?”
The bond’s defeat for the third time most likely delays any construction until at least 2020, pending the ability of the 5-town community to agree on a building project, vote for a bond and start the design phase.
Proponents of the recently defeated bond noted that the renovation plan, if passed, would have initiated an 11-month design phase before breaking ground on the project in 2019. They also noted that inflation added about $1.5 million annually to a bond of that size, according to the Mount Abe Renovation Committee.
“It is sad for the students and staff,” said ANeSU board chair Dawn Griswold. “The Mount Abraham board saw this as the time to move forward with the proposed project, and we were hoping for a successful vote. It’s not the results we wanted, but the community has spoken.”
Voters had initially defeated a $32 million bond in 2014 by a vote of 3,328–1,239; then defeated a $36.5 million bond this past November, 1,261–1,168 in a special election that drew a small turnout. The number of supporters of the three bonds was almost unchanged each time a vote was held.
Though she was disappointed, Griswold said she was grateful for those who championed the project. “I would like to thank the Renovation Committee and Communication Committee for working so incredibly hard on the bond project. The Mount Abraham board is grateful for your dedication, time and the hard work the members put into this proposal.”
So what’s next?
Superintendent Patrick Reen said future school improvement plans will ultimately fall to the newly formed Mount Abraham Unified School District (MAUSD) board. The ANeSU’s transition to the MAUSD will be complete on July 1.
“The assumption is that there will be some interest in pursuing another bond,” Reen said, “regardless of the size or scope of future plans for the school.”
OUT OF THE BOX
The district is willing to consider out-of-the-box scenarios, he said, but because of the “immense cost” involved in conducting feasibility studies, focus would likely be limited to whatever plans offer the greatest possibility for success.
Lincoln resident Steve Harris, a proponent of out-of-the-box thinking and a critic of the $29.5 million bond, views the bond’s defeat as a turning point in the 5-town community’s discussion.
“I don’t believe that any of the nearly 3,000 voters that expressed their opinion wishes to do nothing,” he said. “There is a great deal to do and the sooner we get started with a truly open evaluation of affordable and creative alternatives, the sooner a winning solution will reveal itself.”
Harris said the vote was not a “no” to the students of Mount Abe so much as a “yes” to a better approach to their future.
Harris had proposed one scenario in which the district would build a new 60,000-square-foot building for classroom space just north of the existing high school (connected to the existing facility with a hallway), while still using the library, gymnasium, auditorium, pool and other spaces of the existing school facility. The space not used in the existing building would then be leased or sold to a commercial developer to create a business incubator space, much like that created at nearby Bristol Works.
In light of the third bond defeat, Harris also suggested that an option going forward would be to engage an independent facilitator with experience helping communities make decisions about their schools. That would take the monkey off the school board’s back, help broaden community participation and conceive of new ideas to best serve the district.
Bristol resident David Brynn also opposed the renovation bond and had convened several community-wide gatherings right after the second bond defeat in November. He said he hopes the bond’s defeat will provide opportunities for more people to be more engaged in the planning process for the next steps.
“A lot of very dedicated people at Mount Abe — parents, students and administration — worked very hard to be holistic in their approach,” he said. “However, I feel like the circle wasn’t wide enough.”
“No one has all the answers right now,” Brynn acknowledged, noting the community needs a process that welcomes all the options.
In the meantime, he said, “We need to slow down, ponder, engage, empower. We’re at the edge of an incredible opportunity to do something remarkably cool.”
Christopher Ross is at christopherr@addisionindependent.com.

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