Five-town forum draws crowd to discuss future of Mount Abe

BRISTOL — About 50 community members gathered this past Saturday morning at Mount Abraham Union High School to facilitate a process for the entire community to “take ownership of stuff we think really needs to get done” at the high school and, according to Bristol resident David Brynn, apply that energy collaboratively with the school board and high school administration.
The group behind the community meeting call itself the Five-Town Steering Committee. It was the second Community Forum the group has hosted to discuss MAUHS’s role in the Five-Town community. The first forum was held on Jan. 6, during which the group collected input from 70 participants about the ways the district towns — Bristol, Monkton, New Haven, Starksboro and Lincoln — can support the high school and vice versa.
This round, the committee distilled these ideas, distributed them in a handout, and directed two breakout groups for more concrete discussion and action steps.
Among those attending Saturday’s meeting were five current students at the high school, a handful of members of five-town school boards being dissolved under Act 46, parents of current and former students, teachers and former teachers from around the district, one member of the Bond Renovation Committee, public employees, and interested community members with no direct affiliation with the school.
The Steering Committee has formed a nonprofit to officially facilitate this community effort with the official title: the “5-Town Community Learning Network.” Its stated mission is to “compile, create and curate local collaboration opportunities in support of community vitality.”
The pressing “collaboration opportunity” at hand is the inadequacy of the high school building on Airport Road in Bristol. Students emphasized the lack of light available in the building as well as the dramatic temperature fluctuations that inhibit learning, likening the school to a prison several times.
Addison Northeast Supervisory Union residents have failed to pass three bonds over the past four years to fund much-needed maintenance to the building. On Town Meeting Day in March, voters scoffed at the $29.5 million price tag for the most recent renovation plan. Many have found the plans to be too ambitious and costly.
Participants in one breakout room at Saturday’s forum discussed ways the high school building could be further integrated into the lives of the adult community, particularly older residents, to make best use of the building as critical community infrastructure and incentivize investment. Some compelling ideas were voiced, such as a dialysis center for five-town residents who regularly travel either to Rutland or Burlington for dialysis, along with adult learning classes similar to those at Champlain Valley Union High School in Hinesburg.
The conversation quickly migrated to the issue of “deferred maintenance” of the building to try and understand exactly what is needed to address the most urgent needs of the building, and what that would cost. This prompted more questions than answers.
Bob Patterson, a member of the ANESU Renovation Committee and former fire marshal with decades of experience in public facilities, emphasized that the committee had done little to investigate the true cost of a project that solved critical issues that weren’t a wholesale renovation of the building.
“I’ve been in a lot of schools because of my job. And this is one of the best-kept schools in the state,” Patterson told the group. “This building here is a solid building. In my mind, there’s not a lot of deferred maintenance. In fact this (cafeteria) was redone two or three years ago. I found that the cost was excessive for what (the Renovation Committee was) trying to do.”
An outcome of the discussion was the need to investigate the most urgent needs of the building, involving local construction professionals, students and administrators, and to assess the cost.
The gym was also brought up as a critical piece of infrastructure that needed expansion and improvements, and was tabled as a subject of further conversation.
A second breakout group that focused on the educational resources of the school discussed the emergent gaps in teen physical and emotional health issues and interests, especially in light of recent staff cuts in the nurse’s office.
Starksboro resident Caleb Elder said the group also talked about “mechanisms for plugging community engagement into school governance structure, which is now through the new merged (Mount Abraham Unified School District) board.” The obvious place this would happen would be the school councils, mandated under Act 46, to promote communication and field more community input within the consolidated board.
The Steering Committee collected information on personal interest to coordinate further follow-up in the six most pressing areas.
Su White, an organizer of the event, sees the 5-Town Community Learning Network serving as “a central processing place so that information is disseminated,” helping to “build the community that can identify both the projects and the energy (to carry those projects out), and then to connect with the people who aren’t here and bring them into it.”
It is uncharted territory, but the energy was palpable.
“We’re modeling a very different process,” said White. “It’s very exciting.”
White wants the entire community at the table:
“The invitation continues to go out to everybody who has interest and investment in the school. And those are taxpayers, administrators, teachers, former and perspective parents. It’s all of us.”

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