Mt. Abe district report rejected

BRISTOL — A few minutes into the second annual meeting of the Mount Abraham Unified School District (MAUSD) Tuesday evening, moderator Pam Marsh asked for a motion to adopt the report of the school district’s offices.
What she got instead was quite the opposite.
“I move that we reject the report because it says that it has the proposed 2019–20 budget and I cannot find a proper budget in here anywhere,” said Bristol resident Brenda Tillberg.
The MAUSD is asking voters to approve nearly $31 million in spending next year for six schools in Bristol, Lincoln, Monkton, New Haven and Starksboro — an 8.17 percent increase in spending per equalized pupil. Voting on the budget will take place by Australian ballot on March 5.
The 92-page annual report Tillberg found wanting includes graphic and spreadsheet information about the budget, but not the budget itself, which MAUSD Superintendent Patrick Reen said is more than 60 pages long.
“To understand that budget would mean sitting down with folks in our business office for several hours to talk through what’s represented in there,” Reen said at the meeting. “We’ve brought together what was previously seven different budgets, and things that existed in one place now exist in a different place, so it’s not as easy as tracking from year to year to see how lines have shifted.”
This is the second annual budget proposed by MAUSD, which officially unified the Addison Northeast Supervisory Union’s school boards in July. Last year, the district’s 2018 report, which was 31 pages shorter and contained far less information, was approved unanimously after a brief discussion.
This year, faced with a $1,354 increase in spending per equalized pupil to $17,730, the meeting’s more than 30 attendees were not so sure.
When asked Tuesday night if the school board had reviewed a detailed budget for next year, board chair Dawn Griswold acknowledged that it had not.
“We looked at where we added money in the budget,” said Griswold, who chaired pre-unification boards. “We didn’t go line by line. And we haven’t gone line by line for many years.”
This did not sit well with Kourtney Penatzer, who recently moved to Bristol from Pennsylvania.
“You’re asking towns who’ve just had a reassessment — and obviously whose taxes have gone up significantly this past year — to give you $2 million more, but you’re not telling us where the money’s going. The towns are paying what they can. The taxes here — I’m sorry — are crazy.”
After spirited discussion, Tillberg’s motion carried handily and the report went unapproved.
When contacted by the Independent, state education officials agreed that the rejection of a school district’s annual report at an annual meeting was probably uncommon, but they were unable to confirm with data by press time. The Independent was unable to reach Reen for comment in time for this story.
The article’s rejection set the tone for the rest of the meeting, which ran twice as long as scheduled.
After an hour and 45 minutes, Marsh tried to intervene by declaring that an emerging side discussion was not germane to the budget.
“We do need to be looking towards bringing this meeting to a close,” she said.
But Marsh was overruled by vote and the meeting continued for another half hour.
Reen explained proposed budget increases in as much detail as his abridged presentation would allow, and the public responded with thoughtful questions and appreciation.
Starksboro resident Herb Olson said he thought a proposed capital reserve fund, which will appear on the March 5 ballot, was a good idea.
“Our town municipal budget has had reserve funds for capital plans and it just worked really well,” Olson said. “It’s always subject to voter approval (and) it allows to sort of even out over the years expenses that you might have capital expenditures for.”
But two undeniable and seemingly insurmountable facts — declining enrollment and increasing expenses — sometimes made for less than hopeful discussion.
“I am not an advocate of closing a school,” said New Haven resident Tim Bouton. “At the same time, we all, as residents of this district, have got to make sure that we’re not avoiding the subject until it becomes critical. You don’t need to be having it as a major subject for board meetings, but as individuals you need to be thinking that that’s some of the direction we’ve got to go in in the future — if population keeps going down.”
Monkton resident Mark Rickner wondered how long the MAUSD itself could survive, given current trends.
“If (enrollment) decline keeps on going, when do we become a nonviable district?” he said, pointing to a projected loss of 155 students in MAUSD schools between 2016 and 2024.
Throughout the night, several attendees spoke of a disconnection between the board and the community. The board expressed similar frustrations but pointed out that its Community Engagement Committee had begun hosting events and conducting outreach in the community.
That committee will be sponsoring a major event on March 16 at Bristol Elementary School. Community members looking for more ways to get involved in the MAUSD can look forward to a daylong professionally moderated workshop. Details about that event will appear in a future edition of the Independent.
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].

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