Survey: Residents unhappy with MAUSD

BRISTOL — After weeks of interviewing and surveying community members this spring, then analyzing the 249 responses they got, the Mount Abraham Unified School District has released a summary of its findings.
The results are not so great.
Of the eight words used most frequently to describe interviewees’ feelings toward the district, only one was positive, and only moderately so: “hopeful.”
The other seven were: “disappointed,” “frustrated,” “worried,” “ambivalent,” “uncertain,” “dysfunctional” and “lackluster.”
Some of the responses in the Community Interviews sponsored by the school board’s Community Engagement Committee likely stemmed from the challenges of recent school board consolidation. Others may have emerged from the negative climate that has persisted for several years in the district, which has led to frequent changes in leadership and a deterioration of public trust.
Either way, the school board had been prepared to get the results it got.
“The topics covered in the responses were not surprising,” said Krista Siringo, who chairs the Community Engagement Committee. “They reinforced what needs to be worked on.”
Survey respondents felt most positively about the district’s elementary schools, its teachers and the strength of the 5-town community. Examples of things they thought were going well in the district included extracurricular activities, personalized learning, community connections and student activism.
They felt most concerned about leadership, communication, lack of trust, the impacts of consolidation, the facilities and the overall experience at Mount Abraham Union Middle/High School, lack of support for teachers and students, and increasing costs and taxes. Other things they thought were not going well in the district included a lack of academic rigor/opportunities.
Community respondents listed facilities and “communication pathways/feedback loops” as their top priorities for further discussion.
In answer to the question “When you think about these topics, what do you think school leaders should keep in mind as they make decisions about any or all of these matters?” the community said:
•Students need to be the focus and the number-one priority. Student voices should be connected to decisionmaking.
•Connection and engagement with the community, teachers, staff and students is important.
•Communication is also important. If the board wants community support, it needs to be informed by school leaders and listen to the community.
If recent months are any indication, communication in the district is not improving.
At the MAUSD annual meeting in February, when asked for more detailed budget information, Superintendent Patrick Reen suggested that it was too complicated to be released to the public.
A month later, after ordering Reen to collaborate with the teachers’ union on an issue, the school board realized it had no authority to do so. While the teachers’ union waited for some kind of collaboration to happen, the school board chose to address its error in a secret executive session that included Reen — but not the teachers’ union. When Tom Learmonth, the co-president of the teachers’ union, raised concerns about the lack of expected collaboration, the board refused to respond to him. Finally, months later, the board finally acknowledged the error in public, then proceeded to address it — in a secret executive session.
When contacted by the Independent about the issue, the board declined to answer almost all of its questions.
In May, Reen politely declined a school board member’s request for information about a climate survey the superintendent’s office conducted this spring, in which faculty and staff provided feedback about their respective principals and other administrators. Details of the survey could not be shared, he said, because it was a personnel issue.
But communication is something the district wants to get better at, Siringo said, and as much as the district is grateful for the information it has collected through recent interviews and surveys, it also places a high value on the act of listening.
“For the people who conducted the interviews, that deep engagement — sitting down and listening, rather than just sharing information — was a really powerful experience, as was the act of sharing,” Siringo said. “This approach has been about quality not quantity.”
It’s an approach that was developed — with significant input from Reen and from community members — under the guidance of professional mediator Susan McCormack, who has been working with the school district in 2019.
And though part of the Community Engagement Committee’s goal is to build a framework for positive community engagement, the committee recognizes that people in the district are impatient for real action, Siringo said.
To that end, at its annual retreat in August, the MAUSD board plans to tackle a number of issues, including facilities and communication.
At its own retreat a week later, the Community Engagement Committee plans to propose a new communication plan for the district.
In the fall, the MAUSD hopes to convene a number of community conversations based on previous Community Engagement Committee work and the August retreats.
“This is a learning process,” Siringo said. “We want to do this and we want to do it well.”
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].

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