What does MAUSD’s future look like?
Without change, our spending is going to continue to rise.
— Superintendent Patrick Reen
BRISTOL — Last week’s public forum organized by the Mount Abraham Unified School District’s Community Engagement Committee drew about 165 people to a Mount Abraham Union High School cafeteria and applause at its conclusion for the committee’s efforts to obtain and listen to residents’ suggestions about the future of district schools.
The Nov. 20 meeting also offered more sobering news about MAUSD finances.
Superintendent Patrick Reen said officials now estimate that without cuts in programs and/or staffing, next year MAUSD would be $850,000 over the state-allowed threshold after which the district would incur a dollar-for-dollar tax penalty.
Reen said over the next three years at least $4 million of savings or new revenue is needed to avoid the tax penalty.
He also presented estimates showing that a combination of rising costs and declining enrollment limits some alternatives to handling a fiscal crunch.
Declining enrollment is a key driver of the problem because the state funds schools on a per-pupil basis.
The Community Engagement Committee has now held nine meetings in the past two months (one in each district town, one each with staff and students, and two district-wide in Bristol) to help residents understand the issues and also to seek ideas on how best to move forward.
“This is part of why we need to talk about do we need to make change, and if we do, what does it need to be,” Reen said. “Without change, our spending is going to continue to rise.”
Among the ideas that residents have suggested are leasing unused space in schools, making efforts to lure families to the district, creating magnet schools to increase enrollment, and cutting staff.
Reen said MAUSD officials studied the options and came up with the best numbers they could on each:
• Depending on use, lease rates range from $9 to $20 per square foot, assuming renovated space.
To raise $1 million per year, MAUSD thus estimates between 83 and 185 classrooms would have to be leased. Officials did not immediately respond to a question of how many district classrooms there are in total, but one teacher estimated there are little more than two-dozen in the New Haven, Lincoln, Monkton and Starksboro schools.
• To avoid exceeding the tax-penalty threshold, MAUSD enrollment would have to increase by at least 40 next year, 114 in 2021-2022, and 191 in 2022-2023, assuming current staffing and programming. Enrollment has declined in all MAUSD schools over the past two decades.
• To save $1 million a year by eliminating jobs, the district would have to cut 8.6 administrators, 12.6 teachers, or 22.1 support staff members.
According to a meeting handout there are currently 7.7 building administrators and 155 teachers.
• The district could save between $1.25 million and $1.75 million per year for each school it closes — estimates Reen said were reasonable.
“We’d need a lot of additional data, but this is at least enough to start a conversation,” he said.
As it stands now, MAUSD Articles of Unification require that voters in a school’s host town agree to close their school.
Reen said MAUSD residents could vote to give the board the power to close schools without single-town votes. He told the Independent the board could ask for such a measure to be placed on a ballot, or a citizen petition could make that request.
Reen also suggested that some combination of cuts or revenue enhancement might be necessary for a budget to pass in March; the 2019 budget passed by 13 votes. The MAUSD board will hold a budget forum at Mount Abe at 6 p.m. on Dec. 10.
“The assumption exists that there wouldn’t be taxpayer support for a budget that exceeded the tax threshold,” Reen said.
Community Engagement Committee Chairwoman Krista Siringo asked the crowd, gathered around tables in groups of eight, to “keep in mind the shared goals” and values developed through earlier community gatherings as well as the “specific challenges” that Reen outlined.
In a group exercise organized by facilitator Susan McCormack, residents on Nov. 20 ranked in order those shared values as producing “socially and emotionally healthy kids,” the importance of teachers, academic excellence, varied and flexible programming, equity for all students, community connections with schools, student-led personalized learning, and the importance of town schools.
The district offered six scenarios for discussion, and asked residents to brainstorm their own:
• The status quo, including possibly moving the central office into one of the schools and saving $50,000 annual rent.
• Consolidation of all the education into the town of Bristol, which would host a K-grade 4 school, a grades 5-12 school, and a pre-K school shared with the central office site.
• Pre-K to grades 4 or 5 schools in Lincoln, Monkton, New Haven and Starksboro; a grades 6-8 middle school in what is now Bristol Elementary; and a grades 9-12 high school and the central office at Mount Abe.
• Two magnet elementary schools, one for arts and humanities and one for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), at locations to be determined; a 6-8 middle school and a 9-12 high school; and a central office in a vacated school.
• A “Public-Private Partnership” that would retain the current configuration and hope to make up some of the financial shortfall by leasing space in each school.
• Tuitioning out high school students, creating a K-8 school on the Mount Abe campus, and keeping one elementary school building as a central office and Pre-K school.
Siringo said the Community Engagement Committee will meet on Dec. 16 to reflect on what it learned on Nov. 20, and would share the feedback by the end of next month.
The MAUSD board intends in January to review residents’ input and pick final scenarios to study, examine them from February to July, unveil a plan in August, conduct discussions over the next two months, choose a course of action in November 2020, and warn a vote for March 2021.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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