Officials narrow options for MAUSD’s future
BRISTOL — Officials with the Bristol-area schools have pared back possible options as they plan for a future with continued declining enrollment. With state allotting education funds based on number of pupils, the projected loss of more than 200 students between 2015 and 2024 means that Mount Abraham Unified School District will have less money to spend on education unless voters agree to raise more in property taxes.
After Jan. 25 and Feb. 11 meetings the MAUSD board members and administrators agreed to narrow their focus to four scenarios for the future organization of the district that range from keeping things as they are to closing the high school and sending older students to the high school of their choice.
The decision was based on alignment of the district’s strategic plan, community feedback and the future financial picture, according to meeting minutes.
These scenarios will be studied in the coming months with a mandate to “identify the academic benefits needed to consider the scenarios,” according to a motion approved at the Feb. 11 meeting. It is hoped a Study and Development plan will be put before the community in August and residents of Bristol, Lincoln, New Haven, Monkton and Starksboro will vote a plan on Town Meeting Day 2021.
After a series of well-attended community forums throughout last fall the board originally developed seven scenarios to consider. But after a board and administrative retreat held on Jan. 25 and a Feb. 11 special board meeting, four scenarios, two of them variations of one scenario, were advanced for further study.
• Scenario 1: Status Quo — five kindergarten through sixth-grade schools (each town retains an elementary school), one middle/high school located at Mount Abe, central office at its same location or in one of the schools.
• Scenario 2A: Two elementary schools, one middle/high school with grades 6-12 at the current Mount Abe campus, the central office moves to a new space on the Mount Abe campus or another building.
• Scenario 2B: Two elementary schools, one middle school for grades 6-8 in the Bristol Elementary School building, one high school for grades 9-12 at the Mount Abe campus, central office located at Mount Abe campus
• Scenario 7: Choice High School — one K-8 school at Mount Abe, students in grades 9-12 could choose any public high school to attend, pre-K and central office located in a vacated school, or newly constructed space at Mount Abe. The board added an element to this option on Feb. 11: Exploring a merger with the Addison Northwest School District, based in Vergennes, at the high school level.
Officials decided that four options are no longer on the table for reasons of financial, practical and/or educational reasons. They are:
• One K-4 school in Bristol, one grade 5-12 school in Bristol, one pre-k school at the current central office facility, one middle/high school for grades 6-12 at Mount Abe.”
• Four K-5 elementary schools, one middle school for grades 6-8, one high school for grades 9-12, central office relocated to Mount Abe.
• “Magnet Schools” — two K-5 schools (one arts & humanities and one STEM), one middle school, one high school, central office moved to a vacated school building.
• “Public/Private Partnership” — same school configuration as “Status Quo,” but would look at renting unused space to private businesses.”
PLUSES AND MINUSES
In discussions of pluses and minuses of the four scenarios that are being taken forward, board members said in meeting minutes that they “wanted more information on Scenario 1 — to find out how much time they could buy until a scenario could be decided upon. They’d like to investigate exactly what the cost is for this scenario — use it as a base line to judge other scenarios.”
Preliminary estimates released in December indicated the board would have to make about $2 million of cuts in annual spending by the 2021-2022 school year under the current configuration to avoid the per-pupil tax penalty threshold imposed by the state. MAUSD also estimated closing a district elementary school could save between $1.25 million and $1.75 million per year.
Board members said they also hoped they could “take multiple measures to buy time before we hit the threshold (lobbying the Legislature, attracting more students to the area, etc.). Everyone feels that it’s important to gather as much info as possible on this scenario so all scenarios can be adequately investigated.”
Board members weighed pros and cons of Scenarios 2A, 2B and 7 as shown in Jan. 25 minutes:
Scenario 2A: “Benefits are middle school programming 6-8, more money for programming and personnel. Concerned that the community would support renovating Mt. Abe when you’re calling for the closure of others. Other benefits — all students of one grade would be in one school — equity. Aligned with community values. Reduces construction costs. No more central office rent since it would be consolidated into vacated space. Transportation is a concern.”
Scenario 2B: “Developmentally more appropriate for middle school to be separate from high school. Similar programming for elementary students. Solves the physical education issue for Mt. Abe. Repopulates the remaining elementary schools. Longer busing. Redistribution of all students. Length of time spent on a bus can be mitigated by increasing the number of buses we run — although that cost would have to be investigated. Animosity from those towns with schools that would close. Increase in number of school transitions (right now it’s only elementary school to Mt. Abe). Aligns student/teacher ratio so no further positions would need to be cut.”
Scenario 7: “Benefits to high school students having choice. All K-8 students would be in one building — more equitable — could increase programming. Increased busing costs for high school students. There would be some costs in retrofitting Mt. Abe for younger kids. What does school choice look like? Mt. Abe is the only school building that the district could sell — elementary schools would return to the towns if the towns want them — otherwise the district could sell those schools. All five elementary schools would close and all K-8 students would go to Mt. Abe.”
On Feb. 11 board members said transportation costs in all scenarios should be pinned down, and each school’s maximum capacity should be certified. Superintendent Patrick Reen added central office rent is not so high it should be a “deciding factor,” especially given the cost of retrofitting space in one of the schools.
Other comments on Feb. 11, according to minutes, included board and community members asking what the district would look like if money were no object, a reminder from the board’s hired facilitator Sue McCormick to keep the “communities’ values front and center,” and questions from two board members, one of them Chairwoman Dawn Griswold, asking if the board was “avoiding the hard decisions and work that needs to be done.”
The motion ultimately adopted unanimously on Feb. 11 was:
“Direct Superintendent to enlist a consultant to study 4 scenarios (Nos. 1, 2A, 2B and 7 with modifications of high school choice & high school partnership, and to keep elementary schools and no high school) and identify the academic benefits needed to consider the scenarios by looking at scenarios & essential questions (knowing study may lead to other questions or scenarios).”
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