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Bristol-area schools will continue to see enrollment decline

MOUNT ABRAHAM UNION High School is the youngest building in the Bristol-area school district, but it is also the one in the most need of repair.

Local elementary school costs are getting nasty. We need to decide: Do we want more taxes or do we want to run our schools more efficiently?
— Kevin Hanson, MAUSD school board member

BRISTOL — Even as it celebrates recent successes — well-received community engagement last fall, Essential Persons Child Care and Meals on the Bus this spring, a high school graduation ceremony for the ages, and the reopening of schools this week — the Mount Abraham Unified School District is facing some tough decisions about its future, which will require robust conversations throughout its five member towns.
Like many school districts around the state, MAUSD has experienced a steady enrollment decline and sharp increases in health care and other costs.
As of Aug. 11, MAUSD projected it would have to reduce spending by about $1.2 million next year to stay below the per-pupil spending penalty threshold, Superintendent Patrick Reen told the Independent.
“This is a result of anticipated increases in costs and a decline in our equalized pupils,” Reen said.
And it’s part of a trend that’s projected to continue for at least the next 10 years, he added.
Last fall, the district projected that maintaining the status quo could lead to as much as a 27% increase in school property tax collections.
The trend toward declining enrollment was recently confirmed by a demographic study conducted by the nonprofit New England School Development Council (NESDEC).
“In an effort to understand more about how to address this financial challenge while remaining committed to providing a high quality education to our students we commissioned NESDEC to help provide us with objective information about our school district,” Reen explained.
The Aug. 1 draft of the 87-page report suggests that after shrinking more than 18% since 2009-2010, the district’s K-12 student population could shrink another 15% by 2029-2030. Even accounting for the addition of pre-K students, the trend lines are clear.
“Internally we knew this to be true and NESDEC provided demographic information that confirmed this reality,” Reen said.
NESDEC recently completed a similar study for the Addison Northwest School District.

THE REPORT
NESDEC analyzed the following information for its study:
•  district and municipal records and data provided by town officials and local real estate agents.
•  school programs and the facilities needed to host them.
•  interviews with administrators in each of the district’s schools.
•  school documents, including goals, curriculum and program information.
“The goal of the project was to provide a basis for decision-making regarding future grade level reconfigurations, building renovations, construction and alternative facility use,” the NESDEC team wrote in the introduction.
The study’s enrollment projections are based on the most up-to-date data available as of July 2020:
•  student migration in or out of the schools.
•  housing growth and overall volume of real estate sales.
•  changes in school programs.
•  births, transfers and dropouts.
NESDEC plans to revisit enrollment data on Oct. 1 and expects that the school district may need to make further adjustments based on what it calls the “pandemic economy.”
According to the report, population and enrollment trends in MAUSD member towns of Bristol, Lincoln, Monkton, New Haven and Starksboro are generally in line with regional trends.
New England is projected to lose 132,000 students between 2016 and 2028, the report said, and Vermont is projected to lose more than 8,000 — almost 10% of its current student population.
The report added that while roughly half of New England’s school districts are increasing, many of those that are experiencing a contraction are located in rural areas.
The Independent has grouped the report’s findings by school district member towns.

BRISTOL
Over the past 10 years Bristol’s population has declined from 3,894 to an estimated 3,842 — a decrease of 52 residents.
Between 2000 and 2010 the town’s median age decreased by 0.1 years, from 37.1 to 37.0. Current estimates were not included in the report.
Bristol Elementary School was built in 1955 and has had additions and/or renovations over the years. The school’s 21st-century operating capacity is 334, but with reconfiguration of physical spaces could be expanded to 559.
K-6 enrollment was 260 on Oct. 1, 2019, and is expected to decrease to 252 over the next four years.
The building’s major systems are satisfactory except:
•  The HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) system needs new controls.
•  The C wing roof leaks.

LINCOLN
Over the past 10 years, Lincoln’s population has declined from 1,271 to an estimated 1,241 — a decrease of 30 residents.
Between 2000 and 2010 the town’s median age increased by 5.3 years, from 39.0 to 44.3.
Lincoln Community School was built in 1951 and has had additions and/or renovations over the years. The school’s 21st-century operating capacity is 135, but with reconfiguration of physical spaces could be expanded to 160.
K-6 enrollment was 107 on Oct. 1, 2019, and is expected to decrease to 79 over the next four years. 
The building’s major systems are satisfactory except:
•  Floors in the front entry and multipurpose room need replacing.

MONKTON
Monkton is the only MAUSD town estimated to have increased its population since 2010. Over the past 10 years, Monkton’s residents increased by 110, from 1,980 to an estimated 2,090.
Between 2000 and 2010 the town’s median age increased by 4 years, from 37 to 41.
Monkton Central School was built in 1959 and has had additions and/or renovations over the years. The school’s 21st-century operating capacity is 160, but with reconfiguration of physical spaces could be expanded to 235.
K-6 enrollment was 132 on Oct. 1, 2019, and is expected to increase to 135 over the next four years.
The building’s major systems are satisfactory except:
•  HVAC burners need to be upgraded.
•  Flooring in the multipurpose room needs replacing.

NEW HAVEN
Over the past 10 years, New Haven’s population has declined from 1,727 to an estimated 1,705 — a decrease of 22 residents.
Between 2000 and 2010 the town’s median age increased by 6.5 years, from 37.7 to 44.2.
Beeman Elementary School’s buildings were built in 1812 and 1941, with an addition/renovation in 1995. The school’s 21st-century operating capacity is 90, but with reconfiguration of physical spaces could be expanded to 190.
K-6 enrollment was 79 on Oct. 1, 2019, and is expected to increase to 82 over the next four years.
The buildings’ major systems are satisfactory except:
•  Some walls need patching and painting.

STARKSBORO
Over the past 10 years, Starksboro’s population has declined from 1,777 to an estimated 1,705 — a decrease of 33 residents.
Between 2000 and 2010 the town’s median age increased by 3.5 years, from 33.8 to 37.3.
Robinson Elementary School was built in 1892, with additions in 1979, 1985 and 1989, and renovations in 2005 and 2007. The school’s 21st-century operating capacity is 180, but with reconfiguration of physical spaces could be expanded to 205.
K-6 enrollment was 126 on Oct. 1, 2019, and is expected to decrease to 121 over the next four years.
The building’s major systems are satisfactory except:
•  Some wood flooring and some flooring in hallways need replacement.

MOUNT ABE
Mount Abraham Union Middle/High School was built in Bristol in 1968, with an addition in 2004 and renovations in 2006 and 2020. The school’s 21st-century operating capacity is 970.
Grade 7-12 enrollment was 636 on Oct. 1, 2019, and is expected to decrease to 622 over the next four years.
Mount Abe is the youngest school building in the district, but it’s also in the worst physical shape.
The NESDEC draft report cited the following issues with the building’s major systems:
•  The plumbing has aging pipes and leaking valves.
•  The main electrical system, which is original to the building, experiences overloads and needs to be improved.
•  HVAC is in good repair but some of the units are old and need upgrades.
•  Most of the school’s windows need improvement.
•  Doors need improvement, though the report noted that upgrades are ongoing.
•  The roof and walls are nearing the end of their life expectancy.
•  Classroom flooring is dated.
The report also noted that all of MAUSD’s school buildings would benefit from plumbing-fixture upgrades to save water.

CLOSING SCHOOLS
An addendum to the demographic report outlines a number of options for reducing the number of schools in the district, including a handful of options in which MAUSD middle and/or high school students would attend school in Vergennes.
“The options are designed to serve as a catalyst for further analysis and discussion,” the NESDEC team wrote. “Thus, this document should be considered not as an end-product, but rather as a beginning point for future planning.”
All of the options presented in the NESDEC report would close at least one MAUSD school building.
OPTION 1
•  Close one elementary school.
•  Grades PK-2 attend two elementary schools.
•  Grades 3-6 attend two elementary schools.
•  Grades 7-12 attend Mount Abe.
OPTIONS 2 & 3
•  Both options would close three elementary schools.
•  In Option 2, grades PK-6 would attend two elementary schools and 7-12 would attend Mount Abe.
•  Option 3 would be the same except it would move sixth grade to Mount Abe.
OPTION 4
•  Close four elementary schools and add on to one.
•  Grades PK-6 would attend one elementary school.
•  Grades 7-12 would attend Mount Abe.
OPTION 5
•  Close three or four elementary schools.
•  Grades PK-5 would attend one or two elementary schools.
•  Grades 6-8 would attend some other school than Mount Abe.
•  Grades 9-12 would attend Mount Abe.

SCHOOL SHARING
In three different scenarios involving school sharing with the Addison Northwest School District, the MAUSD would close three or four of its elementary schools.
In Option A, grades PK-6 would attend one or two MAUSD elementary schools and grades 7-12 would attend either Mount Abe or Vergennes Union High School (VUHS).
In Option B, grades PK-5 would attend one or two MAUSD elementary schools. Grades 6-8 and grades 9-12 would be split into their own schools, one attending Mount Abe and one attending VUHS.
In Option C, grades PK-4 would attend one or two MAUSD elementary schools. Grades 5-7 and grades 8-12 would be split into their own schools, one attending Mount Abe and one attending VUHS.
All three scenarios suggest housing ANWSD’s alternative education program at one of the existing high schools.

A SENSE OF URGENCY
NESDEC presented a draft of the report to the Facilities Feasibility Study Subcommittee last month.
Its recommendations are consistent with MAUSD’s thinking so far, said school board member and subcommittee chair Kevin Hanson.
“They did a very good job looking at demographics, and their conclusions were close to what the administration had projected.”
The subcommittee was formed last spring as an advisory resource for the superintendent and to support the school board’s efforts in long-range planning.
At the time, the school board had narrowed down its own set of options for school closures:
•  Scenario I (status quo) (5 elementary schools, 1 middle/high school).
•  Scenario II A (2 elementary schools and a 6-12 middle/high school).
•  Scenario II B (2 elementary schools, 1 middle school and 1 high school).
•  Scenario VII (1 K-8 school and high school choice).
The subcommittee plans to meet on Monday, Sept. 14, to discuss which NESDEC options to present to the board — and to get a handle on its work in the coming months.
“It will be helpful to have a clearer picture sooner rather than later, especially as budget season ramps up,” Hanson said. “Local elementary school costs are getting nasty. We need to decide: Do we want more taxes or do we want to run our schools more efficiently?”

WORKING TOGETHER
Last fall, MAUSD officials estimated that the district could save anywhere from $1.25 million to $1.75 million a year for each school it closes.
However, MAUSD’s articles of unification specify that a school may not be closed without voter approval from the town hosting that school, so if district officials decide school closure is a necessary cost-saving measure, much work will need to be accomplished in the community.
The school board’s Community Engagement Committee (CEC) spearheaded much-needed conversations last fall, but had to put that work on hold because of the pandemic.
With school back in session, the CEC is looking to organize more conversations next month.
“The MAUSD school board recognizes that the reopening of schools (has been) a priority and focus for many families and community members,” CEC chair Krista Siringo told the Independent. “As things start to settle in, the board will begin reengaging with the community about the challenges we are facing, from a financial and enrollment perspective. This engagement will include informational videos that help to explain these challenges in greater detail, as well as opportunities for community members to weigh in on educational values and options for the facilities in our district.”
The CEC expects to announce more details by the end of this month.
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].

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