MAUSD hosts town halls, talks closures
BRISTOL — During an Oct. 14 virtual town hall meeting hosted by the Mount Abraham Unified School District, discussion facilitator Sue McCormack reminded the district’s Community Engagement Committee, or CEC, that as recently as last fall Five-Town residents were reticent to discuss future possibilities for school buildings that might need to be closed.
“We thought it would be really helpful to start having a proactive conversation about that,” McCormack recalled. “And in the very first town we went to, what we found was that people were not ready to have that conversation. And we changed our plan and we didn’t even ask the question in the other towns. We were really trying to honor where people were, and people just were not there.”
McCormack then hinted that perhaps it was time to start having those conversations.
“There is a lot of opportunity to do some really innovative things from a town perspective, and there are lots of resources in the state,” she said. “The Vermont Council on Rural Development is an example of an organization that can come in and help a community create a vision for a building and identify resources to help transform it into something new… I do think that that’s a really important, proactive conversation for people to be having.”
By the time the CEC convened the two town halls via Zoom on Oct. 14 and 20, public resistance to closing schools had begun to manifest itself across the district’s five member towns of Bristol, Lincoln, Monkton, New Haven and Starksboro.
“We request that you put on hold any plans (including plans to warn votes) to close MAUSD schools, or to give the board the authority to close schools — at least for now, while we work to explore and implement an array of promising alternate solutions,” wrote MAUSD residents Nancy Cornell, Michael Fisher, Cheryl Mitchell, Herb Olson, Robin Shalline and Jere Urban in a letter to the district that appeared in the Oct. 8 edition of the Independent.
“We cannot think of a possibly worse time to be asking the 5-Town community to think about closing schools … Even if we were not in the midst of a pandemic and a moment of political, social and economic upheaval, at this time our communities and the board do not have sufficient information to make wise choices about closing schools.”
These and similar concerns arose as some of the meetings’ combined 125 attendees questioned MAUSD leaders about their process for determining near-term solutions to the district’s struggles with declining enrollment and increasing costs.
According to the MAUSD’s current estimates, if the district keeps all of its schools open and maintains its current programming, future school budgets will far exceed — by millions of dollars — state-mandated per-pupil spending thresholds.
Though the details may have evolved somewhat, this is in many ways old news, and the CEC has, pandemic notwithstanding, pursued a vigorous approach to engaging the community:
• Last fall they convened conversations with more than 250 people in all five towns.
• In January the school board reviewed the community input from those conversations and began exploring future facilities scenarios.
• As winter turned to spring and then summer the board’s newly formed Facilities Feasibility Subcommittee continued those explorations, commissioning a report from the New England School Development Council and combining the report’s findings with its own into a decision-making matrix that would allow it to advise Superintendent Patrick Reen on what it saw to be the most promising options going forward, possibly including school closure.
Now that the October town halls are done, district officials are hoping to move forward according to the following timeline:
• During the week of Nov. 2 the Facilities Feasibility Subcommittee will summarize its work and share it with Reen.
• During the week of Dec. 8, Reen will make recommendations to the MAUSD board.
• In the ensuing weeks, the CEC will re-engage with the community, with both meetings and a district-wide survey.
• By Jan. 30 the district must decide if it will warn a vote of some kind for Town Meeting Day.
According to the MAUSD articles of agreement, only the voters in the town hosting a school have the authority to close that school. Revoking that authority would require changing the district’s articles of agreement, which would have to be voted on by the entire district. That option “is not seriously being pursued at this point,” said Kevin Hanson, a board member representing Bristol who chairs the Facilities Feasibility Subcommittee.
During the town hall meetings, some residents asked why more wasn’t being done to push back against the Vermont Legislature, which they believed is at least partially responsible for putting the MAUSD and other school districts in this perilous economic situation.
Reen has said at meetings he doubted such an effort would do any good.
“From my view, pushback to the legislature or the governor or higher authorities could be effective if I thought that the conversations we’re having and the hard decisions we’re needing to make weren’t intended and known to be happening,” he said on Oct. 14.
“I think when the legislature made the decision to have school budgets built based on a cost-per-pupil figure and to put a spending threshold on that, I think it was intentional to control spending. I think it was known that that’s going to have an impact on the ability of small schools to continue to function, and I think it was known that it would create the kinds of conversations that we’re having now.”
Others wanted to know if the MAUSD, in contemplating school closures, had deeply considered the ramifications such closures would have on the fabrics of their towns.
Yes, Reen said, but determining what those ramifications might be is best left to people, such as town leaders, who understand them best and can best articulate them.
“I think it’s readily recognized that a school in a town is part of that town’s fabric,” he said on Oct. 14. “In many cases it’s not the only part of that town’s fabric, so I think as we consider the possibility of closing a school in a town, we have to try and understand the full picture of what makes up that town’s fabric. When I think about the role of general stores and town halls and athletics — there are a lot of different things you can look to that you could say make up the fabric of the town, and you have to think about the role the school plays there, and in the absence of that, what’s the likelihood or the possibility of those other aspects of the town in sort of picking up what would be lost if the school wasn’t there.”
The Facilities Feasibility Subcommittee has divided all of its options into three “buckets,” Hanson said.
• Continuing to operate the five member towns’ respective elementary schools, plus Mount Abraham Union Middle/High School.
• Closing some district schools.
• Partnering with a neighboring district, such as the Addison Northwest School District.
And it will consider the following parameters:
• The impact of closing schools.
“Ideally we would I.D. the best option in each ‘bucket,’” Hanson said.
The subcommittee is not going to recommend closing specific schools, he added. That would be up to the superintendent, if he decides to recommend school closure to the board.
After the short breakout sessions on Oct. 20, Lincoln resident Sally Ober expressed some of the concerns many people were still having.
“Our schools are integral in shaping our communities and in shaping pretty much our entire lives,” she said, “from how we form friendships with each other and how we form connections with our broader community and how our children grow to be community members. Our schools are the foundation for all of that, so if you take one away, we’re just very fearful of what that looks like.”
Links to video recordings of the meetings, along with other important information, can be found on the CEC webpage, tinyurl.com/y43wmech.
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].
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