Letter to the editor: 5-town community must prep for the future together

As the superintendent of the Mount Abraham Unified School District (MAUSD), I am the steward of our educational organization, which exists to educate our children “so that they can meet the challenges of lifelong learners and responsible citizens at a cost deemed acceptable by the community.”  
In other words, what is it that we want our students to know and learn, when they graduate from Mount Abe? Which experiences do we wish to be able to offer them, so they can be citizens of their community and the world, so they can reach their full potential as learners and give back to their communities in the future? And how can we ensure that all of our students — regardless of family economics, ethnicity, race, religion, class, geography, disability, language, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or initial proficiencies — have the same access to these opportunities?
Good stewardship means ensuring our district is actively preparing for a future in which we not only exist, but thrive. Like all good stewards, my focus is not just on today, or next year, but also on the next 5-10 years. While we don’t have a crystal ball to show us the future, we can look to past trends and future projections to imagine what the future might bring, and put ourselves in the best possible position to navigate it.
Based on what we know now, our school district is projected to see a continued decline in student enrollment, which has a direct impact on how much we can spend without paying penalties. We will also see a continued increase in fixed costs, with health insurance and salaries comprising the majority of those costs. These challenges will make it increasingly harder for us to offer our students the best educational experience they deserve, at a cost the community can bear. Our situation is not unique to the Mount Abraham Unified School District. Other districts in our county as well as throughout the state are faced with these same challenges.  
It is the role of the school board to be the bridge between the leader of our educational organization and the community it serves. This means that the board is responsible for ensuring the community is well-informed about, and has the opportunity to provide input into, a proposed direction for the future of our school district. Last fall, the board began to recognize and grapple with the impact of declining enrollment and increased fixed costs on our ability to serve our students. A series of conversations was held throughout the Five Towns with community members, staff, students and town leaders. Information was shared about the challenges facing our district and attendees were invited to participate in the process to develop long-range solutions. Out of this work, participants identified eight core educational values: academic excellence, community connections, educators, equity, socially and emotionally healthy kids, student-led personalized learning, town schools, and varied and flexible programming.  
On Dec. 7, I will provide the school board with a recommendation for how to attain this goal in light of continued declining enrollment and increasing fixed costs. This recommendation is informed by many different inputs, including the eight core educational values as well as enrollment and cost projections, a study conducted by the New England School Development Council (NESDEC), the work of the Facilities Feasibility Study Committee, and input from community members and town leaders. The recommendation will include detailed information about anticipated cost savings, facilities capacity and maintenance needs, staffing and programming. 
In mid-December there will be several community engagement events followed by a survey seeking community input about this recommendation. By the end of January, using data from my recommendation as well as this community input, board members will determine whether or not to put a vote to the community on Town Meeting Day, which may include closing and/or consolidating schools, merging with another district, and/or repurposing our schools.
I recognize how difficult it is to contemplate making significant changes to our educational structure, especially at this particular time. As we work through this process of future planning, it remains my top priority and primary goal to ensure we are in the best possible position to give the current, and future, children of our Five Towns the education they deserve. I strongly encourage and invite community members to participate in the conversations taking place, seek information and ask questions, and share your input in the survey that will go out next month. A good place to start is the MAUSD Community Engagement webpage: mausd.org/cec.
Patrick Reen, Superintendent
Mount Abraham Unified School District

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