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Officials consider merging MAUSD and ANWSD

MAUSD SUPERINTENDENT PATRICK Reen

Though I am confident in my recommendation, I know it will land hard for some, while others may feel relieved.
— MAUSD Superintendent Patrick Reen

BRISTOL — After months of anticipation, residents of the Mount Abraham Unified School District have gotten a first glimpse of what their schools might look like in the near future.
So have residents of the Addison Northwest School District, for that matter.
In a special meeting of the MAUSD board Monday night, Superintendent Patrick Reen presented his recommendations for future facilities use in the district, which he said could both save money and expand programming.
“I recommend the MAUSD board NOT close any schools,” he said. “Instead, I recommend the MAUSD board take a phased approach, allowing us to begin reimagining and redesigning the way we educate our children.”
The first phase of Reen’s two-phased approach would consolidate and repurpose MAUSD elementary schools. The second phase involves merging with Addison Northwest, which encompasses Vergennes, Ferrisburgh, Addison, Panton and Waltham.
The MAUSD currently operates elementary schools in each member town of Bristol, Lincoln, Monkton, New Haven and Starksboro, plus Mount Abraham Union Middle/High School in Bristol. Like many other Vermont school districts, it has struggled with revenue losses associated with declining enrollment, coupled with a steady increase in healthcare and other costs.
After hearing for months that significant changes would be needed for the district to remain sustainable, MAUSD residents had been anxiously awaiting the superintendent’s proposal. 
“Though I am confident in my recommendation, I know it will land hard for some, while others may feel relieved,” Reen said. “Some will feel the need to vilify me for the recommendation I make as part of their processing. Others will want to poke holes in the data. Still others will want to make the case that someone or something will be coming to solve our problems for us, or that we shouldn’t make any decision anytime soon, given COVID, the national political scene, etc. I accept these responses as reactions to the hard work facing our reality and making change.”
He urged the board to consider his recommendations in the spirit in which they were offered — with a “possibilities mindset” rather than a “deficit mindset.”

PHASE ONE (2022-23)
The first phase of Reen’s proposal, if approved by the board, would be implemented for the 2022-23 school year, and it would:
•  Consolidate all MAUSD kindergarten-5th grade students into Bristol Elementary School (BES) and Monkton Central School (MCS).
•  Move sixth grade to Mount Abraham Union Middle/High School.
•  Repurpose Lincoln Community School (LCS) and Starksboro’s Robinson Elementary into “District Innovation Sites,” which would host programming for students in multiple grades.
•  Repurpose New Haven’s Beeman Elementary to house both an enhanced pre-K/early education program and the district’s central office.
Under the plan, Lincoln students would attend school in Bristol. New Haven and Starksboro students would attend school in either Bristol or Monkton.
Reen estimated that once consolidated, BES would be operating with 351 students, 76% of its building capacity, with class sizes averaging 19.5 students. MCS would operate with 171 students, 73% of its building capacity, with class sizes averaging 19. Capacity and class sizes at Mount Abe would not see significant changes.
It was expected in some quarters that Reen would recommend school closures, but he told the board that after meeting and talking with hundreds of people, including the selectboards of each of the district’s five towns, he did not see that as a viable path forward.
According to its articles of agreement, the MAUSD may not close a school without first obtaining approval from the voters in the town that hosts the school.
The school board does, however, have the authority to repurpose buildings and reconfigure student populations.
Repurposing the Lincoln and Starksboro schools as innovation centers would involve “charging our educational leaders to work with students, staff and the community to co-create an innovative program available to all students, which may provide an experiential, project- or performance-based, hands-on kind of experience,” Reen said. “This program could focus on the environment, performing arts, humanities, STEM or wherever the co-creation process leads us. It could include tapping into our rich community resources to provide a deep community connection as we work together to provide relevant, lasting learning opportunities for our students.”
Reen cited educator Ted Dintersmith, author or co-author of the books “What Schools Could Be” and “Most Likely to Succeed,” as an influence on his thinking.
As Phase One is implemented, determining which students would visit which innovation centers, for what kinds of programs, and when, would be up to the planners.
Reen acknowledged that repurposing could feel to some residents like closing schools, and it may have similar impacts, but he believed his recommendations would lead to better outcomes for students than operating under-resourced town schools.
His presentation prompted mixed reactions among the 261 community members who viewed the Monday evening meeting online.
“Perhaps a K-12 science program set up in Starksboro or Lincoln that uses more space and can be more flexible vs. one of the more classroom-oriented buildings,” suggested Monkton resident Jaime Schulte in the Zoom chat box. “Students from the 5 or 10 towns spend a couple days a month there going beyond what they can do in the regular classroom.”
A commenter identifying themselves as “The Gordons” also seemed receptive.
“I could see something like — all 3rd graders in MAUSD go to one of the innovation sites for a theme on science/food/health where literacy and math is wrapped in,” they wrote in the chat box. “The potential is exciting.”
Lincoln resident Nate Gusakov wasn’t so sure.
“Maybe I’m missing something, but isn’t the creation of ‘innovation sites’ at Lincoln and Starksboro tantamount to closing those schools with a vague workaround to avoid giving those towns a chance to vote about their effective school closures?” he wrote. “How about turning Bristol Elementary into an innovation center, and busing Bristol Elementary kids to the four other schools,” he suggested later. “Thus the four outlying towns have elementary schools and Bristol has the middle and high schools; no town goes without a school.”
The Addison Northwest School District completed a similar reconfiguration last year, albeit on a smaller scale, when it converted Addison Central School into a county special education hub and reassigned Addison’s elementary students to Vergennes and Ferrisburgh schools.

PHASE TWO (2023-24)
The financial savings gained in Phase One of Reen’s proposal would only be sustainable if Phase Two is also implemented, he said.
Phase Two would begin with the Bristol-area district and the Vergennes-area district each forming a merger study committee, which would “look closely at what a merger could look like,” then draft articles of agreement to be reviewed by the Vermont Board of Education, and then put the agreement to a vote.
Each district separately would have to seek and gain approval from its voters before a merger could go through.
“Ideally — and this is important — this newly formed district would become operational on July 1, 2023, in order to benefit from the financial savings (the merger would create) before supports and services for students are lost,” Reen said.
The Addison Northwest School District operates elementary schools in Ferrisburgh and Vergennes, as well as Vergennes Union Middle/High School and the Addison Wayfinder Experience at Addison Central School.
A merger between the ANWSD and the MAUSD would affect more than 18,000 residents across 10 communities — roughly half the population of Addison County.
According to Reen’s Phase Two proposal, starting July 1, 2023:
•  Bristol and Monkton elementary schools would continue as in Phase One.
•  LCS and Robinson would act as Innovation Centers for the new district as a whole.
•  Ferrisburgh Central School would host that town’s K-5 students.
•  Vergennes Union Elementary would host K-5 students from Vergennes, Addison, Waltham and Panton.
•  Vergennes Middle School would host grades 6-8 from all 10 communities.
•  Mount Abraham Union High School would host grades 9-12 from all 10 communities.
•  The Addison Wayfinder Experience would continue to host alternative education programming for county students in grades 7-12.
•  The merged district’s central office would be located at Beeman in New Haven, which would continue its Phase One role.
The merger would result in staffing efficiencies at the central office level and at the middle/high school levels, which would save money while also expanding programs for students, Reen said, adding that all students in the new district would be able to access the Innovation Center programming created in Phase One.
Reen and other MAUSD leaders, including school board chair Dawn Griswold, Community Engagement Committee chair Krista Siringo and Facilities Feasibility Study Sub-Committee chair Kevin Hanson, have been meeting with their counterparts in ANWSD to discuss the possibility of a merger, Reen said.
Though ANWSD board chair John Stroup had not yet seen the details of Reen’s proposal, he told the Independent Tuesday morning he and his own board are looking forward to learning more.
“It’s really exciting, what Patrick Reen has proposed,” Stroup said. “We are all in the same boat of trying to figure out how to preserve, maintain and build great programs for kids and their education. We’re trying to figure out how to do this at a reasonable cost given decreasing student enrollment (and) we are trying to get to a place where we can find some stability long-term for our people and our communities. That’s what I’m most excited to learn more about with our neighbors in the (MAUSD).”
The ANWSD has been conducting its own community engagement around the same sorts of issues. The district held its latest information meeting Tuesday evening, and plans another presentation on Dec. 14, which is expected to include discussion of a potential merger with MAUSD.

ALTERNATIVES
Reen also outlined three alternatives to his recommendations.
•  Keeping schools and increasing taxes. According to Reen’s estimate, this option would result in significant property tax increases — measured in the thousands of dollars — for the residents who pay based on the values of their homes, and sizeable increases for the majority of residents who pay based on their incomes. In coming years, this could lead to voters refusing to pass school budgets, or approving ballooning school budgets whose tax increases drive residents away, Reen said.
•  Keeping schools, slowing tax increases, but cutting staff. The results of this option would depend on whether or not the state adopts a new formula for determining equalized pupil counts. Under the current equalized-pupil formula, MAUSD would need to cut two administrators, 50 licensed educators and 23 support staff (for a total of 75 employees) over the next five years to offset declining enrollment and rising costs. If a new formula is adopted, the district would actually lose equalized pupils and the accompanying state revenue, so it would need to cut two administrators, 57 licensed educators and 32 support staff (for a total of 91 employees) to offset costs. With insufficient staffing, district schools would see elementary class sizes increase to 22-25 students, and a significant proportion of many district elementary school buildings would go unused.
•  Closing schools. For BES and MCS, the results would probably not be very different from Reen’s consolidation proposal, but it’s highly unlikely that voters in Lincoln, New Haven or Starksboro would vote to close their schools.

FINANCIAL INFORMATION
The projected costs and savings Reen presented are just that — projections, he said, but detailed financial information will be made available upon request by the MAUSD business office.
In the meantime, the slides Reen used in his presentation Monday night can be found on the MAUSD website at tinyurl.com/y6rqmrjp. His script, including explanations of his financial projections, can be found at tinyurl.com/yy8xpubd.
The meeting was recorded by Northeast Addison Television and will eventually be uploaded to its website for viewing at neatbristol.com.
The Independent will examine the proposal’s financial implications — and the community’s response — in future articles.

NEXT STEPS
Griswold emphasized Monday evening that the MAUSD board would not be taking any immediate action in response to Reen’s recommendations, and that the community will have plenty of chances over the next couple of months to ask questions and provide input.
The district will host informational meetings on Wednesday, Dec. 16, at 9 a.m. and on Thursday, Dec. 17, at 6 p.m.
In addition, the MAUSD Community Engagement Committee will survey district residents on how they view the superintendent’s recommendations, and will release the survey results sometime in January.
In late January, the MAUSD board will need to decide if it wants to include items — for example a request to approve a merger with the ANWSD — on the Town Meeting ballot.
The creation of a ballot item may occasion further district-directed community engagement in February.
Town Meeting Day in 2021 is March 2.
Editor’s note: Andy Kirkaldy contributed reporting for this story.
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected]

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