Lincoln mulls legal action against the Mt. Abe school district
LINCOLN — The town of Lincoln says it may pursue legal action against the Mount Abraham Unified School District, which is now weighing the possibility of discontinuing elementary education at the Lincoln Community School.
At a special meeting Friday night the Lincoln selectboard voted unanimously to hire an attorney to represent the town “in our legal case against the school district.”
At issue is MAUSD Superintendent Patrick Reen’s recent proposal to consolidate the district’s five elementary schools into two — Bristol Elementary and Monkton Central. If that plan is approved by the school board, Lincoln Community School and Starksboro’s Robinson Elementary would be “repurposed” as “innovation centers,” and New Haven’s Beeman Elementary would be repurposed to house both the district’s central office and an enhanced early education program.
A second phase of the proposal would merge the MAUSD with the Addison Northwest School District, which serves students in Vergennes, Addison, Ferrisburgh, Panton, and Waltham.
Regardless of what the MAUSD decides to do with its buildings, Reen has said the district will need to eliminate as many as 90 staff over the next five years to remain fiscally sustainable. Consolidation, he believes, would be the best way to preserve educational programming under those conditions.
But some Lincoln residents believe Reen’s proposal violates the MAUSD Articles of Agreement, which were drawn up in 2016.
According to Article 14 of that agreement, the school district may not close a school without voter approval from the town hosting that school. While Reen is not recommending school closures at this time, he has said that the school board has the authority to consolidate elementary schools without obtaining voter approval.
Former Vermont State Rep. Mike Fisher, who served on the Act 46 committee that developed the language for MAUSD’s Articles of Agreement, disagrees.
“I actually think it’s Article 16 that puts the nail in the coffin of Patrick Reen’s proposal,” Fisher said at Friday night’s meeting.
Article 16 governs school attendance:
The New (School District) board shall support and continue the elementary education of students at the school located in the town where they reside, unless such school is closed as provided above. The Board may adopt policies to allow attendance of elementary school students at elementary schools within the new (School District) other than the school in the town where the student resides when such is appropriate to address unique needs of particular students.
The first sentence is pretty clear, Fisher said. The school board must preserve a local elementary school until the town that hosts it votes to close it.
“I think it’s important that we all keep speaking up as loud as can be about not only how improper this feels, but how this proposal doesn’t comply with the articles we voted on just a few short years ago,” Fisher said.
Lincoln attorney and former school board member Rebecca Otey also served on the 5-Town Act 46 Committee.
“One of the main concerns we always had was not losing our elementary schools locally as a part of this process, even if the state was forcing the district consolidation,” Otey said Friday night.
Now that Lincoln is facing just that prospect, Otey suggested legal action might be appropriate.
“I do think we need to consider whether or not there’s a possibility to file an injunction with the court (so) we can actually prevent some of this stuff from happening too quickly or without us getting an actual official read on whether or not this is legal,” she said.
Lincoln native Tim Lueders-Dumont, who studies law at the University of Maine, raised concerns about the $1.3 million bond attached to the Lincoln school building, which won’t be paid off until 2027.
“Part of the reason it’s a problem is the bond was packaged by the Vermont Bond Bank,” Lueders-Dumont explained. “They did Lincoln’s Town Hall, as well. (The building debt) gets packaged with other towns and then it gets sold…. If that debt … changes in any way — is repurposed or if the school is closed — you have to inform investors, you have to give them notice…. It could result in an IRS issue, certainly a bunch of legal issues, because people have invested in those bonds.”Other Lincoln residents at the meeting suggested organizing grassroots resistance to Reen’s plan, researching viable ways to preserve Lincoln Community School, including a possible withdrawal from the MAUSD, or demanding a formal vote in the towns where “repurposing” has been proposed.
MAUSD residents have been asking the district for months to delay consideration of any large-scale facilities plan, citing, among other things, the complications and variables posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, but Reen has said the time to act is now, and the school board intends to vote on his recommendation next month.
On Friday night, after more than two hours of listening to townspeople’s concerns, frustrations and ideas, Lincoln selectboard chair Bill Finger concluded that it was also time for the town to act.
“I guess the general feeling I get from this whole discussion tonight, and in previous meetings, is that the train has left the station here with the recommendation of the superintendent … and the school board is under some fairly intense pressure to go along with that recommendation,” Finger said. “Getting an injunction seems on the surface to be a terribly negative way to go about this business,” he added, “but I don’t know any other way to stop the train other than to get some legal interventions.”
Selectboard member Paul Forlenza agreed.
“If we really want to stop this and find ourselves more time, it needs to be the legal route,” Forlenza said. “I think we do need to find a lawyer who specializes in education legal issues because this is going to get pretty tricky and pretty technical.”
Given the short timeline, however, the town may need to pursue a number of legal paths at once, Fisher told the selectboard.
“I think it’s important that we talk to lawyers about the legality of the proposal in front of us. I think it’s important that we talk to lawyers to understand and start to take actions on leaving the district. I don’t want to leave the district, but I think it’s important that the school board hears how seriously we take this.”
At least 112 people attended Friday night’s online meeting — about as many as attended Town Meeting this past March. A video recording of the meeting will be available for viewing on the Northeast Addison Television website, neatbristol.com.
Reach Christopher Ross at ch[email protected]
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include Tim Lueders-Dumont’s remarks and to provide an additional summary of comments at Friday night’s meeting.
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