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MAUSD withholds school consolidation financial information

BRISTOL — This fall, as a subcommittee of the Mount Abraham Unified School District board discussed which school-closure and other cost-saving options it should recommend to Superintendent Patrick Reen, Starksboro resident Herb Olson showed up to meeting after meeting, expressing the same concern.
In September Olson told the MAUSD Facilities Feasibility Study Subcommittee (FFSS) he thought there was a lack of financial information in their proceedings.
In October he asked about projected savings for closing elementary schools and suggested the committee needed to work with cost information, not just subjective feelings.
In November he said he was concerned about a lack of detailed financial information attached to the options under discussion.
When Reen, who was also a member of the FFSS, finally presented his facilities recommendations to the school board on Dec. 7, which included consolidating MAUSD’s five elementary schools into two, then merging with the Addison Northwest School District, Olson found the accompanying financial data insufficient.
So he filed a public records request under the Vermont Public Records Act.
In his Dec. 10 letter to Reen and the MAUSD school board, which was obtained by the Independent, Olson sought a wide range of documents, including:
• Financial and other information, assumptions, and analysis relied upon by the superintendent to support his presentation.
• Records showing the net savings from reconfiguring elementary schools and merging with ANWSD.
• Legal opinions or other records relied upon by the superintendent to support his assertion that the MAUSD school board has the legal authority to reconfigure town elementary schools in Lincoln, New Haven and Starksboro for programs or purposes unrelated to elementary education — without voter approval in the towns hosting those schools.
• “Records of District costs, savings, and cost and saving categories under a scenario where the (MAUSD) PreK-8 student population is educated at each current elementary school, as is done in the Champlain Valley District, and (MAUSD) high school students either (1) are educated at a merged ANWSD/MAUSD high school district, or (2) have a choice of education at Vergennes High School, Middlebury High School, or Champlain Valley High School.”
• Enrollment records, by town of residence, from school years 2010-2011 through 2020-2021, and projected enrollments for 2021-22 through 2025-26, as well as the basis for such projections.
• Records of the superintendent’s consideration of using elementary school spaces for essential community purposes, such as child care, early education, senior services and health care services.
Olson told MAUSD officials he was making the request on his own behalf and not as a representative of any group or other individual.
When contacted by email for a comment on the records request, MAUSD Board Chair Dawn Griswold replied Tuesday that “Herb’s request is currently under review.”
There are indications that at least some of the documents Olson is seeking exist in the district and have been made available to the school board.
During his Dec. 7 presentation Reen informed the board that “behind the data you are going to see tonight there are many supporting spreadsheets … if you want to dig deeper into some of the data….”
The Independent requested those spreadsheets last week, but Reen said they would not be made available to the public.
“The only documents that are public documents at this time are the ones included in the presentation,” Reen said on Friday, Dec. 11. He had mentioned supporting documents in his presentation “to both acknowledge the effort to help ensure the figures in the presentation were as reliable and accurate as they can be at this point in time and to invite the board to a deeper dive into the documents, most likely in executive session.”
Keeping the data private is meant to protect MAUSD staff, Reen explained.
“In order to produce the information that was included in the presentation many projections and assumptions had to be made.  Because we are so small the assumptions built into the figures become identifiable really quickly and individual staff members may be identified. I hope you can understand.”
Olson isn’t the only MAUSD resident concerned about a lack of transparency regarding district financial data.
Lincoln resident Jeff Meller was one of two citizen members of the FFSS. He was so disappointed by the process and the results it produced that when the subcommittee issued its formal report to Reen in November, he wrote a “minority report.”
In it, Meller lamented what he considered to be a dramatic reduction in the subcommittee’s scope over time, and a complete lack of financial information.
“The final report by the Committee addresses the subject of finances by using for the first time in our deliberations an invented term, ‘perception of cost,’ in place of actual costs,” Meller wrote. “This concept (was never) discussed in the Committee, and does not appear in the minutes of the Committee or the board.”
Furthermore, Meller said, “the subcommittee issued its final report evaluating facilities feasibility without a single number or dollar sign.”
Meller also took issue with a statement Reen made to the Independent last month:
“In November the ‘Addison Independent’ quoted the superintendent as saying in an email ‘I think the Committee did a good job getting up to speed with the complexity of our fiscal challenges.’ No getting up to speed was required; no fiscal information was shared with the Committee.”
The Lincoln selectboard reviewed Meller’s minority report and found it “troubling,” board chair Bill Finger told Reen in a Dec. 2 letter.
“It appears that the committee review and assessment process was skewed by the administration in a manner that effectively denied the committee access to information and data,” Finger wrote. “This information is critical for a full, fair and honest presentation to the voters and taxpayers who will be asked to make critical decisions that will impact their children and community for many years hence.”
At the time of the letter it was widely expected in some quarters that Reen would propose closing one or more district elementary schools, a process that would have required voter approval. Instead, he has recommended that the MAUSD board reconfigure elementary schools in Lincoln, New Haven and Starksboro, which would not need voter approval.
The proposed merger between the MAUSD and ANWSD would require approval from voters in both districts.
The MAUSD board convened two virtual public forums this past week. The Independent will report on those forums for a future article.
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].

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