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MAUSD seeks legal help with school reuse plan

The amount of emotion that’s out there right now — there’s nothing logical happening. It’s all emotion, as far as commentary.
— MAUSD board member Kevin Hanson

BRISTOL — The Mount Abraham Unified School District is seeking legal advice to determine if Superintendent Patrick Reen’s long-range facilities plan is allowed by the district’s articles of agreement.
Phase One of the plan, which Reen unveiled on Dec. 7, includes “repurposing” elementary schools in three of the district’s five towns — Lincoln, New Haven and Starksboro. The students from those towns would attend school in Bristol or Monkton.
Critics of the plan have questioned Reen’s assertion that the board has the authority to consolidate schools. So have some school board members.
“I was surprised that the proposal operates under the assumption that this board does not need to ask for (voter) permission to repurpose elementary schools in the theory that somehow repurposing is substantially different from closure, which is thoroughly addressed in our articles,” said Starksboro representative Caleb Elder at the board’s Dec. 22 meeting.
In addition to sitting on the school board, Elder represents the Addison-4 district in the Vermont House of Representatives and sits on the House Education Committee.
After watching old videos of Act 46 Study Committee meetings, Elder, who also served on that committee, believes the intent of the district’s articles of agreement are clear.
“(Reen’s proposal) requires the permission of three towns (Lincoln, New Haven and Starksboro),” he said, adding that he thought it best to request permission of all five of the district’s towns. “Ultimately we go to our voters’ permission every March to operate our schools, so we cannot cut them out of (this) process.”
When Elder urged the board to direct Reen to obtain a legal opinion about how the plan meshes with the Articles of Agreement, Reen acknowledged that was already under way.
“Either it’s allowable or it’s not, and it’s good to get that opinion as we move forward,” Reen said. “To be clear, I don’t believe there’s anything … that prohibits the board from choosing to put it to a vote of the electorate.”

THREE ARTICLES
Most of the current discussion about the MAUSD articles of agreement, which were approved by the voters of all five towns in November 2016, revolves around three specific articles.
Article 14 prohibits the district from closing a school without voter approval from the town hosting that school.
Article 16 directs the school district to “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 (in Article 14).”
Critics of Reen’s plan believe that, taken together, Articles 14 and 16 prohibit the board from consolidating or repurposing schools without voter approval.
But a third article complicates things.
Article 10, which contains provisions from many of the other articles, constitutes the “warning” that was issued ahead of the 2016 vote. Voters approved everything in it and they are the only ones who can change what they approved.
The provisions of Article 14 are codified in Article 10, so they cannot be changed by anyone but the electorate.
Article 16, however, is not included in Article 10. Supporters of Reen’s plan believe this means the school board has the authority to amend it without voter approval.
Reen, who also sat on the Act 46 Study Committee, said at the Dec. 22 board meeting he hopes a legal analysis would take into consideration not only the letter of Article 16 but the intent behind it.
“The spirit of the article was really around elementary school choice within our towns versus the expectation that we’re not just going to offer school choice broadly,” Reen said. “That was a way to articulate that. And in this context it reads differently, of course.”

ARTICLE 16
On June 29, 2016, the district’s Act 46 Study Committee met to discuss these and other nuances with its legal consultant, Steve Stitzel.
“The intent (of Article 16) is that students will continue to attend school in the town in which they reside,” Stitzel said during the official meeting. But his elaboration of exceptions to the article suggests he was talking about school choice and not repurposing or consolidating schools.
“School attendance … maybe four years down the road, five years down the road there’s a sense of, you know … ‘We’ll just let kids go to any elementary school they want to,” Stitzel said. “Maybe that will be the overwhelming community sentiment.” This would have been an argument for keeping Article 16 out of Article 10.
Committee member Stephen Pilcher of Monkton moved to keep Article 10 as written, which excluded Article 16.
Herb Olson of Starksboro, citing provisions he knew were very important to absent committee members Nancy Cornell of Starksboro and Mike Fisher of Lincoln, moved to include other articles, including Article 16, in Article 10.
Ensuing discussion suggests Pilcher’s intent was focused on something more than just school choice.
“My feeling is that this school district will evolve over time, and thinking of just having students go to school in the building that’s closest to where they reside may not always be what we want,” Pilcher said. “So I would prefer to leave Article 16 off of Article 10.”
Olson’s amendment was voted down, Pilcher’s motion was approved, and Article 16 was not included in the warning.

VOTER PERMISSION
But perhaps all this talk about legal issues and whether or not a vote of the electorate is required, has turned into “a very large red herring,” suggested school board member Steve Rooney of Starksboro at the Dec. 22 meeting.
“I think we have to bring whatever we do to the voters for a vote,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any way around it.”
As for Reen’s plan, “nobody wants to do this, nobody wants to close a school, nobody’s excited about that, but I think it works on a nuts-and-bolts level. But it’s very likely to go down in defeat…. How are we going to plan for things not working the way we’d like them to work?”
Bristol board member Kevin Hanson said he doesn’t see any point in holding a vote on Reen’s proposal.
“I think it’s a foregone conclusion that if this thing goes out to a vote, all three towns affected will be voting ‘no,’ so I’m not sure why we would go through that exercise,” Hanson said. “To go out to a vote is just a waste of time and you could be doing that for five years and it would still be unsuccessful.”
Hanson called for legal advice as well, not only about the validity of Reen’s proposal but also about what would be necessary to modify the district’s articles of agreement in a way that would give the board authority to carry it out.
“Things have changed since the articles were put in,” he said. “Things are changing as we discuss this and glean more information. We’ve been cautious about this before, but the amount of emotion that’s out there right now — there’s nothing logical happening. It’s all emotion, as far as commentary.”
Fellow board member and Bristol resident Krista Siringo expressed concern that what Hanson was asking for “might appear like a power grab,” she said.
“I think that’s unfortunate…. I would like to believe that we can look at all our options and to just know what they are without the assumption being that we’re trying to make a power grab. (I want to look) at all our options not because I want to take power away from anybody, but because I think that I’m worried about three years, four years, five years down the road — and it would just be good to put it all out on the table.”
The MAUSD is currently circulating a survey to see what 5-Town residents think of Reen’s proposal. The school board will meet in January to discuss the survey results and additional information it expects to receive from Reen — including any legal opinions.
Videos of recent MAUSD meetings, as well as several meetings of the Act 46 Study Committee, can be found on the Northeast Addison Television website, neatbristol.com.
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].

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