MAUSD residents pressure district for more information

There are legal, ethical and moral issues with not providing our community with as much information as we currently have, as 13 members of the board being asked to make a decision that affects, I don’t know, 11,000 people.
— School board member Sarah McClain

BRISTOL — A second party in the Mount Abraham Unified School District has filed a formal request under Vermont’s public records law for data, documents and other information related to Superintendent Patrick Reen’s Dec. 7 proposal to consolidate the district’s elementary schools.
Timothy Lueders-Dumont, Karen Lueders and James Dumont of Lincoln have asked for information Reen shared only with the MAUSD school board behind closed doors.
“On Dec. 22 during an Executive Session of the MAUSD School Board, financial information that related to (Reen’s proposal) was apparently revealed to school board members,” the trio wrote in their Dec. 24 request. “According to comments made by school board members during the open session after the executive session, the information presented during the executive session was the Superintendent’s financial justification for the drastic proposal.”
The school board could vote on Reen’s proposal at its next regular meeting on Jan. 26 (though an agenda has not been released), and frustrations are mounting among MAUSD residents who feel the district hasn’t been sharing enough information with the public.
“The public cannot understand, or debate, the basis for this drastic proposal unless the Superintendent or the MAUSD School Board shares this information with the public,” the trio concluded.

The Mount Abe district operates elementary schools in each of its five member towns of Bristol, Lincoln, Monkton, New Haven and Starksboro, plus Mount Abraham Union Middle/High School in Bristol.
Reen’s plan, which was developed to address rising costs and declining enrollment in the district, would consolidate MAUSD elementary students into the Bristol and Monkton schools.
The Lincoln and Starksboro schools would be “reconfigured” into “innovation centers,” and New Haven’s school would be repurposed to house both the central office and an enhanced early education program.
At the same time, Mount Abraham Union Middle School would be expanded to include sixth grade.
Reen has said the school board has the authority to approve this plan, but several board members have called for a legal opinion on the matter.
A second phase of the plan involves merging the MAUSD with the Addison Northwest School District, which serves the communities of Addison, Ferrisburgh, Panton, Vergennes and Waltham. The new district would contain both the Bristol and Vergennes union high schools, one of which would host the merged district’s 9-12 students, the other of which would be converted into a district-wide middle school for grades 6-8. ANWSD and MAUSD central offices would consolidate in New Haven.
This phase must be approved by ANWSD and MAUSD voters.

The Lueders-Dumonts’ records request came two weeks after Starksboro resident Herb Olson made a similar request, which the Independent reported on last month.
On Monday, Reen provided an update on that request.
“The records request submitted by Mr. Olson was approaching 20 hours of work by our business manager,” he told the Independent. “In anticipation of a total of nearly 20 hours of work, using the lower of the acceptable rates allowed by the Secretary of State’s Office, that produced a projected cost to Mr. Olson of $533.25.  When presented with the anticipated cost Mr. Olson was not interested in paying that sum, which effectively meant the request was withdrawn.”
According to their email correspondence, which the Independent obtained on Tuesday, Reen originally told Olson on Dec. 21 the bill for the records would be $676.45.
Olson disputed the amount in his Dec. 22 response, suggesting the bill was “excessive” and “unreasonable” because the information he requested:
•  was already supposed to have been supplied to and reviewed by the Facilities Feasibility Study Sub-Committee earlier that year, as part of its charge.
•  had been repeatedly sought by MAUSD community members for months.
•  had already been organized, at least in part, into the spreadsheets Reen told the school board they would be receiving when they reviewed his plan.
Furthermore, when Olson filed his request, he had offered to discuss ways of simplifying that request in order to reduce staff time as much as possible. Reen didn’t take him up on that offer.
“In summary … I am not interested in paying the unreasonable charge proposed,” Olson wrote.
When the bill was revised down to $533.25, Olson still thought it was unreasonable.
“I will consider a lesser amount that reflects the production time that could have been saved if we had discussed the matter at the outset.”
The following day, however, Reen considered the matter at an end.
“You have confirmed that you are unwilling to pay fees authorized under the Public Records Act,” he wrote. “As such, MAUSD has no obligation to provide you copies of requested records. Given these circumstances, MAUSD therefore now views all of its obligations to address your Dec. 10, 2020, records request as fully satisfied and will be taking no further action on it.”
Olson on Tuesday contacted the school board and asked them to request the information from Reen, then share it with the public.

Some school board members have been sympathetic to community calls for more information.
Before the board entered into executive session on Dec. 22 board member Sarah McClain of Lincoln asked if there were some way to redact the documents they were about to see, so that members of the community could see them too.
Probably not, Reen told her.
“There would be multiple pages that would need to be completely redacted to be able to make the information public,” he said. “There’s going to be a lot of information that we’re going to get into tonight that the redactions would be so significant that it wouldn’t be — there’d be nothing left of it because it becomes identifiable.”
After emerging from executive session McClain asked the board to direct Reen to consult with the teachers’ union about releasing some of the information the public was seeking.
Fellow board member David Sharpe of Bristol expressed concern about the idea, and so did Reen, who suggested there are three factors to consider before sharing information in any detail.
First, he said, there’s the legal obligation to know what the district can share that would not violate the district’s collective bargaining agreement with the teachers’ union. So in a sense, yes, meeting with the teachers’ union could be helpful with that.
Second, there is an ethical perspective to consider, Reen explained. He doesn’t want specific district employees to find out from a board meeting that they may be in danger of losing their jobs.
Third is a moral consideration — the impact that sharing information could have on current and immediate future staffing, as well as on students.
“I hear you on that,” McClain replied. “And I think that on the flip side there are legal, ethical and moral issues with not providing our community with as much information as we currently have, as 13 members of the board being asked to make a decision that affects, I don’t know, 11,000 people, when very few of those people have access to the information that we have.”
Fellow board member Rob Backlund of Lincoln concurred.
“And I’m worried long-term for the district because if people are really upset with this process, and not satisfied with how the process worked, at the end of the day it’s long-term damage (to) the trust of the school board, whoever may serve on it, the trust of the superintendent, whoever that may be,” he said. “We have time, I think, to salvage the process so that whatever the outcome at the end of the day, people will feel like they were validated by the process that we went through. I think we need to put all the cards on the table and engage the community. We have their ear now. The canary has fallen off its little swing in the coal mine and people are paying attention. So how do we leverage that to the best of our ability so at the end of the day we produce the best outcomes for our students?”

Hours before deadline, the Independent obtained a document released by the MAUSD in accordance with the Lueders-Dumont request.
More than half of the 27-page PDF was so heavily redacted with thick black lines that what remained didn’t at first glance seem to provide any meaningful information.
“We are still reviewing this attachment but this information is public and deserves to be in the hands of as many voters and people living in the five-town-area as possible,” the Lincoln trio wrote in a group email Tuesday night, which was copied to the Independent. “We await the unredacted version from the Superintendent which they have not yet agreed to provide.”
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].

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