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MAUSD mulls delaying consolidation decision

BRISTOL — After a special meeting of the Mount Abraham Unified School District board last week, it appears unlikely that Superintendent Patrick Reen’s long-range facilities plan, which includes consolidating elementary schools and merging with a neighboring school district, will get an up-or-down vote this month.
“I am coming to you tonight to recommend that, in the interest of working together as a group and continuing to really understand the decision in front of us and to allow us time to further study what we are faced with, we take action tonight that gives us the time we need,” said board chair Dawn Griswold in a prepared statement. “I’m asking that we commit to further study. I’m asking you not to take action this month to consider options on this Town Meeting Day.”
Putting off making any decision could result in “some financial hardship to the district,” Griswold acknowledged, but she said she had “real concerns about our ability to fully understand our responsibility as a board and to make a strong group decision.”
Like many Vermont school districts, the MAUSD — which 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 — has struggled with declining enrollment and increased costs. Regardless of what path the district chooses, it will have to eliminate 75 to 91 staff positions over the next five years, in order to avoid state-mandated tax penalties that by 2026 could reach millions of dollars.
Reen’s proposal, which he unveiled on Dec. 7, is meant to create efficiencies that would allow the district to sustain significant staff cuts without compromising programming.
If the plan is approved, the district would reconfigure elementary schools in Lincoln, New Haven and Starksboro on July 1, 2022, and send the kids from those towns to the schools in Bristol or Monkton. At the same time, Mount Abraham Union Middle School would be expanded to include sixth grade. In a second phase, beginning in July 2023, the MAUSD would merge with the Addison Northwest School District, which serves the communities of Addison, Ferrisburgh, Panton, Vergennes and Waltham.

LEGAL OPINION
The proposal has prompted an avalanche of criticism and concern, including questions about whether the school board has the authority to reconfigure schools without voter permission.
The MAUSD Articles of Agreement specify that no school may be closed without permission from the voters of the town hosting that school, but the articles are less clear when it comes to repurposing schools, so on Dec. 22 the school board directed Reen to solicit a legal opinion on the matter.
William Meub, an attorney hired by the district earlier this month, spoke to the board at the Jan. 13 special meeting. He had been expecting to answer questions in executive session, but the board, in the interest of transparency, voted to keep the discussion public.
“I can tell you … that your articles are not black and white and there’s ambiguity in it, and the only way that you are ever going to get a resolution to some of the ambiguities is to have some court decide it,” Meub said.
He disagreed with the assertion, made by some critics of the plan, that “repurposing” a school is tantamount to closing it, he said, and he did not believe that such an argument would prevail in court.
But because he’d only been on the case for a week and wasn’t familiar with the details of Reen’s plan, Meub offered only broad and limited answers to the board’s questions.

TIMELINE
The board had intended, at the same meeting, to determine a timeline for decision-making on Reen’s plan, but members voted unanimously to table that discussion until Jan. 20. The Independent will cover that meeting in a future article.
Voters in the MAUSD and ANWSD must approve a merger between the two districts, but at this point it’s unlikely such a ballot will get warned for Town Meeting Day in March.
Whether the MAUSD board will seek voter permission for any other aspects of Reen’s plan remains unclear, but some board members at the Jan. 13 meeting floated the idea of holding a vote of some kind next November, or even Town Meeting Day 2022.
As it stands now, the board intends to discuss the following items at its Jan. 20 meeting:
• results of a survey the MAUSD conducted to gain feedback on Reen’s plan.
• additional information the board requested from Reen about his plan.
• forming a district merger study committee.
• the timeline for facilities decision-making.
The next evening, Jan. 21, the board will meet again, to discuss:
• the 2021-22 budget.
• the annual meeting and issues related to voting.
Visit mausd.org for information about joining those Zoom meetings, and visit neatbristol.com to see videos of past meetings.

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