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Mount Abe delays facilities decision

BRISTOL — Fifty days, it turns out, was not enough time for the Mount Abraham Unified School District board to come to a decision about Superintendent Patrick Reen’s long-range facilities plan, which he unveiled on Dec. 7.
The school board had originally hoped to make a decision no later than this week, thus beating the deadline for warning any necessary Town Meeting Day votes, but last Wednesday it pushed its timeline back to August.
As discussions continue, “it’s going to be important to be respectful of our communities and seek out community thinking and innovation, and consider it in our work,” said chair Dawn Griswold at the board’s Jan. 20 meeting.
But putting off the decision does not guarantee that it will be easier to make come August, Griswold emphasized.
“It is likely that we will still face a dilemma and some difficult decisions after these months of further study,” she said.
Griswold, committee chairs Krista Siringo and Kevin Hanson, and the district’s hired mediator Sue McCormack met before last week’s meeting to discuss and pitch to the board three important concepts and conditions going forward:
•  a seven-month timeframe for further study.
•  adding to the board schedule one facilities-related meeting per month.
•  focusing on the shared community values that emerged during the district’s 2019 community engagement process.
The decision to extend the facilities discussion found support among community members who attended the meeting.
“I wanted you to know how much people appreciate your willingness to take more time in deciding what to do,” said Starksboro resident and former Assistant Superintendent Nancy Cornell. “I’m very hopeful as I was listening tonight that as you make plans to meet and talk about what you’re going to do that you’ll consider some different proposals besides the proposal that you have been considering.”
Cornell reminded the board that she and other 5-Town residents are eager to help as the board discusses its options in the coming months.

THE PLAN
Like many Vermont school districts, the MAUSD — which operates elementary schools in Bristol, Lincoln, Monkton, New Haven and Starksboro, plus Mount Abraham Union Middle/High School in Bristol — has struggled with declining enrollment and increasing 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 is meant to create efficiencies that would allow the district to sustain significant staffing cuts without compromising programming.
If the plan is approved in August, 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 QUESTIONS
Different legal opinions have emerged about whether Reen’s plan violates the MAUSD Articles of Agreement.
William Meub, an attorney hired by the district this month, believes the school board has the authority to repurpose schools in a manner similar to Reen’s proposal, Reen told the board on Jan. 20. Meub has not written a publicly available legal memo on the matter and is only willing to discuss his opinion with the board behind closed doors.
Ron Shems, a Montpelier attorney hired by the Lincoln selectboard, offered a different view.
“His opinion is ‘repurposing schools’ is in reality ‘closing schools,’” Lincoln selectboard member Paul Forlenza explained in a Jan. 22 Front Porch Forum post.
According to the MAUSD articles of agreement, the district may close a school only with approval from the voters of the town hosting that school. As it stands now, Reen’s proposal does not include an appeal to voters.
Unlike Meub, Shems and his partner Nicholas Low wrote a legal memo, which the Lincoln selectboard has made public for the purpose of transparency. The opinion can be found on the town website at tinyurl.com/y3ggvak4.
“Regardless of the legal opinions, the MAUSD board needs to step up to the spirit of the (articles of) agreement and allow the voters of Lincoln and other towns the right to vote on whether or not to close their school,” Forlenza wrote.

OTHER ITEMS
Also at last Wednesday’s meeting, the board got a first look at results from a survey MAUSD recently conducted (see story here).
The MAUSD board also accomplished the following business at its Jan. 20 and Jan. 21 meetings:
•  approved the formation of a merger study committee to explore the possibility of joining with the ANWSD.
•  got the latest look at Superintendent Reen’s FY22 budget, which as of last week stood at $31,720,679, a 1% spending increase over FY21. The district is looking at a reduction of eight equalized pupils next year, and a 0.2% increase in spending per equalized pupil. The board is expected to adopt a budget this week, and the Independent will give readers a more in-depth look in a future article.
•  scheduled the district’s annual meeting for Feb. 23.
•  moved the deadline for the consent of candidate forms to Feb. 1.
•  moved all floor votes to Australian ballot, scheduled for March 2.
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].

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