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Lincoln is weighing its exit from MAUSD

“It’s not Save Our Schools, but it’s Save Community Schools, because we’re recognizing that community schools like ours, that are the heart and souls of small towns, are in fact endangered institutions in this state right now.”
— SCS member Jim Warnock

LINCOLN — It may be possible for Lincoln residents to reclaim control of the Lincoln Community School without breaking the bank, according to a group called Save Community Schools, which on Tuesday made its case for withdrawing LCS from Mount Abraham Unified School District.

Save Community Schools, or SCS, recently spearheaded a petition to put the school district withdrawal question up for a vote. That vote is scheduled for Aug. 24.

Tuesday night’s presentation at Burnham Hall, which drew nearly 70 people in-person and more than 70 via Zoom, was to be the first of two informational meetings ahead of that vote.

SCS member Jim Warnock began the presentation by noting the group’s name.

“That name is intentional,” Warnock said. “It’s not Save Our Schools, but it’s Save Community Schools, because we’re recognizing that community schools like ours, that are the heart and souls of small towns, are in fact endangered institutions in this state right now.”

By enrollment standards, LCS is the smallest school in the MAUSD, which also serves Bristol, Monkton, New Haven and Starksboro. Depending on whom you ask, the school has 64 to 84 students.

In December, in an effort to address declining district enrollment and rising education costs, MAUSD Superintendent Patrick Reen unveiled a plan that would, among other things, discontinue elementary education in Lincoln and consolidate the district’s K-5 students into its Bristol and Monkton schools. The plan’s second phase involves a merger with the Addison Northwest School District (ANWSD), which serves the Vergennes area.

Some MAUSD board members in the past week have referred to Reen’s plan as having been “tabled” while the board considers alternative proposals submitted by community groups, but phase two of the plan has been taken up by the recently convened ANWSD-MAUSD Merger Study Committee.

As events have unfolded, so has the focus of Save Community Schools, which has been working for 10 months to find ways to keep LCS open and thriving. At first the group was called LCS Reimagined. This past winter, when the MAUSD board solicited long-range facilities proposals from the community, the group widened its focus and changed its name to MAUSD Reimagined.

The group’s long-range facilities proposal, along with four other community proposals, can be found on the MAUSD website: tinyurl.com/y5ad8vp7.

SCS sees pursuing long-range facilities planning while also pursuing withdrawal as two different, but not necessarily mutually exclusive, paths toward the same goal: to keep LCS open and thriving.

The group presented the following case Tuesday night. The Independent reproduces this information as a service to its readers but does not vouch for the accuracy of financial or other calculations.

WHY WITHDRAW?

Advocates of withdrawal say the intentions of Act 46, which led to the consolidation of seven Addison Northeast Supervisory Union school boards into one MAUSD school board, have not been borne out in practice.

The SCS presentation quoted former Vermont Rep. (and current MAUSD board member) Dave Sharpe of Bristol, who penned an op/ed for the Independent immediately following the unveiling of Superintendent Reen’s plan.

“Now, several years into implementing (Act 46) in Addison County, we have not seen the promised reduction in administrative staff in school buildings or in the superintendent’s offices,” Sharpe wrote. “What we are seeing instead are proposals to close community schools against the specific intent of the legislation and the wisdom of many community members.”

SCS is also concerned about the statutory authority and time line of the ANWSD-MAUSD Merger Study Committee.

The committee could, if it wanted to, bypass the two school boards and take its case for a merged district, if it eventually makes one, directly to the voters.

The Merger Study Committee, which has only met once so far, has shown no appetite for maneuvering itself thus, but the completion of its work does coincide with the proposed completion of the MAUSD board’s evaluation of community-authored long-range facilities plans — none of which favors a merger with the ANWSD.

If the Merger Study Committee were to develop a merger recommendation and the MAUSD board were to recommend a community-authored proposal that keeps district elementary schools open and forgoes a merger with the ANWSD, it’s technically possible the Merger Study Committee’s own recommendation would prevail.

For some Lincoln residents this is an indication the town should begin withdrawing from the district now.

If Lincoln withdraws from the MAUSD it would regain local control of its school, advocates say.

It would also regain the ability to vote on a detailed — and understandable — school budget every year.

Advocates also suggest that keeping LCS open and thriving would protect local property values and ensure that Lincoln remains a thriving town that attracts young families.

TIME LINE

If Lincoln votes to withdraw LCS from the MAUSD the question would then be put to the other four district towns for their approval.

The district would have until December to hold that vote.

If the other towns approve, Lincoln would then seek, next summer, conditional approval from the Vermont State Board of Education, pending the successful acceptance of a district “exit agreement.”

The next steps, to be completed between July 2022 and August 2023, would involve voting on a school board and budget for the new school, hiring staff and getting assigned to a supervisory union.

If everything proceeds without a hitch, Lincoln would be operating LCS as a public K-6 school. Lincoln kids in grades 7-12 would attend the schools of their choice.

SUPERVISORY UNION

Should LCS succeed in withdrawing from the MAUSD it would need to be assigned to a supervisory union (SU) for administrative purposes, advocates say.

Some of the services an SU would provide include special education/IEP, payroll services, transportation, food service, extended learning programming, federal and state funds disbursement and professional development programming.

Whether or not a newly withdrawn LCS and its former district would agree to form a supervisory union remains to be seen, but MAUSD is not the only option, advocates said.

FUNDING EDUCATION

Lincoln selectboard member Paul Forlenza presented SCS’s financial information.

According to SCS, Lincoln’s share of MAUSD’s $27.4 million FY 2021 budget was roughly 14%, or $3.9 million. This includes Lincoln’s share for LCS and the money it pays to have its grades 7-12 students educated.

This money is raised through educational property taxes, more than two-thirds of which are reduced by income sensitivity.

Lincoln collected about $2.3 million in educational property taxes for FY21, and the state contributed roughly $1.6 million.

Withdrawal proponents believe Lincoln has not seen significant tax reductions as a result of Act 46, except for the temporary tax breaks offered as an incentive for Act 46 consolidation. Those tax breaks disappear after next year.

SCS estimated Lincoln’s average educational tax rate between 2015 and 2018 (pre-Act 46) to be $1.53 per $100 of assessed property value and its average tax rates between 2019 and 2022 (post-Act 46) at $1.56.

The presentation did not discuss whether Lincoln might have avoided much higher taxes because of Act 46.

Before the MAUSD was formed Lincoln paid $123,000 a year for a previous renovation bond.

Since MAUSD was formed the five member towns have shared that expense equally and Lincoln has paid $24,600 per year.

If LCS withdraws from the MAUSD it would resume the full annual payment again, which is $98,400 more than it is paying now.

SCS estimates the balance on that bond will be less than $800,000 at the time of a potential withdrawal from the school district.

EFFECT ON TAXES

If the Lincoln Community School had existed separately from the Mount Abraham Unified School District this year, Lincoln residents would have paid less money in educational taxes, according to SCS calculations.

•  Households with an income between $47,000 and $138,500 and a house site value between $100,000 and $400,000 would have saved $10-$50 this year.

•  Households with income above $138,500 and a house site value between $100,000 and $400,000 would have saved $20-$60.

•  Households with income above $138,500 and a house site value above $400,000 would have saved $50-$125.

SCS emphasized in its presentation that this was its estimate for what Lincoln finances would have looked like in FY21 if the town were not a member of the MAUSD, and these numbers are not meant to be a prediction of the future.

The foregoing estimates, SCS said, confirm that leaving the school district is currently a financially viable alternative.

But the presenters acknowledged that there are several challenges to making projections, including the question marks surrounding the future of Vermont’s education funding system.

During the Q&A portion of the evening, Rep. Mari Cordes, D-Lincoln, announced that she was the co-sponsor of a bill that would uncouple educational taxes from property values and use household income as the basis for levying future school taxes.

MAUSD RESPONSE

The MAUSD board will convene its annual board retreat on Monday, Aug. 16, from 2 to 8 p.m. at the Common Ground Center in Starksboro.

At 5 p.m., according to the agenda, the board will discuss the impact of the “Lincoln Secession.”

In the meantime, MAUSD board this week urged Lincoln residents to consider postponing a potential withdrawal.

“Would you consider delaying your vote until January 2022?” asked the board in a public statement posted to Front Porch Forum by Starksboro representative Steve Rooney. “The (community-authored) proposals, being reviewed by (consultant) Nate Levenson and his team, have presented possible solutions that we did not see before. Solutions which are worth considerable consideration. The community proposals include a number of options that maintain all five elementary schools as they are. These are options that are being seriously considered and evaluated. It is reasonable to believe that we can discover a solution that meets all our needs. We can’t offer any guarantees, but we believe if we can continue to work together as a district we can find the best path forward.”

Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].

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