Starksboro mulls options for keeping school open

With what’s happening in Ripton and what’s playing out in Lincoln I think we have to at least look at it with open eyes and say, ‘Actually, Starksboro (because it borders the Champlain Valley School District to the north) could be in the best position to pursue that path.’
— Caleb Elder

STARKSBORO — The way Nancy Cornell and Herb Olson see it, there are two things that might avert a movement in Starksboro to withdraw from the Mount Abraham Unified School District.

First: The MAUSD board could resolve, soon and publicly, that it will not close or repurpose Robinson Elementary School without the approval of Starksboro voters.

Second: The study committee evaluating a possible merger between the MAUSD and the Addison Northwest School District could promise not to approve a merger structure that would eliminate Starksboro’s — or any other MAUSD town’s — existing right to vote on any proposal to close its school.

“Neither of us is excited about the prospect of withdrawing,” Cornell said at a special town forum held both by Zoom and in person at the Robinson gym last Tuesday. “It would be very sad, and plus it would be a boatload of work.”

Two of Starksboro’s neighbors to the south are contemplating or actively pursuing withdrawal from their school districts. Lincoln will vote on withdrawing from the MAUSD on Tuesday, Aug. 24. Ripton voted to withdraw from the Addison Central School District earlier this year and has recently negotiated its exit plan.

Voters in two other Addison County towns, Weybridge and Addison, have rejected bids to withdraw from the ACSD and the ANWSD, respectively. Addison has petitioned a revote.

But in Starksboro, “if we could have both of these assurances from those two separate bodies,” Cornell said, “I would feel like we could wait and not be feeling like we have to move on withdrawal right now.”

Cornell was an associate superintendent of schools and curriculum coordinator for a combined 23 years in the Rutland Northeast and Addison Northeast school districts. She has taught in Vermont schools and served on the Robinson school board, and prior to the pandemic she worked as an education consultant.

She is also co-author, with Olson, of a community schools proposal submitted to the MAUSD board this past May, which includes among its guiding principles the right of towns to decide whether their elementary schools may be closed.

Robinson was one of three MAUSD schools Superintendent Patrick Reen identified for possible “repurposing” when he unveiled his long-range facilities plan in December. Reen offered that proposal as one solution to the persistent and related problems of declining enrollment and rising costs in the district.

Phase one of Reen’s plan would turn the Robinson and Lincoln elementary schools into district-wide “innovation hubs” and bus their K-5 students to Bristol or Monkton. Phase two would merge the MAUSD with the ANWSD.

Phase one is currently on hold while an outside consultant evaluates Cornell and Olson’s plan, along with four others submitted as alternatives to Reen’s proposal. That work is scheduled for completion in December.

Phase two has been taken up by the ANWSD-MAUSD Merger Study Committee, which would “ideally” complete its work in December as well, according to its charge.

At this time, neither phase gives Starksboro voters a say in the future of their community school — which some residents have suggested is a violation of MAUSD’s articles of agreement.

Article 10 of that agreement stipulates that the district cannot close a school without voter permission in the town hosting that school.

Starksboro and Lincoln residents, as well as an attorney hired by the Lincoln selectboard, insist that “repurposing” is tantamount to “closure” and should therefore trigger townwide votes.

An MAUSD attorney, on the other hand, advised the school board in March that it had the power to repurpose schools without voter approval — though he would only provide his legal opinion behind closed doors.

Reen reiterated the district attorney’s position Monday night at the school board’s annual retreat, suggesting that if the board offered towns the right to vote on repurposing it would amount to “delegating its authority back to communities” and “giving up authority that’s been granted to (the board) by voters.”

Addison-4 Rep. Caleb Elder (D-Starksboro), who served on the district’s Act 46 Study Committee and, until this past spring, the MAUSD board, disagrees.

“I think that’s absurd,” Elder said at the school forum, referring to the MAUSD attorney’s finding. “I think there has to be a vote, legally.”

At the same time, Elder feels school district withdrawal is “a really troublesome path” and described it as “a loophole of Act 46” not envisioned at the state level.

“It’s not a direction I would have ever angled toward,” he said.

Still, “with what’s happening in Ripton and what’s playing out in Lincoln I think we have to at least look at it with open eyes and say, ‘Actually, Starksboro (because it borders the Champlain Valley School District to the north) could be in the best position to pursue that path.’ ”

Most people commenting at the school forum expressed support for keeping Robinson open.

Losing the school would be “devastating,” said Ruth Beecher, who taught there for more than 30 years.

The Starksboro selectboard scheduled the forum to keep the community informed about school-district happenings, including the implications of various consolidation and merger proposals, and to discuss potential actions Starksboro can take as a community, selectboard member John Painter told the Independent.

“The selectboard feels it’s our duty to represent the town and make sure the town has its say,” he said Monday. “We’re trying to be as deliberate and thoughtful as possible. We want to be responding, not reacting.”

Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify the ANWSD-MAUSD Merger Study Committee’s work schedule, which at this time has no official deadline.

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