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Lincoln votes to withdraw from MAUSD

CHILDREN DISPLAY SIGNS supporting Lincoln Community School earlier this week. Developments in the Mount Abraham Unified School District over the past 10 months, including a proposal that would discontinue elementary education at LCS, have prompted a bid in Lincoln to withdraw from the district. Voters approved the bid on Tuesday, 525-172. Photo by Sarah McClain

This is just the beginning. We have a lot more hard work to do. This is an 18- to 24-month process. But it is a great beginning to gain back local control.
— Paul Forlenza

LINCOLN — Lincoln voters on Tuesday overwhelmingly approved a proposal to withdraw from the Mount Abraham Unified School District.

Nearly two-thirds of Lincoln’s registered voters cast ballots on the measure, which passed 525-172, according to Town Clerk Sally Ober.

Once the Secretary of State’s office records Lincoln’s withdrawal vote it will notify the four other MAUSD member towns of Bristol, Monkton, New Haven and Starksboro, whose voters must then ratify Lincoln’s exit bid before it can proceed to the Vermont Board of Education, which would decide whether Lincoln can become its own independent school district.

Tuesday’s vote was scheduled by the Lincoln selectboard in response to a July 8 petition by Save Community Schools, which describes itself as “a diverse group of Lincoln parents and residents who have been working to ensure that a vibrant community school remains in Lincoln to educate the town’s children.”

Lincoln Community School was one of three MAUSD schools identified by Superintendent Patrick Reen for potential “repurposing” as part of a two-phase, long-range facilities plan unveiled in December to address declining enrollment and rising costs in the district.

Lincoln opponents of the plan insist they have the right to vote on whether their school is repurposed, just as MAUSD member towns have the right, guaranteed by the district’s articles of agreement, to vote on any school closure proposals. An attorney hired by the town in December issued a legal opinion to that effect.

But an attorney hired by the MAUSD in January told the school board it has the authority to repurpose schools without a vote of the town hosting that school.

The school board subsequently delayed its decision on the repurposing phase of Reen’s plan in order to solicit and consider alternative long-range facilities proposals submitted by community members, including some Lincoln residents.

At the same time, the board decided to pursue phase two of Reen’s plan, a potential merger of the MAUSD with its neighbor to the west, the Addison Northwest School District.

The notion of merging the two districts predates Reen’s proposal, school board members pointed out at their meeting Tuesday night, but the board’s Jan. 20 decision to invite the ANWSD to form a merger study committee was clearly centered in the ongoing conversation about how to proceed with Reen’s proposal.

That, too, has been a source of conflict between Lincoln and the district, and Lincoln residents have raised concerns about the ANWSD-MAUSD Merger Study Committee, whose work has just begun but is legally independent of the school boards and has no obligation to accommodate developments that might arise from the MAUSD’s consideration of community facilities proposals. None of those proposals explicitly favors a merger with the ANWSD.

In the run-up to Tuesday’s vote, Save Community Schools and the MAUSD both released financial projections about what would happen if Lincoln withdrew from the school district, but those projections didn’t agree, nor did the assumptions that were used to develop them, and the opposing parties decided during a hastily scheduled meeting last week that they’d agree to disagree.

Save Community Schools members were upbeat about the voting results.

“I am gratified that the voters of Lincoln have overwhelmingly supported withdrawing from MAUSD,” said SCS and Lincoln selectboard member Paul Forlenza in an email to the Independent Tuesday night. “This is just the beginning. We have a lot more hard work to do. This is an 18- to 24-month process. But it is a great beginning to gain back local control.”

Reen gave a lot of credit to the group for advocating for their town.

“I feel good knowing SCS recognizes there will be significant challenges to overcome for a Lincoln school district,” Reen told Independent Tuesday night. “They believe, as it seems the majority of the voters in Lincoln do, that they are better off solving those challenges on their own. In the end, I can only wish them the best as they work to find affordable ways to continue to provide a great education to the children in Lincoln.”

MAUSD Board Chair Dawn Griswold situated the Lincoln vote amid the extraordinary complexity of the district’s current moment.

“Just as we are investing the time, resources and energy in the current facilities work and formed the merger study (committee) to gather more information, this vote represents more information for all our communities,” Griswold told the Independent Wednesday morning. “We need a plan to keep our district viable today and in the future, and every avenue we use to gather more facts/information will allow us to make good decisions. I hope all our community members will stay engaged (and) communicate respectfully to discuss and consider what all this means to the future of MAUSD. It may feel like a bumpy road forward, but we remain hopeful and committed that we can arrive at a plan that benefits current and future MAUSD students.”

Bristol resident and former state Rep. Dave Sharpe, who sits on the MAUSD board, accused Save Community Schools of misleading Lincoln residents “about the facts and ramifications of separating from the MAUSD.”

“The vote today in Lincoln is a sad day for public education in our district,” Sharpe wrote in a Front Porch Forum post that appeared on Tuesday.

GROUNDSWELL

Lincoln is the fourth Addison County town to schedule a school district withdrawal vote this year.

In January, Ripton residents approved a proposal to leave the Addison Central School District, and Weybridge residents rejected a similar bid. In July, Addison residents narrowly defeated a bid to withdraw from the ANWSD, but the town will vote again on the question on Oct. 5.

There have been indications that Starksboro may also be willing to consider a bid to exit the MAUSD.

At a school forum held by the Starksboro selectboard on Aug. 10, community members expressed strong support for preserving Robinson Elementary School, which has also been identified by Reen for potential repurposing.

Starksboro residents Nancy Cornell and Herb Olson this week urged the school board to approve a meeting agenda item that appeared to be aimed at giving MAUSD towns the right to vote on whether their schools are repurposed, which many Starksboro and Lincoln residents insist is the same thing as closing them.

“It is important to take the issue of closing schools off the table now, not later,” Cornell and Olson wrote in an email to the school board on Monday. “Many residents feel very strongly about their town’s right to decide on the future of the town’s elementary school. If the school board decides that closing schools continues to be an option (by not approving the agenda item), many (Starksboro) residents will feel an urgency to explore the withdrawal process. Withdrawal is not the most attractive option, but if pushed into a corner, many residents would feel they need to at least consider it.”

After more than an hour of discussion Tuesday night, the MAUSD board tabled the agenda item.

Correction: An earlier version of this story contained errors in its description of how the Lincoln withdrawal vote will be handled by the Secretary of State’s office and by member towns. According to Vermont statute (16 V.S.A. § 724), the Secretary of State’s office will contact member towns directly, and aside from the requirement that all member towns hold votes on the same day, there is no timeline specified for those votes. 

Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].

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