Education News

MAUSD gives towns say on school closures

BRISTOL — After nearly a year of debate over the issue of whether “repurposing” schools is tantamount to “closing” them, the Mount Abraham Unified School District board approved a measure Monday night to bring some clarity to the issue.

The measure, proposed by board member Sandy Lee of Lincoln, stipulates that the word “closure” will be defined to include any decision that would take all K-6 students from one town school and reassign them to another.

As a result of this expanded definition of “closure,” the five MAUSD member towns of Bristol, Lincoln, Monkton, New Haven and Starksboro will have more local control over the fate of their elementary schools.

The MAUSD’s articles of agreement, which were approved by the voters of all five towns in November 2016, are unique among county (and many state) school districts in that they prohibit the closure of a town school without voter approval from the town hosting that school.

YEARLONG DEBATE

That stipulation was put to the test last December when Superintendent Patrick Reen proposed a two-phase plan to address declining enrollment and rising education costs in the district.

In phase one of that plan, elementary students currently attending schools in Lincoln, New Haven and Starksboro would be reassigned to the Bristol or Monkton school. The Lincoln and Starksboro school buildings would be “repurposed” as “innovation centers” available to all district students. The New Haven school building would be repurposed to accommodate the district central office and a preK program.

Phase two of Reen’s plan calls for merging the MAUSD with the Addison Northwest School District. The theoretical new merged district would have one middle school (likely in what is now Vergennes Union High School), one high school (likely in Mount Abraham Union High School) and an unspecified number of elementary schools.

Reen’s plan drew immediate, sharp criticism from many residents of Lincoln and Starksboro, who insisted that “repurposing” a school was the same thing as “closing” and would thus require the same voter approval.

The MAUSD hired an attorney who said the school board had the authority to “repurpose” a school without a vote of the town hosting it. The Lincoln selectboard hired an attorney who came to the opposite conclusion.

Debate over the definition of “closure” continued through the spring and summer. In the meantime, the MAUSD board solicited proposals from the community that might offer creative solutions to the district’s fiscal crises. Those are now being considered alongside Reen’s proposal. And the ANWSD-MAUSD Merger Study Committee, which was formed in April, is assessing the feasibility of phase two of Reen’s plan.

The debate reached a fever pitch in August, when Lincoln voters, feeling their options had been exhausted, approved a plan to withdraw from the MAUSD altogether and form their own independent school district. That plan is in progress but will require approval from the other member towns and the State Board of Education.

In September the Starksboro selectboard sent a letter to the MAUSD board requesting, among other things, assurances that their town would not lose its right to vote on the fate of its school. Without those assurances, the selectboard believed it was likely Starksboro would pursue the same path as Lincoln.

All year long, at least a few Lincoln and Starksboro residents have showed up regularly to school board meetings, often communicating their towns’ concerns during the public comment periods.

One of them, Herb Olson of Starksboro, thanked the board Monday night for passing the measure.

“It’s a big weight off of my back, and I think it will be for other community members,” Olson said.

MORE IMPORTANT ISSUES

On Wednesday morning, Olson and Nancy Cornell, on behalf of the Starksboro Save Our Schools Committee, sent the Independent a statement applauding Monday night’s decision, but pointed out there “there are still important issues to address.”

First, they said, in the event that a merger between the ANWSD and MAUSD is approved, “new articles of agreement might very well not allow for a town vote before the elementary school located in the town is closed.”

They also raised concerns about moving entire grades from one school to another, especially since Reen “has proposed sending 6th graders to middle school in Vergennes as part of a merger” — something last night’s measure did not address.

“If the MAUSD Board (or the MAUSD-ANWSD Merger Study Committee) has compelling reasons to recommend that any town’s elementary program be closed, or to recommend a significant change to the program such as reconfiguring the grades in an elementary school, surely the Board should be able to make the case to the voters of the town, and should let the voters decide,” Olson and Cornell wrote. “If the recommendation makes educational sense; if it is truly in the best interest of children, then it should be an easy sell to voters. If the voters disapprove, perhaps it was not such a good idea after all.”

BOARD DISSENT

The MAUSD board on Monday was not unanimous in its approval, however, and some board members expressed concern that it would limit the district’s options.

“We are precluding flexibility and relying on a single town, potentially, to shape the future of the entire district, and I don’t think it’s equitable to subject the other four towns to what one town might vote,” said Kevin Hanson of Bristol, who has been a vocal supporter of Reen’s proposal.

As it stands now, that proposal could not be implemented without the approval of voters in Lincoln, New Haven and Starksboro.

The MAUSD board expects it will begin comparing and discussing Reen’s and various community proposals sometime next month.

The ANWSD-MAUSD Merger Study Committee is aiming to complete its work in time for a potential vote in November 2022.

Reach Christopher Ross at christopherr@addisonindependent.com.

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