Education News

Lincoln school district approved — but State Ed Board remains doubtful

LINCOLN — The town of Lincoln has won tepid, begrudging approval from the Vermont State Board of Education (SBE) to separate from the Mount Abraham Unified School District and form an independent Lincoln School District (LSD).

The SBE approved the bid on May 18 by a vote of 4-3, based on a set of very narrow criteria Chair Oliver Olsen and other members said had nothing to do with the potential viability of the new district.

“This should not and must not be interpreted as any finding whatsoever that the Lincoln Community School will meet EQS (education quality standards),” said SBE Chair Oliver Olsen after the vote had taken place.

“I’m delighted we got approval from (the SBE) to move ahead,” said Lincoln selectboard member and withdrawal advocate Paul Forlenza. But “it was not a pretty victory,” he acknowledged. “There were quite a few members who were sending us the message that we would fail, and that was disappointing.”

Tammy Kolbe was one such SBE member. Kolbe voted to approve the formation of the Lincoln School District, but only on technical grounds, she said.

“I just want to be clear, I remain concerned the Lincoln School District may not be on a sustainable path, and I think (that’s) the message that should be going back to the Lincoln representatives today,” Kolbe said.

The Lincoln group Save Community Schools (SCS), which has spearheaded the town’s withdrawal effort, requested an “expedited” decision from the SBE so that formation of the Lincoln School District could proceed according to current state law, rather than a new set of rules created by a bill passed earlier this month by the House and Senate, H.727. That bill is expected to be signed by Gov. Phil Scott any day now and immediately go into effect.

Critics of the bill, including residents of Lincoln and of Starksboro, which has also launched a bid to leave the MAUSD, say the new rules would make it much more difficult for towns to separate from existing districts.

H.727 did contain a “carve out” for Lincoln, allowing it to pursue its exit largely in accordance with the current law, but Save Community Schools rejected it because it added additional requirements, said Forlenza, who acts as the selectboard’s liaison to the group.

On the whole SCS viewed the bill as an attempt to “move the goal post in the middle of the game,” Forlenza said.

‘BENEFITS’

SBE member Kim Gleason voted against Lincoln’s plan and said she wasn’t convinced Lincoln voters would be as gung-ho as SCS about moving forward under the old law if they understood the beneficial options that would be available under the new law.

Gleason added that she felt it was “irresponsible” for the State Board to consider limiting the options by approving Lincoln’s exit plan before H.727 becomes law.

Benefits Gleason suggested Lincoln would be giving up include:

  • The ability to defer the new district’s date of operation by one year, if it needed more time.
  • A two-year moratorium on closing schools.
  • An “off ramp,” that would allow Lincoln easier reintegration with the MAUSD if the town finds it cannot sustain its own school.

Gleason also pointed out that Ripton, which has withdrawn from the Addison Central School District to form its own school district and is collaborating with Lincoln to form a new supervisory union, will under the new law be given the option to defer its date of operation from July 1, 2023 to July 1, 2024. If it did so, it would be out of sync with Lincoln, which will be locked into an operational date of July 1, 2023. Such a scenario could complicate their efforts to build a supervisory union together.

But Lincoln is not interested in deferring its date of operation, Forlenza told the Independent.

“In conversations about the operations of both school districts it’s always been 2023, so I’m not sure what that’s about,” he said.

Ripton school board member Molly Witters confirmed on Tuesday that that school district’s “goal is absolutely to be operational the same time as Lincoln for it to all line up.”

It’s not clear what benefits a school closure moratorium could have offered Lincoln.

The MAUSD prohibits school closure without voter approval in the town hosting that school. In the event the MAUSD merges with the Addison Northwest School District, as is now being contemplated by a Merger Study Committee, the new district’s articles of agreement, as they stand now, would prohibit school closure without a town vote for the first four years.

And Lincoln is not interested in rejoining the MAUSD anyway, so it does not need an “off ramp,” Forlenza said.

REVIEWING BOUNDARIES

The State Board’s dealings with Lincoln on May 18 extended beyond approving its exit from the MAUSD.

A second piece of business would have been to confirm that the MAUSD, as the “remaining district,” actually “remains.”

This is a formality, Chair Olsen told the Independent Wednesday.

But the board opted not to take action on it at the May 18 meeting, then invited MAUSD officials to a future SBE meeting to “speak to it,” Olsen said.

At the same time, the SBE has put the region “on notice” that it will be “evaluating” its “SU boundaries” at its September meeting, he said.

Olsen explained why in a May 19 email to ANWSD-MAUSD Merger Study Committee consultant Tracy Wrend.

“My … assessment of the situation is that it will be very challenging for Lincoln and Ripton to pull all of this off on the timeline that Lincoln has chosen for themselves, and by extension, Ripton,” he wrote. “I foresee a scenario where Lincoln and/or Ripton come before the State Board in September, and realizing that they will be unable to operationalize their own (supervisory union) by July 1, 2023, could ask the State Board to deconstruct one of the regional SDs into a multi-district SU and assign them as members.”

As Olsen explained to the Independent, this means the SBE could, for instance, separate the supervisory union function from a supervisory district like MAUSD, making it into a school district, which would in turn be assigned to a new supervisory union — with Lincoln and possibly other school districts.

A supervisory district is Vermont’s preferred governance structure, Olsen said. It is a school district and a supervisory union rolled up into one.

The SBE would actually prefer not to deconstruct a supervisory district into its component parts, then re-form them into a new supervisory union, because the SBE doesn’t think that’s an ideal arrangement.

The SBE certainly wouldn’t want to do this if any the potential parties to the new supervisory union were opposed to it, Olsen said.

He emphasized that the SBE’s sole purpose in issuing an invitation for MAUSD officials to attend a future meeting was to “gather input.”

“We want to be able to make the best decision we can with as much information as we can,” he said.

The State Board is not advocating for the “deconstruction” of the MAUSD, he said.

“Quite the opposite. In fact, I feel the board made that point with Ripton, that it was not going to force a (supervisory district) that didn’t want to be made into (a supervisory union).”

Earlier this year, rather than “unilaterally assigning” it to an existing SU or SD, the SBE designated Ripton as its own supervisory district (both a school district and a supervisory union).

“Certainly if the MAUSD is opposed to entering into an SU situation with Lincoln, the board will be interested to hear about it,” Olsen said.

Still, as he wrote to Wrend on May 19, at the end of the day, “we cannot just stand by and leave kids stranded in a sea of dysfunction and chaos.”

LINCOLN SCHOOL BOARD

The newly formed Lincoln School District will hold school board elections on June 21.

Three candidates are running for three spots:

  • Jennifer Oldham, a former member of the pre-MAUSD Lincoln School Board.
  • Abby Reynolds, an educator employed in Chittenden County, who Forlenza said “has some innovative ideas about education.”
  • and Forlenza himself.

“The thinking there was that it would be good to have someone to help the school board transition from the work that SCS has been doing, so it won’t be lost,” he said about his candidacy.

Once elected, the board will begin to prepare the Lincoln School District for operations on July 1, 2023. One of its first big tasks will be negotiating an “exit agreement” with the MAUSD to hash out any remaining fiscal concerns.

Folks in Lincoln are well aware the State Board has its doubts, Forlenza said. But folks in Lincoln are confident they have the information, the resources and the ideas to make their new school district work.

For more information about the State Board of Education’s May 18 decision, see the meeting minutes or watch the full meeting on the Board’s YouTube channel.

Reach Christopher Ross at christopherr@addisonindependent.com.

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The Addison Independent will be closed on Monday, July 4th. The newspaper will be published on Thursday, as usual.