Letter to the editor: Breakup of MAUSD didn’t have to happen

Although it was not originally sold as such, the Mount Abraham Unified School District (MAUSD) Superintendent Patrick Reen’s, December 2020 long-term facilities use proposal has been and continues to be the catalyst for the deconstruction of our district. The fallout from Reen’s original proposal, in collaboration with MAUSD Board actions and inactions, and newly crafted articles of agreement for a merged Addison North Unified School District (to be voted on this November) has been the withdrawal of two towns, Lincoln and Starksboro, from MAUSD.

Deconstruction of MAUSD has thus become a self-fulfilling prophecy — one that Superintendent Reen proposed in a veiled fashion when he recommended that MAUSD merge with the Addison Northwest School District (ANWSD). The self-inflicted deconstruction of MAUSD was not inevitable. We did not need to end up at a place where Superintendent Reen and the MAUSD Board inappropriately advocated for a “No” vote from the residents of Bristol, Monkton and New Haven to prohibit Starksboro’s exit from MAUSD.

Having spent the last two-and-a-half years on the MAUSD Board (before I resigned at the June meeting), I have come to realize that the Reen proposal and the board’s complicity should be considered nothing less than the continuation of the Act 46 agenda, just played out locally. An agenda that seeks to close small schools and merge districts together, furthering a move toward a singular school district for the entire state of Vermont — a proposition floated by Secretary of Education, Dan French. This is an agenda that could be satirically titled, “Keeping small schools open and local school districts viable inhibits access to education.”

The MAUSD Board, the superintendent and the ANWSD/MAUSD merger study committee attitude toward Lincoln’s withdrawal and Starksboro’s attempt is short-sighted. They have framed this as a selfish last-ditch effort by towns to keep their community elementary schools open. Nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, proposed closures were an important catalyst that sparked community members to organize and mobilize after Reen’s proposal. It is important to remember that the proposal called for a singular Addison North Supervisory District and the closure of three elementary schools within MAUSD. And looking further under the hood, Reen also championed a singular board of directors with the granted authority (now via the Articles of Agreement statutorily set by the MAUSD/ANWSD merger study committee) to move 6th grade out of elementary schools, close Mt. Abe’s middle school, close Vergennes Union High School, and deny member towns the ability to decide the fate of their own elementary schools. Stating that these withdrawal efforts are solely to keep their schools open is missing the trees for the forest.

Anyone close to the Lincoln, Starksboro (and Ripton) communities knows that the withdrawal efforts are not driven by a desire to keep their schools open, but rather preserving equitable academic, social, and emotional educational experiences within their respective communities. Five years after Act 46 unification votes, many locally have not seen the promises of this legislation — taxpayer savings along with greater equity and opportunity for our students — come to fruition. During this time, taxes have continued to increase, and the MAUSD Board disingenuously posits that taxes would only have been higher, but for Act 46. The hope of true equity and opportunity have fallen to the wayside in a desire for uniformity and administrative convenience.

Community members working on the path to withdrawal have not done so lightly. Their efforts are born from the beliefs that teachers and staff should not be seen as just employees who may come and go, but as people doing sacred work — educators who help our youth find their social, emotional and intellectual foundations in the world in which the floor seems to be constantly shifting. These community members do not believe that attrition should be celebrated when students desperately need more support. Most importantly, they do not want to see their children labeled and leveraged as equalized pupils with some multiplicative dollar sign amount that equates to revenue for the school district. They want their children to be seen as individuals with different stories, different backgrounds — individuals (like all of us) who have challenges, talents, fears, and hopes, dreams and goals for life. When this occurs, equity is attained and resides on the opposite side of the Act 46 uniformity coin. That is ultimately why independence has been pursued.

The fear of MAUSD deconstruction driven by the State Board of Education (SBE) in reaction to the withdrawal of Lincoln and now Starksboro, is not warranted. MAUSD did this to themselves. Yes, the SBE and the Secretary of Education would like to see some stability of school district governance in Addison County. However, Superintendent Reen and the MAUSD Board advocating and gaslighting taxpayers for a “No” vote will not bring this about. For it is a seed that will only reap more of the same come November. “No” to merging. “No” to school closure. “No” to Superintendent Reen’s proposal and the Act 46 agenda. He would be wise to consider the consequences of an engaged and enraged community. His advocacy will not bring the district together. It will not bring the northern part of the county together. It will only further drive the wedge of distrust and disdain for the top down, “one size fits all” educational and governance model driven by Act 46. And it will do nothing for the long-term sustainability of our precious Vermont towns.

Stability in governance and differing approaches to equity can be achieved in Addison County, but only through local consensus and control. I believe that this starts with a “Yes” vote from the residents of Bristol, Monkton and New Haven. We should respect the will of the Starksboro’s electorate. A three-town MAUSD can then vote to merge with ANWSD come November — creating the new Addison North Unified School District. Starksboro, Lincoln, and Ripton can move forward with their own supervisory union if allowed by the SBE. And at the end of this day, this compromise ultimately gives Superintendent Reen what he clearly wants: a newly merged district with multiple schools no longer on his books.

The sad part of all this is that the current situation was entirely avoidable. The superintendent and the MAUSD Board have singularly failed to gauge the sentiment of the taxpayers who pay for the schools and instead proposed merger, closings and repurposings. It has resulted in extreme disunity among the five towns and an unwanted proposal by the SBE to create a new supervisory structure for the district which, ironically, is opposed by the superintendent. If the MAUSD Board truly had our district’s best interests at heart, it never would have embarked on the difficult road we are navigating.

Rob Backlund


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