Education Op/Ed

Letter to the editor: MAUSD and community need to rebuild trust

The past several years have been traumatic for our Mount Abraham Unified School District (MAUSD) educational community. Tragically we lost one town, we almost lost another, and the manner in which the district handled the issues was profoundly alienating for many in the community. The result has been a deterioration in trust between the district and the community.

What went wrong? Why have we reached a moment in time where, despite long standing community support for our schools, we need to rebuild trust between the community and the district? Here is my perspective:

First, the MAUSD Board has delegated to the administration most major decisions concerning education in the district, including basic decisions such as closing schools and merging districts, budget priorities (the annual budget), and education priorities (the ENDS policy and the Strategic Plan). These are policy decisions the board should be making. Instead, policy choices usually are already framed and narrowed by the administration, and the recommended policy is offered to the board without meaningful opportunity for board decisions.

Second, with the administration empowered to make most major policy decisions, the board’s role as the elected representatives of the community is greatly diminished. As a result, many feel alienated from the school system, feeling that no one is listening. These circumstances are a dangerous breeding ground for those who are not interested in seeing our schools succeed.

While there are recent signs that the deferential relationship between the board and the administration is changing, much work remains to be done:

• It was disheartening to see the board’s recent adoption of a statement that the administration is making “reasonable progress” towards achieving the district’s education policies. We know students can succeed in our schools, we know we have talented and committed staff, but for many students a challenging behavioral environment, low academic proficiency measures, with some exceptions, and a depressing picture of the postgraduation outlook for many students suggests that we are not making “reasonable progress.” Acknowledging where the district needs to focus its efforts, and translating those efforts into budget and education priorities, is a necessary first step to improve educational opportunities for all of our students.

• The FY ’24 budget was an opportunity for the board to set policy priorities for improving educational opportunities for our students; through this lens, the budget development process was a major disappointment. I am not questioning the decisions the board made; rather I am concerned that the board did not have the information needed to establish its own budget policies, and instead deferred yet again to the administration’s priorities.

  – The administration’s proposed budget recommended a transfer of $438,504 from the Capital Reserve Fund to support capital improvements, and $900,000 from taxes to support capital improvements, while not recommending any specific education-related budget priorities. The board accepted the administration’s recommended budget. The conclusion I draw from these decisions is that the board is continuing to defer to the administration’s budget priorities that focus on capital improvements, not on improving educational opportunities.

  – What are the board’s budget priorities for improving educational opportunities? Does the board want to increase financial support for early education, including support for children birth through three who are at risk of being unprepared to enter school? Is financial support needed to collaborate with Addison Northwest School District high school on expanding educational opportunities? What ideas does the community want to suggest as budget priorities affecting educational opportunities? It’s hard to tell, because the questions were not posed, and the information needed to even ask the questions was not available to the board.

  – Perhaps it was believed that funding is not available to explore independent board priorities, but the January 2021 Levenson Report identified upwards of $2.8 million in potential budget savings for the district, without school closure, grade reconfiguration, or merger with ANWSD. None of these savings were recommended by the administration for the budget this year, and without sufficient information none could be considered by the board. If any of these options are implemented in fiscal year ’24, the realized savings will represent either taxes that did not need to be raised, or funding that could have been allocated to board budget priorities.

I am pleased that the board recently has taken some very positive steps to rebuild community trust. The board appears to be moving towards creating board committees to help with its work, such as a finance committee for budget development, an education committee to monitor the ENDS policy and the Strategic Plan, and a facilities committee to evaluate capital improvement needs. I am hopeful the board will design and implement the committee concept so that the board can acquire the knowledge and expertise needed to develop its own policies. Independent policy-making will serve the district well down the road in terms of enabling dialogue with, and seeking support from the community. The board also should be applauded for its discussion of early education and childcare needs in the district. These discussions demonstrate the board is listening to parents, attempting to address the huge gap in learning preparedness for some students, and trying to grow our communities and our schools.

The community desperately wants a district that supports the best possible education for our students. The recent past gives me hope for the board’s efforts to represent community values and aspirations, and to make its own policy decisions rather than simply following the lead of the administration. I urge community members to support the board’s efforts.

Herb Olson

Starksboro

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