Five vie for two MAUSD seats
BRISTOL — In recent years the town of Bristol has not always been able to find enough candidates to run for the Mount Abraham Unified School District board.
Not so this year.
Five Bristol residents have thrown their hats in the ring for the two school board seats that are up for election on Town Meeting Day, March 2.
Erin Jipner is challenging incumbent Kevin Hanson for a three-year seat, while Pamela Jennings and Bill Mount are challenging Krista Siringo for a two-year seat.
That there is increased interest in the school board should come as no surprise to anyone who’s been following public discussions in the district these past few months.
In December MAUSD Superintendent Patrick Reen unveiled a proposal to address declining enrollment and rising costs by consolidating elementary schools and merging with the Vergennes-area school district. The plan has been hotly debated, especially in Lincoln and Starksboro, two of the three towns that stand to lose their elementary schools. After initially planning to make a decision about Reen’s plan in January, the board elected to continue discussing it until August.
MAUSD operates schools in Bristol, Lincoln, Monkton, New Haven and Starksboro. As the largest town in the school district, Bristol holds five seats on the board. The following candidates are competing for two of them.
Kevin Hanson was first elected to the MAUSD board in 2018. Before that he served on the Mount Abraham Union High School board for about 18 months.
Last year Hanson chaired the school board’s Facilities Feasibility Study Subcommittee, which concluded its work in November with a report and set of recommendations for long-range facilities planning. He has expressed support for Reen’s proposal.
“We’re in a real quandary about underused buildings and declining enrollment,” he told the Independent. “It’s been going on for a while and it’s not letting up.”
One of Hanson’s goals, if re-elected, is to help keep the focus on the kids.
“Our function is to educate students, and that needs to be at the forefront of what we do,” he said. “(Conversations) all too often go to taxes and cost containment — and that’s important, people are struggling. But at the end of the day you can provide education with an efficient use of resources.”
In a letter he shared with the Independent and planned to post on social media, Hanson pointed out some of the troubling side effects of preserving buildings while enrollment continues to decline.
“The teachers who help students before they fall behind (and who also help the gifted students) are locked into maintaining undersized and imbalanced classrooms,” he wrote. “And the support for students as they fall behind is not always accessible due to intervention teachers being spread thin across multiple campuses on a part-time basis.”
Furthermore, he wrote, the district’s per-pupil spending is inequitable.
“Bristol Elementary operates at a cost below the equalized pupil spending limit by about $2,500, while all the other campuses operate above the limit.”
Spending at one of those campuses, Lincoln Community School, is roughly $12,000 higher per pupil than at Bristol Elementary.
Whatever decision the board makes in August, it’s not going to be a win-win situation, Hanson told the Independent.
“Not everybody’s going to be happy with it. But hopefully, as the board works through Patrick’s proposal, and any alternative proposals, people will start to understand — not like, but understand — what needs to happen.”
Jipner is running for the three-year seat currently held by Hanson.
Jipner was born and raised in New Haven and went to Mount Abe. After moving away for college and career-building, she returned to Bristol about a year ago. She’s currently working toward a PhD in Infant and Early Childhood Development.
“My passion is working with kids,” she told the Independent.
Jipner became interested in running for the school board after attending, via Zoom, several recent meetings.
“I wish I were excited about what’s happening and by the opportunities I’m seeing,” she said. “But instead I’m nervous — and not just because of the financial burdens the district is facing. It’s also the health and education and well-being of district kids.”
Jipner believes the biggest challenge facing the district right now is responding to current and projected financial constraints, she said.
“There’s one plan, but there’s nothing for the community to compare it to, no other ideas circulating, no other plans,” she said. “The community hasn’t been given enough of the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of the proposal. Have we been transparent enough?”
The tone of public discussion of the plan has felt very partisan, Jipner said.
“Either you’re for the plan or you’re against it.” Meanwhile, “the community is fighting to find a middle ground.”
In addition to fresh eyes and an eagerness to jump in, Jipner believes she would bring to the board a useful communication style, as well as expertise on child development and experience with local schools and how they work.
“I have some real ideas about interacting with the community, creating a grander sense of community,” she said. “We have a huge spectrum of people, a lot of diversity, and we need to draw on that to figure out how to merge these five communities.”
Some of the most impactful moments begin with one person who has the goal of changing one part of the system, Jipner pointed out, and that’s also true in the 5-Towns.
“There are small changes we can make that will have a lasting impact.”
Siringo was elected to the MAUSD board in 2017 and is running to keep her two-year seat. Currently she is the vice-chair of the board and chair of the Community Engagement Committee. She also represents the school board on the Community Council at Mount Abe.
“We have three children attending MAUSD schools: twin daughters at Mount Abe and a son at (Bristol Elementary),” Siringo wrote in a recent Front Porch Forum post. “As a parent, I have had the opportunity to spend time in both schools in a variety of ways: as a volunteer, as a spectator watching sports games, in the audience at the fall and spring musicals, and attending many other community events.”
Siringo has been impressed with the care and attention her children have received from teachers and staff, she wrote, and she’s proud of the way educators have stepped up during the pandemic.
“I joined the board because I wanted to be directly involved in the decisions we make about how we direct resources to make sure we are doing the best job we can to educate all of the kids in our community,” Siringo wrote. “As a board member, I have been privileged to be a part of the important conversations about the future of our school district, and I look forward to continuing this work.”
In the face of significant financial challenges, “it is very important to me that ALL members of our Five Town community feel they have a voice in these conversations,” she wrote. “When we shifted from six boards (one for each of our schools) to one board representing all of our schools, it was clear that we needed to make sure we had effective communication channels between the board and the community.
“The Community Engagement Committee has spent the last two years working hard to engage and connect with students, staff members, families, elders, selectboard members and other community leaders. Last Fall, we held many in-person meetings, and since COVID we have continued to find ways to connect and share information in a variety of ways. I'm proud to have been a part of this effort to connect more broadly with our community. And yet, there is so much more to be done.”
Siringo is committed to ensuring the board prioritizes community involvement, she said, and is always happy to hear from community members who want to share their thoughts and concerns.
Jennings is running for the two-year seat currently held by Krista Siringo.
Jennings said she is running for school board because “I would like to see change in our taxes and still provide adequate education,” she told the Independent. “And I do not believe we should shut down our elementary schools!”
Jennings has six years of board experience, pre-MAUSD, and is familiar with the rules, she explained.
“I’m also a very outspoken person who says what’s on my mind.”
Jennings spoke her mind about the school district in a recent Front Porch Forum post.
“I have the students’ education at heart,” she wrote. “But I also know this five town community is not a money pit! We have been dishing out monies here left and right! We can not sustain the taxes we have for the schools.”
Jennings pointed out the irony of the district’s having spent money to renovate Mount Abe to accommodate a middle school, only to find itself some years later discussing the closure of elementary schools.
“I really don’t understand this thinking,” she wrote.
Jennings is opposed to busing children from one town to another, and from the 5-Towns to Vergennes for middle school, if a district merger comes to pass.
“When I was on the board I never missed a meeting and intend to do the same,” she told the Independent. “I (will) also listen to the needs of our community and share them with the board.”
Mount is running for the two-year seat currently held by Krista Siringo.
The Independent sent Mount multiple requests for an interview but he did not response before press time.