Superintendent’s proposal will weaken the Mad River Valley

  • Published in MyView

By Jonathon Clough

This letter is a response to Superintendent Nease’s December 12 Harwood Union Unified School District redesign proposal.

In my opinion, the superintendent’s proposal will weaken our Valley towns, will potentially worsen our children’s quality of education and will almost certainly worsen their quality of life. All this for a very uncertain economic benefit.

When my family moved to The Valley nearly 20 years ago, we chose our town specifically because of the quality and nature of the local school. I know many people in each of the Mad River Valley towns for whom the local school was an important factor in their purchasing their home. I know of many people in each town who have had excellent educational experiences at their local elementary schools and are deeply affectionate of their schools and the teachers within them.

When it comes to the larger schools in which all of the towns are pooled, the trend is different. We know of several families who have moved out of town during the middle school and high school years. The numbers in the superintendent’s position paper bear this out – school enrollment in grades seven through 12 has fallen by 17 percent from 2009 to 2017 whereas elementary school enrollment fell by only 7 percent in the same period. This makes me question whether additional consolidation will actually strengthen our school district.

We found that the academic rigor and specialized attention to student’s needs within our local school’s fifth- and sixth-grade class was truly excellent. These years have been a high point for our children’s education, sense of community and self-esteem. To suggest that our children’s quality of education will improve as a result of spending more time in multi-town schools is a tenuous assertion.

I’m extremely respectful of the efforts of the Harwood community and the care that is taken with Harwood students. Middle school to high school education is a challenge. The educators at those schools are making the most of their limited resources and doing an excellent job. Many of my concerns about the superintendent’s proposal are a function of larger schools versus smaller schools and the potential for community services, community engagement and specialized education that local schools can provide, especially for younger children.

On another note, under the superintendent’s proposal, the quality of life of Warren’s children will certainly decrease when they have two additional years where they need to spend nearly two hours a day being bused and driven several towns away. Our family’s current bus commute to Harwood is at least 45 minutes including driving to the bus stop and waiting five minutes for the bus. Adding seven to eight minutes on to that means that we are asking fifth- and sixth-graders in our town to spend roughly two hours in cars and buses each day when they currently live five to 10 minutes away from their school. I find it impossible to believe that this will enhance their quality of life; my preference is for our young children to spend less time getting bused and more time in different activities. Bus logistics, already tricky and complicated within our district, will become even more difficult. At times, in our experience, buses have already been overcrowded. It is fair to say that, based on our experience, being bused out of town is not a pleasant part of our town’s children’s days. I understand it as necessary for the logistics of educating middle and high school students, but I certainly hope that this does not need to be extended for two more years of our children’s lives.

Getting back to housing – we moved to our town largely because of the quality of life and quality of education our local school would provide for our children. The additional connection to our local community at that school has enriched our lives. We’re not alone in how we chose where to live and this applies to all Valley towns. If local schools are shut down or student time is reduced by two years this will eliminate or dilute the incentive that young families have to move to our towns. In my opinion, this will have a deleterious effect both on the makeup of our local communities and the demand for housing and property values within our towns.

There are more points to be made:

  • In terms of community engagement, local schools fare better. It is logistically much easier to be involved in school board meetings, parent-teacher meetings and other activities when all this is not being held two towns away.
  • The cost analysis that will be performed by the district or the school board will need to be closely examined. Busing, operational and reorganization costs can add up and the economy of scale expected does not always materialize. A 2000 paper suggests that while smaller schools “evidence better outputs than larger schools. The literature on the relationship between school costs and the size of a school’s student body does not have clear-cut findings.” (https://wagner.nyu.edu/files/faculty/publications/highschoolsize-effectsonbudget...pdf)
  • While there are limits to the class size that can be supported by taxpayers, it should be acknowledged that smaller class sizes do improve student outcomes. A recent policy briefing by the National Education Policy Center states, “Class size is an important determinant of student outcomes, and one that can be directly determined by policy. All else being equal, increasing class sizes will harm student outcomes.” (http://nepc.colorado.edu/files/pb_-_class_size.pdf)
  • Importantly, our property taxes are determined by what every community in the state spends on its schools, meaning that making sharp reductions in what we invest in our students will not directly result in a sharp reduction in our own property taxes.

It’s my understanding that the combined school board has received little negative feedback about the superintendent’s proposal so they are moving forward as though we all are in favor of the proposal. For those of you who agree with the concerns listed here or have additional concerns, please do make your voice heard before the board makes decisions that we cannot reverse.

Clough lives in Warren.

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