By Jonathan Clough
Thank you to the community members who came out to the school board meeting on February 14 and provided 20 to 25 solid minutes of discussion in opposition to the superintendent’s redesign plan. The video of the meeting is available here: https://mrvtv.com/tv-schedules/video-player/.
(The audio on the Harwood Unified Union School District [HUUSD] website accidentally cuts off approximately 20 minutes of public comment. The MRVTV audio does include this comment period. I would like to thank MRVTV for their public service.)
From the meeting, it is clear that Superintendent Nease and many Valley parents view an ideal fifth- and sixth-grade education through a different lens. Based on her presentation, the superintendent’s ideal setup is to have students move together in a cohort of 250 to 270 students. Having all of these students together in a large well-built single building will provide additional opportunities for extracurricular activities such as band or chorus. Having all of the students together may provide additional social diversity for students. Combining each class into a single cohort will make it easier for the district to provide a standardized and controllable curriculum for all students that is fair and balanced. Moving all of the students together will likely result in some cost savings, which is very important to the superintendent. The necessity of busing some towns’ students 45 to 60 minutes to the school is an unfortunate but necessary step toward the fulfillment of this ideal schooling concept.
The lens of many parents in The Valley in the district is different. We have seen the benefits of our small community schools with their full K-6 coverage. Those benefits are why we moved here. The academics within these schools have been rigorous and are considerably benefitted by teachers’ intimate knowledge of their students' strengths and weaknesses and the tailoring of the curriculum to suit their students' needs. We have seen the relationship that the fifth- and sixth-graders have with their younger siblings and the younger students in the school. The addition of school choice has meant that if a student does not find one of these micro-climates conducive to their education they can move to an alternative location.
It must be tempting for the superintendent and some on the unified board to believe that our complaints about the reorganization plan are emotional responses to “what must be done.” However, many of us have just as many years of deep thinking about what is best for our town’s children as the superintendent does and have simply come to a different conclusion as to what serves our students best.
The superintendent has suggested that there is an overwhelming political consensus to cut school budgets. During the meeting, she cited the number of voters who voted yes for the Act 46 school board consolidation as prime evidence for this. As someone who voted for the consolidation, I can assure her that this is not the case. We did not vote to consolidate because we have a dramatic zeal for cost cutting in our school budgets, and this was not a “fair” vote. We were told prior to voting that we would receive a financial incentive to consolidate. This also essentially meant that we would receive a tax penalty for not consolidating. (If other towns in the state are getting a tax break and a certain amount of money needs to be raised, overall tax rates would go up for those towns not merging.) Secondly, the law stated that if we did not consolidate within a few years, the state could force consolidation on us, in a plan of their choosing. In other words, we would get a financial reward for consolidating, a financial penalty for not consolidating, and we would also lose control of the consolidation if we held out. Our yes votes on this issue should, therefore, not be seen as a dramatic political consensus that we need to completely reorganize our school system for financial efficiency. On another note, most Valley towns did not vote for the current governor; those towns in the school district that did vote for the governor supported him only narrowly. So, from our towns there is no obvious political mandate to cut school budgets as the superintendent suggests.
ALL THE SAME
At the board meeting on February 14, following the 25 minutes of public comments against reorganization, some lip service was paid by the superintendent and board members to “multiple plans” being considered and nothing being finalized. However, following this, those “multiple plans” were presented. Truthfully, all the plans were the same – two Valley schools would be closed and all fifth- and sixth-graders shipped to Crossett Brook. While one plan involved closing Moretown School and one involved closing Waitsfield, Nease later conceded that closing Waitsfield instead of Moretown is probably a “less reasonable” alternative. So, there is one plan, the superintendent highly favors this one plan and is pushing for it with full vigor. On her own, the superintendent has also concluded that keeping any fifth- and sixth-graders in The Valley would be impossible because of the potential for unused capacity at Crossett Brook.
When considering alternatives, we must keep in mind the decisions of families contemplating moving into our towns. How will it affect their choice if children will need to commute out of town for eight years of their education (starting in fifth grade) rather than six years of their education (starting in seventh grade)? What impact will this have on the number of students in the district and the critical cost per student metric?
Following the presentation of plans, the superintendent strongly advised the board to pay over $28,000 to a consultant to estimate the costs of modifying schools for her plan. The motion to fund that study did not yet pass, but only by the narrowest of margins, and it will likely be voted on again in the near future. It seems clear that the more money that is spent to precisely scope out this plan, the more that the board will be closely tied to that one option. The superintendent also suggested that redesign planning must be done as quickly as possible because she has tied the much-needed Harwood bond to the redesign proposal.
I would ask that the board, please, continue to hold the line against further consultant studies unless they weigh the costs and benefits of all of the alternatives. These alternatives should include “no action,” closing only one school, and at least one option that does not include moving all fifth- and sixth-graders to Crossett Brook. If you agree with this suggestion, please do contact the board member who represents you and ask them to hold off on engineering studies for now, until all alternatives have been thoroughly considered.
Clough lives in Warren.