The whole truth and nothing but the truth

  • Published in MyView

I came home to find that my 9-year-old had crumbs on his shirt. When I asked how they got there, the answer was “not-eating cookies.” When I asked for clarification, there was an incredible and emphatic retelling of the same thing. It turns out, he explained, that brushing the crumbs from his face, they landed on his shirt – so what he told me was “sort of true.” We’ve all explained to kids at one time or another that half-truths are lies.

When it comes to the proposed redesign of the Harwood Unified Union School District (HUUSD), there are many half-truths floating around. Some in leadership are hoping that we as parents, taxpayers and community members won’t look too closely for the crumbs on their shirts. They would have you believe that two of their plans involving the closing of two elementary school buildings would save the district close to a million dollars a year. That’s sort of true. Pay attention though, because the truth is in the details.

Their plans include selling each multimillion-dollar building to other parties for $1. So, where does the cost savings come in? Does it cost the district $500,000 to keep each building open per year? No. So where are the savings? The savings are in the elimination of 13 teacher positions to pay for a bond vote that would subsidize the movement and transition of grades four through six to Crossett Brook and grades seven through eight to Harwood.

The truth is that there is a misguided belief that taxpayers won’t vote to improve their local high school without tying in school closings as a way to save money. The truth is some of the people making proposals and decisions do not believe that you as a taxpaying voter would vote to cut 13 teachers to save your taxes from going up unless you were fooled into thinking this is about buildings. The truth is it is not. It’s about trading teachers for diesel.

When confronted at the school board meeting about hitting the gas pedal on a redesign without more options or community input, concerned citizens in the room were told there were several more options being considered. I ask then, why were three proposals, all intent on closing two schools published in the local newspapers? That decision doesn’t show the community that other options are being considered; it shows a dedication to closures without input. Fiscal hawks are taking advantage of widespread economic insecurity to create a “crisis” situation, and then blaming rising education costs for this “affordability crisis.” Rising education costs are part of the reason for increased property taxes but not the only reason.

Spending on education as a percentage of our GDP has been flat; what has changed is the cost of health care and the amount of money from the general fund that goes for education costs. But, yes, we have one of the highest education costs in terms of per pupil spending, but that is a Vermont issue, not an HUUSD issue.

That’s not a reason to hit the gas on this process; true redesign comes from looking at the numbers closely and asking important questions:

Taxes are too high and we cannot afford for them to go any higher? The truth is merging the district already lowered tax rates 2017 through 2021 starting $300 on a $300,000 home. There is no actual tax crisis.

Moretown Elementary School needs to be closed because their cost per pupil is costing the district too much money? The truth is Moretown had a $90,000 accounting error due to a time study discrepancy at the behest of the director of special education, driving up Moretown’s cost per pupil artificially because of her mistake at the district level. There is no actual discrepancy.

Close Fayston Elementary School because their staff-per-pupil ratio is getting too high? The numbers don’t add up here. The data shows that in one year the number of staff at Fayston more than doubled. If there were concerns about ratios at Fayston, why add staff? In no way do these numbers make sense. In 2016, the staff-to-student ratio was well within the governor’s expectation of nearing a 4.25 ratio, since their ratio was 4.12. It just seems interesting to have such a jump in staff at a time when the governor wants things to remain constant or even increase slightly.

We need to lay off teachers to comply with Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe’s request to raise staff-to-student ratios? She has clarified that these should be done through closing positions after retirements or normal vacancies, not as a call to eliminate teaching positions. There is no actual mandate.

After explaining to my son the differences why telling a half-truth was wrong, I asked him why he was eating cookies in the first place. He told me he wanted to feel better because his friends had mentioned that his teacher would be fired and they would all have to go to a new school. I hugged him close and told him the truth: “Maybe, but I hope not.”

Kristen Rodgers lives in Moretown.