By David Goodman, Deb Hunter, Chris Koliba, Scott Mackey, Steve Odefey, Ben Smith, Eve Frankel and Reed McCracken
We have served as school board chairs on the Harwood Union, Waterbury/Duxbury, and Mad River Valley town school boards during the last decade. We have diverse backgrounds and represent a variety of opinions about school spending and educational policies across our district. Despite occasional differences of opinion, as your elected representatives we have strived to work together for the good of our students in a constructive and respectful manner. When our boards work well, our schools work well.
We believe that the newly created Harwood Unified Union School Board, under the leadership of board chair Christine Sullivan, has been doing a fine job overseeing the seven schools of our district and managing the transition to a single board. But it appears that a few citizens are unhappy that Superintendent Brigid Nease recommended staffing reductions in Mad River Valley schools with low enrollments. In recent weeks, one Fayston resident has barraged the board with lengthy letters that include attacks on board members, multiple public records requests that seem intended to harass the board and administration, and written op-eds that attack the superintendent and her staff and include unfounded accusations of financial mismanagement. Harwood Union High School Co-Principal Amy Rex, the 2017 Vermont High School Principal of the Year (an award she shared with HUHS principal Lisa Atwood), cited such personal attacks as the reason that she abruptly resigned in June. Now, it appears that the same critics would like to oust Nease.
These baseless attacks on our administrators and our schools must stop.
We have all worked closely with Brigid Nease during our tenure as board chairs. We have found her to be professional, conscientious, honest and committed to the best interests of the students, staff and taxpayers of our district. Furthermore, as school board members with the fiduciary duty to safeguard the financial resources of taxpayers, we are offended by the suggestion that we were either complicit or ignorant of financial impropriety during our respective tenures. Taxpayers can rest assured that we exercised proper oversight over district finances, as evidenced by annual audits conducted by outside accounting firms that are presented to voters each year.
Our boards hired Superintendent Nease eight years ago to bring order out of the chaos that had plagued our district at that time. While our decentralized governance model had served the district well for some time, it became increasingly apparent that decentralization came with a cost. State funding under Acts 60 and 68 brought additional accountability and improvements were needed. Change can be hard and some feathers were ruffled. Superintendent Nease has been responsive and thoughtful while being a steady head guiding our district through an unprecedented transition.
On December 6, the Harwood Union High School board held its last official meeting before it was dissolved in favor of the new unified school board. Longtime Waterbury resident Brian Harwood, son of Doc Harwood, whose name adorns our high school, came to the meeting and talked about how difficult it was to get the towns in our district to agree to join together into a union district back in the early 1960s. At the time, the Legislature was concerned that our town-based K-12 schools were not preparing our kids for the modern world. Yet communities were loath to give up their schools.
Sound familiar? This was the last time that the education system in Vermont underwent structural change of the magnitude similar to the school consolidation effort underway in Vermont today.
In June 2016, the voters of our six towns overwhelmingly voted to create a single unified district. As a result, this year, taxpayers experienced the first reduction in school property taxes since Act 60 was enacted by the Legislature over 15 years ago. Under the new district structure, a single school board now decides how to allocate resources among all seven schools in our district.
We know that many towns have strong emotional attachments to our local schools. However, we trust that the new unified board and the superintendent and her staff will make fair decisions that are in the best interests of all the students and taxpayers of our towns. And we are confident that they will do so in a respectful, civil manner that represents the best of our communities.
In the meantime, please don’t be distracted by the shrill voices of the minority. Our schools are in good hands.
David Goodman, Deb Hunter, Chris Koliba, Scott Mackey, are former chairs of the Harwood Union High School board. Reed McCracken, Steve Odefey and Ben Smith are former chairs of the Waterbury/Duxbury School Board. Eve Frankel is a former chair of the Waitsfield School Board.