By Kari Dolan
I’m calling on everyone to join the discussion happening now about the education of our kids and the future of our schools. The Harwood Unified Union School District (HUUSD) is having public discussions about ways to reduce education spending by evaluating models to redesign the school district. Superintendent Brigid Nease is also taking part in those discussions, building on a white paper she put together in December and putting on the table options that involve closing one or more schools in The Valley. The concern driving the redesign appears to be the rising per pupil education costs, which is above the state average and climbing, largely due to the decline in student population.
In my mind, discussions about redesigning the school district that involve school closures are premature and must only be considered a last resort. We must first engage all communities in the discussion and consider all other actions that we can take to achieve our affordability goals. Some of those actions include: (1) exercising all other cost-cutting measures within the school district and statewide; (2) consolidating other centralized services such as information systems; (3) incentivizing each school to be innovative in reducing per pupil education costs; and (4) taking actions that put us on a road to fundamentally increase student populations.
We also must urge our representatives at the State House to take three important steps. We must find other cost-cutting measures in the statewide budget, be fully transparent in managing the education budget, and not “throw the baby out with the bathwater.” The high-quality education that our schools are already offering and our rural history and heritage must be acknowledged, valued and supported as part of any statewide economic development priority.
These school-closing options are also wrought with problems that require us to slow down and support the school board’s efforts to fully engage communities in the discussion. My concern is that the options involving school closures seem to imply that there is a significant net benefit in cost savings from closing schools. Are all costs evaluated including fit-up costs to retrofit the remaining schools? Are we including the costs being shifted onto working families, some of whom would be forced to bus their kids to other community schools, which is upward of 45 minutes away in one direction?
As a Waitsfield Select Board member, I would want to know if we have evaluated and quantified the potential impacts of these options on property values and tax base. Will the school closings cause the unintended consequences that The Valley towns could end up losing population due to families moving away to avoid busing kids long distances or simply deciding not to settle in the region? Will these potential impacts on town populations depress the affected towns’ property values and erode the tax base?
School closing options also appear to pit one town against the neighboring towns. Let’s actively prevent falling into that trap. Civil public engagement is key to bringing communities together. By working together and listening to perspectives and ideas, let us challenge ourselves to develop and implement strategies that the affected communities can support.
This whole issue of declining school enrollment is a symptom of a larger issue facing our economy. We need to focus not on school closures but on building student populations. We need to tackle head-on the reasons for student population decline – economic health and affordability.
I care deeply about the people that make up our communities in the region. As a Waitsfield Select Board member, I am committed to do everything I can to support an economy that is vibrant and “open for business” and ensure that The Valley is a place where people and working families can afford to live and work here. Let’s not opt for a short-term Band-Aid fix. Rather, let’s come together as neighbors to take thoughtful, cost-saving steps that we can all live with, while working together to support a strong and vibrant economic future.
Thanks for listening. Please contact your school board member to encourage them to continue engaging communities in the dialogue and consider all alternatives. We also need your ideas. I look forward to seeing you at the next school board meeting.
Dolan lives in Waitsfield.