As the Harwood Unified Union School District (HUUSD) Board gears up for its first meeting after summer break, some members are concerned about their local elementary schools’ life span. The HUUSD Board is beginning the process of determining which local elementary schools remain open and which close or are repurposed.
The board is considering three elementary school options, one of which would repurpose Moretown Elementary as the central office and Moretown Elementary Center for All (MECA) and close Fayston Elementary School. A second option calls for closing one of The Valley elementary schools and doesn’t state which, and the third option calls for closing Fayston and keeping pre-K through grade six at Waitsfield, Warren and Moretown.
This decision-making process has the Moretown Select Board concerned.
An August 19 letter from the select board to the HUUSD Board strongly advocates for keeping Moretown Elementary open and raises questions about the process of school district reconfiguration, specifically the criteria used to make those decisions.
The letter follows a June 17 select board meeting where community, administrators and HUUSD representatives expressed concerns about the possibility of Moretown Elementary School closing.
After that meeting the HUUSD Board’s Waitsfield representative, Christine Sullivan, expressed her displeasure with Moretown representative Kristen Rodgers and her comments at the June select board meeting about the district redesign process.
This summer the Moretown Select Board asked the town’s HUUSD representatives to discuss the HUUSD’s work on redesign options. HUUSD members narrowed a list of 27 school configurations to three before recessing for the summer. Some HUUSD representatives were unsupportive of the speed of decision making. After her report to the select board, Rodgers received an email from Sullivan. The Moretown Select Board’s August 19 response questions the tone of Sullivan’s email to Rodgers.
"The select board asked Moretown's members of the HUUSD Board to attend our June 17 meeting to provide information. Kristen Rodgers’ objective and straightforward sharing of information – information that is public under Vermont's Open Meeting Law – resulted in a publicly available rebuke that is shaming, abusive and demeaning. The rebuke also demonstrates numerous failings in public board governance. There is no place for such action by the HUUSD Board or its members. We asked that the HUUSD Board formally rescind and condemn this rebuke, and publicly apologize to Ms. Rodgers,” the select board wrote.
Sullivan’s email to Rodgers said she found Rodgers’ conversation with the select board to be “disrespectful, ill-informed, selfish and shortsighted.”
Sullivan wrote that Rodgers came to the select board with a single-issue agenda. Sullivan wrote that contrary to how Rodgers felt about the options on district redesign, there were years of decision making, careful in-depth studying of evidence and discussion around the HUUSD table.
“You didn’t make your thinking known in our board room in the same way you did at the select board meeting. Maybe that would have been the basis for a fruitful discussion that helped address your concerns. It may be hard to accept that that many people disagree with you (or Peter), but somehow they do – that doesn’t mean the process is flawed. With 14 people on the board, it’s unlikely that all decisions will be unanimous,” wrote Sullivan.
At the June select board meeting Moretown resident Peter Langella explained the options that school board members were looking into before summer vacation. Langella reviewed three models; in two of the models Moretown could potentially close, and the third would have Moretown students change schools. Langella added that the board hasn’t done much research and allowed Superintendent Brigid Nease to make the decisions.
"I think we feel your frustration as well. We definitely have heard this and lip service from the superintendent that there is going to be an analysis and transparency, and then next thing you know you get an option of A, B or C," said select board chair Tom Martin.
"People who haven’t had their school threatened don’t understand when you see those options up there, what that really means. Like the Waterbury people who are voting on the future of The Valley who their decisions don’t really affect where they live or their kids or the towns they live in so that's very frustrating to 'yeah, let's just vote.' ... I've expressed this before on certain things like not offering third grade at Fayston. It’s a very big domino effect that you're voting on something that doesn't even affect you," said Rodgers at the June meeting.
“I’ve heard at least one board member say, and it really bothers me, the first thing when it comes to redesign is you have to show taxpayers the savings. It’s not what’s best for the kids. To me personally, I think that’s what it boils down to. The superintendent goes, ‘We can’t sustain this, we can’t sustain this, and we can’t sustain this,’” said Rodgers.
Moretown resident Matt Henchen spoke out against the closure of Moretown Elementary School noting that the town would lose young families if the school closes.
After receiving the August letter from the select board, HUUSD Board chair Caitlin Hollister responded with a September 9 email in which she detailed her outreach efforts to district select boards, starting in April. She provided the board with links to FAQs as well as a time line for the work, and invited board members to attend community conversations on district redesign on October 1 at Harwood Union and on October 7 at Crossett Brook at 7 p.m.
Sullivan, interviewed this week, stood by her email to Rodgers and said that her issue was not with Rodgers’ concerns but the venue where she raised them. She said those concerns were better discussed at the school board level than the select board.