Harwood Unified Union School District (HUUSD) Board members hosted a second public forum for residents where Superintendent Brigid Nease discussed freezing of Intradistrict Choice (IDC), which allows students to request to attend their local school or a neighboring school in the district.
At the October 8 Crossett Brook Middle School meeting, the administrative team consisting of Nease, CFO Michelle Baker and director of facilities Ray Daigle presented the models of configuration, student enrollment and other data to community members.
During that presentation Nease said that the district had received more requests for Intradistrict Choice than anticipated. They have received 17 IDC applications since October 1. When the six towns in the district voted to merge their boards, school district choice was part of the articles of agreement.
This week’s presentation is the second opportunity for the board to hear from constituents around the district about district redesign in the shadow of two possible bonds that could come before voters in March 2020. One bond is for Harwood and one could be for reconfiguring the school district, including upgrading Crossett Brook Middle School to host all district middle-schoolers.
After the board presentation, the floor was opened up to community members. When talking about enrollment in the district schools, Nease said that since the opening of IDC in early October, the administrative team received many requests and said it was well beyond what was anticipated. She said that could press the team to put a freeze on requests, possibly limiting the ability of district residents to use school choice.
One parent from Granville who tuitions her student into the district and uses IDC explained how losing the program could affect her. She has three kids in the district who are in the HUUSD and attend Warren via IDC.
She said it already takes her kids an hour and 15 minutes on the bus one way.
“Every single person who comes to Vermont does it in defiance to the dollars and cents and the financial costs. There are easier and cheaper place to live and make more money, but we live here for the quality of life and the quality of people around us in our small towns. We could attract more people here,” she said.
One Fayston resident asked whether teachers whose positions were eliminated due to reconfiguration or school closure would receive a severance package. In an email response Baker said, “The Teacher Master Agreement determines how any reductions in force would occur in terms of teacher seniority, notification and any severance pay in HUUSD. As indicated last night our current Master Agreement does not include any provisions for severance pay.”
Baker explained that teacher retirement is managed by the Vermont state treasurer's office, not the school district. Teachers who meet the state criteria are eligible for a pension under the state teachers’ retirement plan. HUUSD does not have a separate pension plan.
A Waterbury resident asked about class sizes across the district and how it correlated to student experience and education quality. She also noted that Waterbury and Duxbury had asked Valley residents in the past if they wanted a middle school for The Valley, which was turned down at the time. She said that parents have a harder time ridding themselves of the divide between Waterbury and The Valley than kids, since kids interact in sports, clubs or in the summer before combining at Harwood.
Residents across the district echoed the need for urgent renovations at Harwood. The school was built in the 1960s and needs repairs and adaptations to meet current standards. Many agreed the building needs work but are worried about the costs associated with it, especially if it comes to two bonds and a rising school budget coupled with the tax incentives for merging running out.
Those present were split into small groups, each one facilitated by a board member. The board member discussed concerns with residents and took notes to bring back and report to the full board later to see if there were similar group discussions. After the presentation members of the public questioned teacher severance packages, the timeline of work leading to the bond, class sizes, a middle school in The Valley, Intradistrict Choice and the urgency for a Harwood bond for Harwood renovations in their small groups.
A group called the Friends of Moretown met after this week’s forum and the first one on October 1. The group discussed their concerns that the redesign process is moving too fast, adjusting the redesign timeline, closing schools and the potential costs and repercussions that could outweigh any savings.
Brian Mohr, a Friends of Moretown member, said: “There is no crisis, and we should not be forcing major decisions as if there is. A mere tune-up to the current configuration, coupled with a bond for Harwood's needed updates, deserves more serious consideration and creative input. If our community truly values great educational programming, it will continue to support it at the ballot. The school board's currently proposed timeline for coupling redesign with a bond package to be finalized before Thanksgiving is simply too rushed to allow for a more thorough analysis and communitywide exploration of what is possible and good for our district.”