“Voting to plan to close the school is not the same thing as voting to close the school. If you voted to close the school next week, that would be illegal,” said Ed Adrian, municipal law attorney, at the Harwood Unified Union School District (HUUSD) Board meeting on November 5. Adrian was recruited to help the board decipher the legal ramifications of voting for a school district redesign plan that calls for closing an elementary school in the Mad River Valley.
The HUUSD articles of agreement state that a school cannot legally be closed until four years after the HUUSD was created in July 2017, meaning that a school cannot be closed until July 1, 2021. On November 13, the board will vote on a reconfiguration model that closes Fayston Elementary School or a model that maintains the status quo. Adrian made it clear that board members are not voting to close a school; they are voting on a nonbinding plan.
Adrian used a metaphor of buying a home to explain the predicament. When someone wants to buy a home, that person needs to do research – hire an inspector, take out a loan, negotiate the price and more. A potential homeowner needs to plan the purchase before they buy. But planning to buy a home is not the same as buying a home. Likewise for the school board issue of closing a school, voting to plan is not the same thing as voting to close.
“We all know what school we are talking about,” said Adrian. Tim Jones, Fayston representative, was the first to address the elephant in the room while summarizing Adrian’s points. Jones said, “This is about the plight of Fayston School. If we decided on a plan to close the school, that’s not binding. The vote next week is not binding but may trigger the eventual decision.”
Adrian agreed but urged the board to move forward: “At some point you’re going to have to cut the cord. I understand that this is a difficult decision, that families will be affected personally on both sides. However, for better or for worse, you are on this board and making these decisions due to your own free will, and you’re going to need to do that soon.”
If the board votes to plan to close Fayston Elementary School, that vote will happen next week. As for the vote to actually close the school, that will happen by July 1, 2021. Adrian suggested waiting as long as possible for the final closing vote, in order to generate the least amount of liability moving forward. The town of Fayston will have its own attorney review this issue and The Valley Reporter reached out to local attorney Lauren Kolitch for her analysis as well. (See story.)
At this week’s meeting board members went around the table and shared personal research and reasoning behind their opinions.
Waitsfield representative Christine Sullivan offered some history of Fayston Elementary School. “At one time Fayston had as many as 10 districts to educate as many as 263 pupils (when the total population was 650). Schools were located where populations were concentrated and the buildings themselves were sometimes moved as the populations shifted. Multiple buildings were phased out as student populations declined. The current Fayston School opened in 1963 to replace the last remaining small school. Two teachers and a cook were employed to serve 36 students grades one through eight. (Today 21.51 adults serve 74 students preK-6),” said Sullivan.
Vice chair Torrey Smith, Duxbury, said that for students moving out of Fayston, it would just be one transition and the district could work with transportation concerns, and adding a few miles to people’s drives will not be the end-all factor. Smith said the school board has an obligation to balance expenses in efforts to help flatten property taxes.
Other representatives were cautious about voicing their opinions on school closure, while others were flat-out against it, such as Fayston representative Theresa Membrino. Membrino did not think it made sense to close a highly efficient building and worried about the capacity in Warren and Waitsfield if the Fayston students get dispersed. Membrino was concerned about interrupting school programming and future programming and added that there is an opportunity for early education and infant care to attract families.
During previous school board meetings Superintendent Brigid Nease recommended that the school board look at freezing intradistrict choice (IDC) for seventh and eighth grade. Nease and the administrative team recommended this due to the high volume of requests that the team has received already for Harwood Union Middle School students to move to Crossett Brook Middle School in Duxbury.
At the November 5 HUUSD meeting, Nease suggested that the board make a decision whether or not they will freeze choice for grades seven and eight by the November 13.
But in an email to district parents on October 29, 2019, Nease wrote: “I am writing to make you aware of a change regarding the implementation of our Intra District Choice Procedures for next year FY 2020-21. In the past, we accepted applications into late spring. Over the last couple of years, we have had a significant increase in requests; whereas, in the past we had just a handful. This year we have approximately 107 students attending a school other than their resident assigned school. The only criteria we currently use is if there is room. Because we are now experiencing so many change requests, we may need to adjust staffing. Therefore, in order to plan and budget accordingly for next year, all applications must be received no later than Friday, December 13, 2019.”