(Editor's Note: This story has been reposted due to an editing error.)
It was hard to find a seat at last night’s school board meeting. The Harwood library was packed with concerned parents, teachers and community members who spoke to express their disbelief at the fact that the Harwood Unified Union School District (HUUSD) Board was about to, once again, consider merging the middle schools, a controversial decision that the board had voted down previously.
Much to the public’s dismay, board members changed their minds and voted, on the evening of January 15, to approve a budget that would require moving all seventh- and eighth-graders, as well as fifth- and sixth-graders from Moretown Elementary, to Crossett Brook Middle School for the 2020-2021 school year.
The majority of community members present spoke in opposition of the decision to move students to Crossett Brook next fall. During public comment, a handful of Harwood Union Middle School teachers crowded the microphone to deliver this message, read by Angela Selvaggio: “In solidarity with Crossett Brook Middle School, the following Harwood staff oppose the motion to move all seventh- and eighth-graders to attend Crossett Brook effective for the 2020-2021 school year, based on concerns over the quick timeline for this to happen. We believe that funding should be secured prior to bringing Harwood students to Crossett Brook so that a plan is in place to provide the infrastructure necessary to educate the projected number of Crossett Brook students in conjunction with best practices,” said Selvaggio. Once Harwood teachers were seated, the Crossett Brook Middle School staff walked to the microphone and stood like a choir before the board. Teacher Kelsey Burnell went on to recite, word for word, the same message that Selvaggio had just spoken to the board.
Some people were not opposed to the merger itself but were disillusioned with the fickle decision-making tendencies of the board. During public comment, Valerie Welter, Fayston, said, “I am really confused about the process here. You voted this down four times. Now the budget includes moving students to Crossett Brook next fall. That’s very frustrating and confusing as a taxpayer and as member of the community. I don’t understand. … Why did you vote on this four times? This divisiveness is upsetting.”
Despite anti-merger pressure from the public, some board members believed approving this budget was the best option in terms of providing equity to students. “I initially did not support this [the decision to move students to CBMS], but I do feel, after seeing these budgets play out, that we will have to work really hard to provide equitable opportunities for kids without merging them. … When I look at trying to balance affordability and programming quality, at least moving seventh- and eighth-graders feels like the right move,” said Torrey Smith, vice chair. Board member Garett MacCurtain agreed, stating, “Merging middle schools provides equitable opportunities and sets us up to pass the bond. It’s what’s best for the long-term health of our district.”
In addition to increased equity opportunities, the potential savings promised by this budget was a key catalyst for its approval. Board member James Grace, Waterbury, was straightforward in stating his money-saving motivations. “We’re looking at 8 percent increases in tax rates across the district. We’re having conversations at Town Meeting every year about whether or not to spend $20,000 on libraries, parking enforcement and policing. And yet, we’ve got a million dollars that we can save in the school budget across the district with no programming changes? I don’t understand why there’s not overwhelming support on this board for this option. I really don’t,” said Grace.
SAVINGS ARE BIG
On paper, the savings with this budget are big. According to finance director Michelle Baker, adopting this budget will save $1,015,000. However, the savings “do not include any additional costs associated with pod classrooms or other one-time costs that might be incurred with the move,” said Baker.
The saving opportunities in this budget come primarily from staff reductions associated with the merger. According to Baker, adopting this budget would mean reductions of four seventh- and eighth-grade core teachers, two core teachers at the fifth- and sixth-grade level, two special educators, the reduction of a principal or administrator, an administrative assistant, one PE teacher, an art teacher, a world languages teacher, a music teacher and a tutor. “Under this scenario, our operational savings are $1,015,000,” said Baker.
Baker is on the administrative team, which is in favor of this budget. At the meeting, Superintendent Brigid Nease spoke on behalf of the administrative team in favor of approving this budget. “The admin team supports the moving of seventh- and eighth-grade and fifth- and sixth-grade students over to Crossett Brook. When weighing all of the factors, this is a unanimous decision and this is our recommendation,” said Nease.
Despite the clear approval of this budget by the administration, the public did not relent in expressing their outrage. One woman from the public emphasized that the decision to move fifth- and sixth-graders was overlooked, and those voting to move fifth- and sixth-graders had “no stakes in the matter.”
Harwood English teacher John Potts spoke to the board of the ramifications to quality teaching that could result from the merger. “We’re going to cut 25 percent of core faculty for no decline in enrollment. I’m an English teacher. Imagine looking at student work. To grade a paper with thoughtful feedback takes about 10 minutes. If I have 25 students, that will take over four hours. Our paradigm in this district has been 17 students per class. Now its 25.”
When it came time to vote on the motion to approve this budget, six board members voted against the budget, while seven board members voted