This article has been updated with quotes from HUUSD Board chair Caitlin Hollister
The Harwood Unified Union School District (HUUSD) is being sued by the town of Moretown, the Vermont Coalition for Community Schools and Laura Schaller for violating the plaintiffs’ rights to petition government, vote and due process.
The lawsuit stems from the board’s January 22 rejection of two citizen-led initiatives to bring two articles to voters on Town Meeting Day. Those articles offered amendments to the 2016 Articles of Agreement by which the six towns in the district merged governance.
Those proposed amendments would change the process by which schools are closed as well as change the definition and process for school district redesign. Community members and members of the local organization the Vermont Coalition for Community Schools (VTCCS) collected nearly 800 signatures on each petition.
HUUSD Board chair Caitlin Hollister said the board followed the advice of its attorney in rejecting the proposed amendments.
“The board followed the legal guidance of our attorneys to address the specific petitions before us. In the eight days between receipt of the petitions and our board vote on January 22, we were able to obtain a thorough legal opinion to inform the board of its obligations and responsibilities. We needed to accept or reject the petitioned articles as written and could not simply edit or revise what was presented. It's important to understand that the board has not indicated it would reject any petitions to amend the district's Articles of Agreement that might come before the board in the future. Rather, the board's majority felt in this instance that the specific petitioned articles were phrased in such a way that we could not responsibly present them to the electorate.”
VIOLATES HER RIGHTS
The lawsuit, filed January 24, establishes the identities of the plaintiffs, including members of the VTCCS, specific parents whose children will be directly affected by a recent HUUSD decision to adopt a budget based on sending all seventh- and eighth-graders in the district to Crossett Brook Middle School along with all Moretown fifth- and sixth-graders. Additionally, it identifies Laura Schaller of Moretown, a member and officer of the VTCCS, illuminating how the board’s January 22 actions violate her rights.
The lawsuit, filed by attorney Ron Shems, engaged by the VTCCS and also Moretown’s town attorney, details what the plaintiffs allege is a pattern of avoiding public interaction with the Fayston and Moretown Select Boards which have sought public meetings from the school board.
The lawsuit references HUUSD Superintendent Brigid Nease’s December 2017 white paper wherein she suggests closing Fayston and Moretown Elementary Schools due to low enrollment and consolidating all middle school students at Crossett Brook. The rationale for closing those schools, including Moretown, was declining enrollment.
DECISIONS VIA BUDGET
“On January 8, the HUUSD Board voted to move grades five and six from Moretown Elementary School to Crossett Brook Middle School. Part of the basis for moving these grades is that Moretown Elementary School has insufficient space for its rapidly increasing kindergarten and preschool enrollment. … The Agency of Education projects that Moretown Elementary School’s enrollment is and will continue to increase over the next 10 years,” Shems wrote.
Shems takes issue with the HUUSD Board avoiding public input on the future of the schools in the district and instead making decisions about school closures and major redesign plans via budgeting. Shems also referenced a provision of Act 46, the school board merger legislation, which calls for the HUUSD Board “in consultation with” the select board of a town with a school board vacancy to fill that vacancy. He notes that in 2018 a Moretown HUUSD Board representative resigned and the select board put forth a candidate. The HUUSD Board did not consult with the select board, rejected the town’s candidate and appointed “its favored candidate.”
In terms of Harwood Union Middle School, Shems argues that the board asserts it is not closing that school but rather reconfiguring and merging those students as part of budgeting.
CEASE TO EXIST
“The HUUSD has also said that the Harwood Union Middle School is not a school. The result of the January 8 board vote is that the Harwood Union Middle School would cease to exist,” Shems wrote.
Shems argues that HUUSD has evaded the public input that the Articles of Agreement require for closing schools by calling the closure of the HUMS a merger or reconfiguration or claiming that it is not a school. He argues that the process of adopting a budget that calls for the closure of Fayston Elementary School after July 1, 2021, is another example of failure to comply with the Articles of Agreement protocols that spell out the process for school closure.
Asked about efforts by disconcerted voters to reject the HUUSD budget in order to prevent plans to send all seventh- and eighth-graders in the district to Crossett Brook next year, along with Moretown’s fifth- and sixth-graders, Hollister said, "Our school board budget goes to the voters for good reason, as we depend on our communities to support our schools. It's a democratic process and we have been reminded that it's not our job to interpret someone's vote. There will be many reasons for each yes or no vote and they are all valid. I would encourage our voters to recognize that if this budget fails, we will likely have to make programmatic cuts to offer another budget at this level or lower.”
The lawsuit seeks injunctive relief and a hearing before January 31, the date by which towns (and the school board) must warn their Town Meeting agendas and ballot items. Specifically, the lawsuit seeks to have the petitioned articles included in the Town Meeting warnings.
The board rejected the proposed amendments on the advice of attorney Nicole Mace. According to Mace, the board is not required to accept the petition because both proposed amended articles contain subject matter that is outside the general electorate’s jurisdiction.
“A board has discretion to refuse to include a petitioned article at a Town Meeting vote if the subject matter of the article concerns a matter outside of the voters’ authority,” said Mace. “The Vermont Legislature has provided school boards the authority to ‘determine the educational policies of the district, have possession, care, control and management of the property of the school district, relocate or discontinue use of a building, or take any action that is required for the sound administration of the school district.’ Those are all separate powers given to the school board through 16 VSA 563.”
In other words, the school board has full control over all policy-related changes regarding the education of students, including closing schools and moving students.