Here is part two of The Valley Reporter’s school board candidate interview. In Waterbury, Michael Frank and Kelley Hackett are running against each other for Maureen McCracken’s seat. From Moretown, Lisa Mason and Chris Noyes are running to replace Gabe Gilman. This week Russ Bennett joins in to challenge Christine Sullivan, who is seeking reelection as the board’s Waitsfield representative. Bennett announced a write-in candidacy at the end of last week.
Do you support the current school board’s decision to move seventh- and eighth-graders to Crossett Brook?
Michael Frank: I do support the move. In a 2018 community survey analyzing various options it was very clear that combining the middle schools at CBMS was the favorable choice. We have an opportunity to increase educational programming for our students, bring kids together earlier and reduce costs all at once. Both student representatives on the school board spoke out in favor of this plan and how they would have preferred to be with their fellow classmates earlier, even though it would have meant longer bus rides for them. At Crossett Brook students will be able to access STEM, sustainability and band/chorus while being in a dedicated middle school building. At Harwood, seventh- and eighth-graders had to choose between STEM and band/chorus, while not having access to a sustainability program.
Kelley Hackett: Any successful middle school merger needs to happen with a plan in place that creates better opportunities for students and is supported by taxpayers. I understand that discussions have been happening for a long time and change is hard, but when all stakeholders aren’t at the table to create a plan, success will be limited. I’d love to see a more detailed plan with all stakeholders at the table, especially teachers, who will be implementing the changes. I’m concerned that students will be learning in pods, class sizes will increase and specials could be on a longer rotation than currently. My seventh-grader has shared that classes are already large and the school feels cramped. To do this right, we need an agreed-upon long-term vision, taxpayer support and construction complete before we move students.
Lisa Mason: I don’t support the decision to move them next year. I’ve been to three board meetings in a row where the middle school teachers, both from Harwood and Crossett Brook, stood up to explain why this move on this timeline isn’t in the best interest of the students. I do not believe a thorough plan was created before a decision was made, leaving us vulnerable to unexpected outcomes. I think a vital part of a major redesign is securing funding from the public, which also has not been approved. If the middle schools are merged in the future, I’d want a thorough plan created that insures success for our students and teachers, a sense of trust and belonging within the community and approval from the taxpayers.
Chris Noyes: I do support the “idea” of combining our communities’ seventh- and eighth-grade students under one roof, and do like the “idea” of a more typical fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth middle school configuration separate from that of a high school. I only question the speed in which I feel the decision was made to house them at Crossett Brook before addressing the building’s current capacity constraints.
Christine Sullivan: I support redistricting all HUUSD seventh- and eighth-graders to Crossett Brook. Equity and quality are important. I have always taken a commonsense approach to budgeting. To maintain or improve quality, we should offer our students equal opportunities at our various schools. As it stands, we do not have equity between the middle schools. There is programming in place at CBMS that our HUMS students cannot access. By bringing the students together, we can provide additional programming for our Valley students while saving money. We can also provide uniform working conditions for teachers at the seventh- and eighth-grade levels. Maintaining two separate campuses and funding equal opportunities in programming at HUMS would add to the budget and tax rate. By bringing our students together, they will have a richer peer group and age cohorts which can bolster participation in band and chorus programs as well as extracurricular sports and clubs and benefit our students’ overall experience. As part of the executive committee we explored whether it would make more sense to consolidate students at the Harwood campus, but doing so at CBMS is the better option for many reasons.
Russ Bennett: We need a masterplan and master planning process for deciding and laying out what the long-term pedagogical outcomes are for students. This plan needs to include where kids should be going to school at what grades for the next 20-plus years. Crossett Brook was not originally built with the idea that it would be the middle school for the entire district. That discussion has not been had with the general public. Once we have a public and open comprehensive planning process for the next 10 to 20 years of the school district we will know where the physical plants should be and why. Lacking proper information about why enrollment is declining at Harwood at a faster rate than it is in the elementary schools we will be better equipped to answer these questions. We need to get past creating the emergency of the moment and rebuild trust in the processes.
Do you support the current school board’s decision to move fifth- and sixth-grade Moretown students to Crossett Brook?
Michael Frank: Yes, I do. Crossett Brook Middle School borders Moretown and many students are very close to CBMS. As all the options were looked at, it became fairly obvious that moving fifth and sixth to CBMS opened up more space in the Moretown Elementary building, while giving students the same or increased educational opportunities while reducing costs. The administrative team, with extensive knowledge of the schools, students, educators and challenges, have voiced unanimous support for this plan. This coupled with combining seventh and eighth grades will save approximately $700,000 the first year and over $900,000 in future years without any cuts in programming.
Kelley Hackett: I know there is a fair amount of concern in the teaching community about the idea of a five through eight middle school that has, by design, a large group of new seventh-graders joining the community each year. Big decisions like merging, closing and bonding schools require complex problem-solving and clear plans, including contingency planning. But beyond that, my hope is that the school board can work with the community to take an innovative approach to create schools that keep and attract students and their families. As a board member, I would strive to keep the focus on making sure that our students, teachers and community continue to grow and thrive. It is imperative that we come together to work as one and that we do not allow these issues to divide our community.
Lisa Mason: No. The preK-6 model that Moretown Elementary School has operated since its inception provides a safe and secure environment for our preteens. They are leaders in their school, allowing them to develop self-confidence, a strong voice and sense of belonging during these pivotal years. They have had the opportunity to choose Crossett Brook since the beginning of school choice and have largely chosen to stay in this model. This proposal and decision seemed rushed and cavalier, being justified by budget savings rather than student interests. Again, I have seen no plan. Although intradistrict choice to another elementary school is listed as an option along with Crossett Brook, it is unclear whether the students would fit at the closest preK-6 school in Waitsfield without sacrificing the educational experience of students in both towns or adding costs that would erase the original savings. The savings associated with two full-time positions is not worth the displacement of our fifth- and sixth-graders.
Chris Noyes: I very much like the model of a smaller, more intimate, early childhood educational experience. I feel this is best for all children, cementing the building blocks for further education while at the same time really focusing on a student’s social-emotional development. I do support the idea of larger peer groups when moving from early childhood education into “typical” middle school years. Again, I only question the speed in which I feel the decision was made.
Christine Sullivan: I support redistricting Moretown fifth- and sixth-graders to CBMS in part because these students will have additional programming opportunities. Freeing two classrooms at Moretown Elementary School will help accommodate the enrollment bubble currently at preK/kindergarten. This move will allow for an additional $300,000 in savings annually for the district. And, many of these students live closer to CBMS than to Moretown Elementary or Harwood.
Russ Bennett: If we can wait and not damage any students by waiting one more year, we should.