Recent reduction in force (RIF) updates released by Harwood Unified Union School District (HUUSD) Superintendent Brigid Nease show that Harwood will not be losing as many of its teachers as initially expected. Paul Kramer, HCLC English teacher at Harwood Union High School (HUHS), and Nathaniel Furlong, digital media teacher at HUUSD, will stay despite having received RIF notices from the administration on February 14.
Likewise, English teacher Kate Stauss will remain in the English department, Zac Clements will remain as a STEM teacher, and Patrick Wolcoff, who has a dual endorsement in English and social studies, will transition to teach Greg Shepler’s social studies class as Shepler retires. These changes were announced on February 21.
Recent retirement announcements allowed for this change to the RIF schedule. “As you can see, Harwood Union High School will not have a serious impact on programming resulting from merging seventh and eighth,” said Nease in her statement. This news may come as a relief to community members who rallied in the HUHS library on Wednesday, February 19, in protest of the initial RIF list that proposed eight seniority-based FTE teacher cuts affecting 13 district employees.
“The one thing you don’t want in a community is to have a priority based upon a number and a sheet and a piece of paper, rather than a person in the room,” said Harwood teacher Alex Rawson at the rally. “The bureaucracy is such that they say, ‘I’m sorry, but it’s not about how passionate the teachers are; it’s simply lowest on the totem pole,’” said Rawson.
According to Page 9 of the master contract between the Harwood Unified Union School District (HUUSD) and the Harwood Unified Education Association (HUEA), the criteria for the selection of teachers to be laid off in the event of a reduction in force “will be seniority within any licensure and/or endorsement under which they have been employed within the District.” In other words: Last hired, first fired.
Others at the rally were concerned over the seemingly arbitrary reassignments of teachers to different schools, grades and classes within the district. “We’re seeing reshuffling of faculty members into positions that they’re not as suited for as the ones they were hired to do, and that’s not good,” said Sarah Page, retired Harwood teacher.
Despite the palpable outrage of many speakers, not all disapproved of the school board and administration’s decisions. One Harwood student, Carlton Cummiskey, student representative to the school board, cautioned the audience to “keep the facts straight.” He reminded the audience that in choosing a budget plan, the board had to deal with the “harsh reality” of tax increases.
Cummiskey, who has been to nearly every school board meeting, emphasized that the current budget was the most cost-effective, pro-programming budget that the school board had seen. Previous budget alternatives proposed cutting programs, including the hearing project, a wellness center program, world language for pre-K to fourth grade, and chorus and band for fifth- through seventh-graders. This budget, on the other hand, “has no programing loss” and “increases programs for HUMS students,” said Cummiskey. “Yes, this budget cuts teachers, but it is still not the budget with the most teacher cuts. And it’s important that we make sure that everybody knows it is teachers being cut, not positions.”
While Cummiskey relished the benefits of this budget, others deemed the consequences of the budget strike-worthy. Peter Langella, former member of the HUUSD Board and current member of the Vermont Coalition for Community Schools, argued that teachers might need to strike to get their voices heard. “They might need to stop teaching,” he said. “If we really want change, we’re going to have to do the things necessary to enact that change.”
For people like Chris Viens on the other hand, this budget is the best-case scenario in terms of ensuring a manageable tax rate. “There is a wage disparity between the people that grew up here and the people that come up here. When they’re faced with an increase of 4 cents, 6 cents, 8 cents, for them that’s nothing. But for the people who have struggled here all their lives, that’s destructive,” said Viens, Waterbury Select Board chair and lifetime school district resident. “You’re blaming a board that in my opinion is dealing with a huge financial mess and is bringing stability to people that are having a difficult time affording living here. And then you turn around and go on strike because you didn’t get your way?”