Amidst the scramble to keep all students healthy, happy and educated during the coronavirus pandemic, the Harwood Unified Union School District (HUUSD) Board has once again decided to take up discussion of a middle school merger for the fall of 2021.
As one might recall, the board tried to merge fifth- and sixth-graders from Moretown Elementary School (MES) and seventh- and eighth-graders from Harwood Union Middle School (HUMS) to Crossett Brook Middle School (CBMS) last spring through a merger-contingent budget. However, that budget was voted down by the public and the merger never happened.
In response to this budget failure, the HUUSD Board put together a merger task force comprised of four board members. These board members met multiple times over the summer with the goal to create a better plan and pitch for the middle school merger in hopes that it could become a reality in the fall of 2021. During these discussions, the task force changed one key component of the original plan: They would not vote to merge fifth- and sixth-graders from Moretown with CBMS students. Instead, they would start slow, focus on merging only the seventh- and eighth-graders first.
This history leads to the conversation that transpired at the board meeting on the evening of September 23. At this meeting, board members discussed whether they should take up the merger discussion this year at all, given the gravity of the current situation.
While some board members said this was not the time to be pushing for a massive reconfiguration of the student body, other board members took on a different tone. “If we’re not going to tackle the merger, then are we going to start talking about cutting teachers? How does everybody think we’re going to pay for our budget?” said board member Alex Thomsen, Waterbury.
‘IT’S A NECESSITY’
Thomsen reminded the board that the merger is not merely an option, it’s a necessity if the district wants to avoid raising taxes. “It’s not just a matter of, oh let’s put this off a year and we can continue on our merry way. Because we are about to be asked for massive amounts of money that we don’t have. I would be happy to wait a year if I thought that everything could carry on like we’re fine. But we’re not. We’re in a financial crisis right now,” said Thomsen.
Equity was another issue on board members’ minds as they considered the merger. Currently, CBMS is considered a better school than HUMS in the sense that it offers more programming to students. For instance, CBMS has a sustainability class that HUMS does not.
“We don't have equal opportunities between the schools,” said Christine Sullivan, Waitsfield. “If we’re not going to move forward with the merger, how are we going to give equal opportunities to our students? Do we add programming to Harwood? Do we cut programming from Crossett? If people don’t have the stomach for merging, then what’s the solution?”
While other board members agreed that finances and equity were important factors to consider, they also wondered if the administration could even handle planning for a merger in the midst of a pandemic. “We need to ask if the admin can even do this,” said Jeremy Tretiak, Waitsfield.
Eventually, Superintendent Brigid Nease of the HUUSD administration weighed in with her thoughts. “We are flat out exhausted,” she admitted. However, she also said she believes the board already has all the information it needs to make a decision.
Ultimately, board chair Caitlin Hollister took an informal survey on whether or not the board wants to continue merger discussion and planning before budget season, which will start in late fall. Five board members said no. Six board members said yes. With that straw poll, the public can expect to see more merger discussion in future school board meetings.