Next year, Harwood Union Middle School (HUMS) class sizes will grow. On February 17, the Harwood Unified Union School District (HUUSD) Board voted to reduce the number of core teachers at HUMS from eight to four core teachers for the 2021/2022 school year. This means the 102 students projected to enroll in HUMS next year will sit in classrooms of over 25 students per class, rather than the original class size projection of just over 12 students per class.
According to board chair Caitlin Hollister, the board can pull off this teaching team reduction without actually firing any teachers. The idea is that the four displaced middle school teachers can pick up other teaching jobs in the district as other teachers retire. “Right now, we would estimate that there would be zero to one reduction in force based on what we know about retirements and other staff shuffling and changes,” said Hollister.
While the board’s weighted voting system showed 45% of the board in favor of reducing a teaching team from HUMS and 39.95% against it, in terms of actual bodies, the board was split 6 to 6 on either side of the issue.
Before delving into discussion on the topic, the board heard from members of the public, many of whom were not in favor of shrinking the HUMS teaching staff.
Becky Allen, a Harwood Union High School (HUHS) math teacher with a sixth-grader who will be attending HUMS in the fall, made her case against the reduction of teachers. “I am opposed to your suggestion of eliminating one of the Harwood Union Middle School teams,” she stated. “The number one reason that I am opposed to this move to eliminate teachers is that we are still in the middle of a pandemic.” Allen mentioned that, with over 25 students per class, physical distancing would be nearly impossible to maintain.
Additionally, she argued that people don’t move to Vermont from urban areas to put their kids in schools with large classes. “One reason why my family stays here is due to the small class sizes and the individual attention each student gets here,” said Allen.
Finally, she argued that middle school students need more individual attention than other age groups. “They are going through so much change and confusions inside and out, and on top of that, are transitioning to a new school,” said Allen. “Academics are often times not their highest priority, and they could slip through the cracks if we are not careful.”
Countering Allen’s comments, Warren School board representative Rosemarie White said that small class sizes were actually a detriment to students’ learning.
“Our administrators continue to tell us that small class sizes are not good for our children, emotionally or academically. We’ve been doing a disservice to our students by listening to the fear projected by these well-meaning parents, instead of the people we pay to educate our children,” White said. “Most of those voices are expressing fear of change.”
White emphasized that learning how to handle change is part of life, and that this change will only benefit future HUMS students. “I am in support of reducing a team at HUMS because I believe that small class sizes are not good for our children,” said White.
Other board members did not agree with White’s small-classes-are-bad position. “Placing students in larger classes and decreasing the number of teachers will only increase gaps in learning and social emotional well-being,” said Kelly Hackett, Waterbury. “Those class sizes are simply too big, pandemic or no pandemic. A class size of 25.5 is too big in my book,” said Lisa Mason, Moretown.
Kristen Rogers, Moretown, protested to the timing of the motion to cut teachers. “This is not the right or appropriate time to be reducing a team,” said Rogers. “We can’t seem to get through a budget season without upsetting the community, the teachers, and the students,” she added.
Waitsfield representative, Christine Sullivan, who voted in favor of reducing the teacher team, looked at the decision in terms of efficiency and service to taxpayers. “It’s not efficient for us to employ four sets of teachers to teach these 262 kids,” said Sullivan, speaking of the 160 Crossett Brook Middle School (CBMS) students and the 102 HUMS students expected to enroll in the district’s middle schools this fall.
“What is efficient is to try to make cuts through attrition so we can reduce our overall teaching staff without losing our valuable employees,” said Sullivan. “We are going to be spending upwards of $340,000 that we don’t need to spend. That’s 1% of our budget.”
Michael Frank, Waterbury, agreed that reducing a teacher team without actually firing the teachers would be a good move for the district. “Let’s not reduce teachers, let’s use attrition to reduce positions so no one gets riffed,” said Frank, referring to the word often used for Reduction in Force.(RIF)
Finally, Theresa Membrino, Fayston, who voted against the teacher reduction motion, scolded White for suggesting that community members couldn’t think rationally due to their fear of change. “I’m trying to be calm here, but my blood is boiling,” stated Membrino. “When we lob the ‘fear of change’ part at people, we are saying ‘I don’t value your opinion because you’re clearly not thinking correctly, you’re just afraid of change’ That is so incredibly insulting. I think it’s appalling that we’re talking about that. I firmly believe that these people believe this is the right thing. I think that’s a terrible thing to lob at people, that they can’t be clear headed because they’re afraid of change. It’s absolutely horrible. I think we owe them an apology from the board.”