Harwood Union Middle School (HUMS) will not lose four teachers next fall after all. On Wednesday, March 10, the Harwood Unified Union School District (HUUSD) Board voted to rescind its February 17 decision to reduce four teachers in the middle school for the 2021-2022 school year. If pursued, this decision would have left HUMS seventh- and eighth-grade students grouped together in classrooms of over 25 students per class and would have resulted in the firing of one teacher, as three others would have been reduced through attrition.
However, because this decision was not warned on the school board’s agenda, some board members are concerned that the decision to rescind the teacher reductions happened illegally, since board members decided to vote on the motion right away rather than postponing the vote to a future meeting so the public would know and could participate.
In an opinion piece to The Valley Reporter, former board member Alex Thomsen, Waterbury, wrote: “Regardless of how people feel about the decision to reduce teachers at Harwood, the board’s behavior was wrong at best and intentionally deceptive at worst.”
OPEN MEETING LAW
The Valley Reporter reached out to the Vermont Secretary of State’s office for clarification on the issue of Vermont’s Open Meeting Law and voting on something that is not on the warned agenda.
“We do generally recommend that, as best practice, last-minute agenda items -- especially those requiring board action -- be added at a meeting only in extreme circumstances, in order to ensure that interested members of the public have the opportunity to attend and participate in the decision-making process,” wrote Jenny Prosser, general counsel and director of municipal assistance for the secretary of state’s office.
According to the secretary of state’s handbook on Open Meeting Law, warning a motion before a meeting is recommended, but not required. The handbook states: “We recommend that last-minute agenda items, especially those requiring board action, be added at a meeting only in an emergency. In other situations, a better practice is to handle items that were not included on the posted agenda at the next regular meeting, or if necessary, to call a special meeting so the public gets notice of the item and has an opportunity to attend and participate.”
The board took the vote after hearing a series of speeches from teachers, urging board members to reconsider their decision to cut a teacher team at Harwood.
“We agree with all the board members who said this decision should have been made months ago during the budget process,” said Stephen Rand, Harwood English teacher and co-president of the Harwood Union Education Association, while speaking to the board over Zoom. Rand argued that the board’s decision to reduce a teacher team after the board’s January budgeting process caught teachers off guard, for teachers did not expect such a financially impactful decision to be made this late in the year. “The impact is, we have school staff with low morale,” said Rand, who emphasized that this decision blindsided teachers. “When decisions are made like this, it challenges the notion that we are in this together.”
Sarah Ibson, an eighth-grade social studies teacher at HUMS, agreed that the “out-of-the-blue decision” was putting “the morale of the middle school staff on shaky ground.” She also argued that upping class sizes to 25 students per class would make many of the middle school teacher’s most effective teaching strategies impossible.
“An integral part of our middle school is team teaching, interdisciplinary instruction, Harkness (a discussion-based approach to learning in which students share thoughts in a circle rather than engaging in passive lecture-based notetaking), and lab-based science. With the reduction of one team and an increased class size of 25 students, these opportunities won’t be possible for our students,” said Ibson. “When team teaching, we combine two classes together with two teachers. That would be prohibited with 50 students in a class.”
Harwood history teacher Kathy Cadwell argued that reducing a teacher team would put an unnecessary burden on the teachers, resulting in lower quality education for students. “We have to consider how large classes impact teaching and learning in a proficiency system. A proficiency system takes more time. There’s more individual attention that needs to be given,” Cadwell stated. “If you had a choice of having a class with 25 students, and you had to do assessments on seven to eight different performance indicators and do formative assessments for each student, with individual conferences and meeting kids before school and after school, or if you had a class of 15 students, which group of kids do you think you would better be able to serve in a more professional and complete way? Certainly, the smaller class.”
Cadwell also argued that the board should have considered the research on class size before making this decision. “Studies agree that class size is an important determinate of student outcomes,” said Cadwell. “Research shows that students in smaller classes achieve better outcomes, academic and otherwise.”
The decision to rescind teacher reductions passed in a weighted vote of 56.5% to 33.1%, with eight board members voting in favor of rescinding the reduction, four voting against it, and one abstaining. Compare this to the original teacher reduction vote made on February 17, which passed in a weighted vote of 45% to 39.95%, with six board members voting in favor of the reduction, and six voting against it.
So, who on the board changed their minds? Actually, no one did. All board members who remain on the board since Town Meeting Day elections on March 2 voted consistent with their previous vote. Christine Sullivan, Waitsfield, who originally voted in favor of the teacher reductions, maintained her stance at the March 10 meeting. “A lot of students going from Waitsfield Elementary School or Moretown Elementary School to Harwood are coming from classes of 23 or 24 students per class. Going from a class of 24 student per class to 11 students per class seems like a shock to the system,” she said.
Lisa Mason, Moretown, who originally voted against the teacher reduction, maintained her stance at the March 10 meeting. “We haven’t heard any educator say that large class sizes are better for our kids,” said Mason.
It was the new board members who tipped the scale in favor of keeping the HUMS teachers. While new Duxbury representative Brian Dalla Mura abstained from the vote, new Warren representative, Jonathan Young, voted in favor of rescinding the reduction, as did new Waterbury representative Marlena Fishman.
Fishman reminded the board that, although HUMS and Crossett Brook Middle School (CBMS) will have different class sizes going into the fall of 2021 -- with HUMS classes hovering around 13 students per class and CBMS classes hovering around 23 -- equity between schools isn’t just about class size. “Equity isn’t about being exactly equal in numbers,” said Fishman. “Equity is about access to opportunities.”