On Monday, May 3, Torrey Smith, chair of the Harwood Unified Union School District (HUUSD) Board, was invited to speak at a Moretown Select Board meeting to explain the board’s motivations to merge the district’s middle school students at Crossett Brook Middle School (CBMS) for the fall of 2022.
Five months ago, Moretown Select Board members were aggravated after the HUUSD Board made the decision to merge the districts middle schools in December, 2020. “It’s absolutely disgusting that that board, during a pandemic, would do this and that we have to meet and plan on what we’re going to do,” said Moretown Select Board chair Tom Martin at a meeting on December 7, 2020. “I am getting very, very sick of it.”
The merger is a sensitive subject to Moretown residents, who fear that after the board merges the district’s seventh- and eighth-graders, it will move fifth- and sixth-grade students from Moretown Elementary School (MES) over to CBMS as well.
At the most recent Moretown Select Board meeting on May 3, Smith urged select board members not to worry about losing their fifth- and sixth-grade students. “At this time there is no discussion or agenda planning around moving the Moretown fifth- and sixth-graders over. Nothing is happening behind the scenes, in front of the scenes, anywhere around that at this time,” said Smith.
Smith explained that two years ago, the board created a long-term merger plan with three components. One was merging all seventh- and eighth-graders at CBMS, one was moving fifth- and sixth-graders from Moretown to CBMS, and one was the possibility of closing Fayston Elementary School (FES). “But none of those are final decisions,” said Smith.
Even the decision to move seventh- and eighth-graders from Harwood Union Middle School (HUMS) over to CBMS isn’t official yet. Here’s why: After the new board was elected on Town Meeting Day, a motion was made to reconsider the merger of the seventh- and eighth-graders at CBMS. The vote on whether or not to pursue the middle school merger will take place at the school board’s May 26 meeting. Even though the board technically already decided it wanted to merge the middle schools in December, Smith pointed out that “it’s possible to overturn the previous work of the board.”
Still, just knowing that the board had no active plans to merge Moretown’s fifth- and sixth-graders at CBMS wasn’t enough for Moretown Select Board members. They wanted to know why the merger discussion started in the first place.
“What is the ultimate goal? Why do you feel that you need to merge those students?” asked Martin.
Smith explained that the merger conversation started a couple years ago after a difficult budget season in which property taxes shot up dramatically. The pain of the tax increase was only exacerbated by the district’s declining enrollment.
“Things like declining enrollment that have been happening across our district and across Vermont for 10 or 15 years. Declining enrollment drives our costs up. Per student cost is one of the major factors in the tax rate,” said Smith.
Smith explained how declining enrollment chips away at public school institutions. “You don’t just lose 30 kids at once. Instead, you lose two or three
kids a year at each school. This isn’t a grave loss at the elementary school level, but it becomes more prominent as all elementary school students merge together in middle school,” she said. “These little drops coming out of elementary schools are hitting the middle schools and high school in a detrimental way.”
“Every year, we kept trying to plug these little holes, and we kept eroding programs slowly,” Smith continued. “And that’s a terrible feeling for schools. So, we said, we need to take a more holistic look at how we’re spending money.”
Eventually, the school board decided merging students would be a great way to tackle declining enrollment, while saving money and preserving student programming.
Moreover, the decision to merge the middle schools solves a different problem: educational inequity. “We’ve seen inequities between the two middle schools. HUMS and CBMS do not offer the same opportunities for their students. There’s not necessarily one that’s better than the other, but they’re not the same. We’ve seen a significant exodus from Harwood to CBMS,” said Smith, explaining that many students opt to attend CBMS instead of HUMS.
At the end Smith’s explanation, Martin thanked Smith for coming to explain the board’s merger motivations to the Moretown Select Board. As for next steps, Smith said she expects the board to move onto facility decisions regarding the middle school merger, provided that the vote to merge middle schoolers passes on May 26.
“The goal is to make a decision about facilities in the end of May. After that, the principals and staff will know what size space they’re working with, when it will happen, and they can start planning around that,” said Smith.