The Harwood Unified Union School District Board will be taking a longer, slower approach to potential closure of Fayston Elementary School as the board grapples with community outreach around the need to pass a bond that has increased in price from $43 million to over $50 million.
At Wednesday's June 9 meeting of the Harwood Unified Union School District (HUUSD) Board, the agenda was dominated by two discussions: the possible closure of Fayston Elementary and the development of a bond proposal for this coming fall. While the board decided to table the Fayston decision for at least a year, the bond warranted more discussion. Not only have bond projections increased since April 2020, but the board also faces challenges engaging with the community.
Regarding Fayston, board members concerned themselves with the following question, framed by chair Torrey Smith: “What information does the board need in order to make a decision about the future of Fayston Elementary?” The school’s potential closure has generated a significant amount of public debate in the Mad River Valley. While opinions of the board varied to some degree, many stressed the need for caution.
“I think it’s a great opportunity to really dive into this piece of work, as we have around middle school, and really take the time to be methodical, understand what the school means to the community and really find an effective way of engaging with the community,” said vice chair Tim Jones, Fayston. “I think we give ourselves the next school year, just as we have done with this last round of decision-making. Taking the long view here, I think, is the way to go.”
Jones’ statements referred to the board’s approval of the Crossett Brook Middle School merger last week. Both issues, however, remain contingent upon the bond’s passage.
Others echoed Jones’ call for a “long-view” approach. To some, it also helped avoid conflating the public attitude towards the school closure with budget concerns.
“I don’t want people to confuse the issue with the bond,” said Michael Frank, Waterbury. He further warned against taking the relevant data at face value. “We need to flush out some of the unknowns,” he added, referring to how school closures and COVID-19 have impacted enrollment projections, among other factors.
According to some board members, the biggest obstacle facing the board is community engagement -- both surrounding the school closure itself and the upcoming bond proposal. Several board members expressed doubts that the HUUSD was doing enough to be inclusive.
“I’m really wondering how we might as a board really think about our district as a community -- how we can best serve our district, and how we can model all of our schools to be really community driven,'' said Theresa Membrino, Fayston. “Based on our vision, I think we can probably do more.”
Caitlin Hollister, Waterbury, noted the importance of community engagement not just for gathering public opinion, but for transparency on the part of the board. “What criteria are we using to make our decisions once a vote comes?” she asked. “There’s a lot to weigh here.”
Defining “community” was yet another talking point, leading to a conversation about the widespread impact of Fayston’s potential closure.
“I don’t see why we wouldn’t consider all stakeholders in an order of this magnitude,” said Jonathan Young, Warren. He suggested public surveys and forums as a good starting point. “People want to give their feedback,” he continued.
Christine Sullivan, Waitsfield, considered other voices in the community, such as the Mad River Valley Planning District (MRVPD) as invaluable. In her view, the planning district represented a “Valleywide” approach, and a “successful model for how we can achieve more holistically and as a larger group.”
While opinions on the Fayston closure were numerous, Membrino reminded the board that the decision remained dependent on the bond vote in the fall. The board discussed community engagement around the bond proposal as an opportunity to mitigate public confusion around the plan for Fayston as well.
Exactly how to get the message out remained the subject of debate. While Membrino inquired about the possibility of hiring community engagement personnel, Smith expressed concerns over the lengthiness and cost of a request-for-proposal (RFP) process to hire out third-party expertise. In previous experiences, Smith noted, the projected cost had been far too high. Moreover, the logistics of the process alone could take months.
In response, others suggested tapping local resources already at the board’s disposal or hybridizing the process to mitigate costs and red tape. Many members pointed to other districts who have gone through bonds as a potential starting point. Superintendent Brigid Nease suggested asking them questions about how much they hired out, how costly that was and where they started looking.
“I think that getting the bond put together is only part of it -- marketing and selling the bonds is quite another,” she advised. “Think about how to get the expertise you can afford and what part of the pie is most needed.” She further stressed transparency in asking people what they think, but also providing them context as to why the board is asking for the bond more specifically. “You can do that much for free,” she added.
As for transparency, Jeremy Tretiak, Waitsfield, revived the earlier topic of public forums, suggesting they were “a great way to consolidate the voice of the board.” He also pointed to existing administrators that were already enthusiastic about the process and getting their excitement into the equation.
In the same vein, Moretown representative Lisa Mason considered including community engagement commitments into monthly agendas as a better way to incentivize board outreach -- things such as presentations and question-and-answer sessions, ideally replicable on Zoom.
As for the overall price tag of the bond proposal, a major factor has been the increase in construction costs brought about by the pandemic.
“The effects of that are clear in the new estimate,” said Smith.
But with so many variables at play, she emphasized things could change further. While there is much left to consider in the months leading up to the vote this fall, a decision regarding Fayston’s future will have to wait longer.