The Harwood Unified Union School District (HUUSD) Board’s recent focus on district design scenarios has caused many to ask, “Why do we need to change anything?”
When our communities voted in 2016 to approve the merger of our individual schools into a single unified school district, they did so based on certain expectations, summarized by the Act 46 Study Committee Report which was published at the time:
“There is hope that we would have the opportunity to add programming and enrich both the educational and extracurricular experiences at all levels, but especially the middle and high schools. And, although initial projections are limited, we believe we can create efficiencies that will bring taxpayers relief from steep and continued increases in education tax rates by the time merger incentives expire.”
This spring, as the school board engaged community members in our visioning process, we heard repeatedly that people value rigorous, innovative and student-centered educational experiences, and that it’s important for us to provide these experiences with an eye toward efficiency and affordability.
These are exciting and ambitious expectations for our schools. Our board is optimistic that it’s possible to both increase and enrich programming for students and reduce our collective costs if we are willing to consider some alternative ways of deploying our resources across the district. At the very least, we feel a responsibility to develop and explore possible change models, to share our data with our community and to have the challenging conversations that emerge as we consider potential changes.
There are a number of factors which compel us to take on this work right now.
First, the merging of our district under Act 46 has given us an opportunity that did not exist before: We can look at the system as a whole, learn from local school successes, address inequalities and share resources. Already we have realized some cost efficiencies from bulk purchasing for things like paper, fuel and contracted services. But we might also be able to move staff and consolidate physical assets to not only save costs but also better serve our students and communities. We should not delay in understanding what is possible in this regard.
Second, the tax breaks that came with Act 46 diminish each year and will sunset after 2022. We continue to grapple with increased cost pressure each year. At the same time, it has become clear that low-hanging fruit for budget stability is long gone.
According to a comprehensive study by the New England School Development Council, we know that our district’s overall enrollment is likely to remain stable over the next 10 years, but town-by-town projections vary. Cost containment at this stage involves cutting programs, eroding the excellence of our schools.
In our current fiscal year, adjusted per-pupil spending in our school district is $17,627 – only $684 below the state’s excess spending threshold. If we hit the excess spending threshold, we risk penalties that would further burden our taxpayers. Therefore, we feel it is irresponsible for us not to understand all possible cost-saving measures sooner rather than later.
The needs of our high school present another compelling reason to engage in this work now. Harwood Union, the school we all share, needs major renovations. It is time for us to make an over $20 million investment in our high school, but our board agreed that we would not ask our voters for a bond without exploring the possibilities of cost reductions at the same time. The board – and indeed all voters and taxpayers – should understand the full context of this investment, including whether we might be able to pay for some of it by realizing efficiencies elsewhere.
Our study of various change models is the best way for us to answer the important – and sometimes controversial – questions we’ve been hearing from our constituents: Would closing a school save us money? What kind of innovative programs can our district offer? How will we take care of Harwood, the school that our six towns share?
Will any proposed changes enable us to get closer to our community’s vision for the schools? We hope so, but the truth is we won’t know until we actually see the models, ask follow-up questions and have time to consider and discuss them.
We have already reviewed extensive data to understand site capacity of each HUUSD campus, enrollment projections, state regulations and transportation needs. In June, we identified three change scenarios that we wanted to study in exhaustive detail, and on September 25 we will begin to review the full models from our administrative team.
Our community has exciting but also difficult, decisions ahead. You elected us to lead these hard conversations, to consider both small and dramatic changes and to make thoughtful proposals that address the needs of our students and our communities. We are working to engage with our neighbors, our teachers and our students to look at the models that will be presented and to understand a wide range of criteria that will inform our decision-making. We invite you all to our community conversations on October 1 at Harwood and October 7 at Crossett Brook, both at 7 p.m., and to complete an online survey to share your thoughts with the board.
The school board will decide in November which model we will use to develop a bond proposal. Ultimately, the community itself will make the final decision about the future of our school district when they are presented with a pre-K to 12 plan and bond that supports it on Town Meeting Day 2020. We have appreciated the trust and support you have given to us as trustees of the district and will do our best to represent the needs of our whole community as we move forward.
Caitlin Hollister is chair of the HUUSD Board. She lives in Waterbury, Vermont.