At the time of the merger, Fayston Elementary School (FES) was ranked as one of the best schools in Vermont and had one of the lowest per pupil costs in the supervisory union. The building was well-maintained and is in immaculate condition. The current high per pupil cost is due to declining enrollment, not to financial mismanagement by school officials.
Declining enrollment was not organic nor was it inevitable. The school choice survey that the Harwood Unified Union School District (HUUSD) Board conducted in 2016 shows that the vast majority of Fayston families were happy at their school and were planning to stay. In 2017, Superintendent Brigid Nease released her white paper calling for the closure of Fayston and Moretown. Since then, Fayston’s closure has been discussed repeatedly and extensively by the superintendent, the board, local media and the public. Given that we have seen a very dramatic decline in enrollment over the past two years (in stark contrast to what was predicted in the choice survey) it is obvious that the repeated discussion of closing Fayston has played a role in families’ decisions to leave.
I am not suggesting that the drumbeat to close Fayston was the cause of every single student withdrawal, but I know that it has been a significant factor in many families' decision to either leave FES or not to enroll in the first place. We are Waitsfield residents who decided to enroll our child at Fayston despite the risk of closure because we fell in love with the school and decided it was worth the risk. But it wasn’t an easy decision to make and I can understand how families who might have wanted to choose Fayston ultimately chose another school that they perceived as less likely to close.
The eye-popping per-pupil costs at FES are the result of policy failures by the board and the superintendent, most notably to institute school choice and then immediately begin calling for the closure of schools by name. This has had disastrous consequences for Fayston and has made declining enrollment a self-fulfilling prophecy. With every student who leaves Fayston, the per-pupil costs go up which then leads to howls of outrage from other parts of the district demanding school closure (though never of the schools in their communities).
The most disheartening part of this process is that it has been designed to pit communities against each other when we are all in this together. I oppose the closure of any of our schools and don’t believe the board has made the case that it is necessary or will lead to significant savings for taxpayers much less better educational outcomes for our children.
There have been no independent financial analysis. Despite many members of the public asking for the board to examine the impact of redesign on our children and our communities, the board has not undertaken such an analysis. What will closing a school do to property values? To tax revenue? How does eliminating 21 middle-class jobs impact the economic health of the district? Many of the teachers who lose their jobs likely have children in our schools or will in the next 10 years. How does the loss of these middle-class jobs impact future enrollment in our schools? For those of you who assume that teacher cuts will come from the schools that close, please remember that the district will base hiring and firing decisions based on seniority so even the schools that remain open are very likely to see teacher cuts. What will staff and teacher displacement do to the community culture and institutional memory at each school that remains open?
I don’t know the answers to these questions, but neither does the board. Rather than bringing out the pitchforks and yelling at each other, we should be demanding real answers from the board about these vital questions before they make decisions that will impact our communities forever.
McGill lives in Waitsfield, Vermont.