This letter was sent to the HUUSD Board:
I have spent the past few days reviewing the notes board members collected during the two community forums held in Waterbury and Duxbury, as well as reading all of the comments collected from the online survey that you included in this week’s board packet. My first impression is that out of the literally hundreds of responses, there were only a handful of people that fully approve of the current redesign process and its potential outcomes. I also saw four recurring themes emerge from the community’s feedback and a request for more time in the process to include them:
Educational Outcomes and Opportunities for Students
The community wants to know what the educational outcomes for our children will be with a district redesign. Time and again comments from the survey and forum highlight the fact that as of now, there is nothing concrete about programming and increased educational opportunities outlined in the current scenarios being considered. Before there is a move to close schools and bus students far away from home, there needs to be more data collected and modeling done of increases or changes in programming. Spending time fleshing out new opportunities would also be more in line with the vision approved this past September and could help create a more positive atmosphere around redesign by focusing on the possibilities instead of what you are potentially taking away from towns.
Community Voice and Engagement in the Process
The community wants to have a more valued seat at the table. Redesigning our district is at a level of decision-making that the board agreed with last year necessitates community engagement rather than just outreach. Multiple comments reinforce the desire to have more chances for dialogue and discussion with the board, and three minutes of public comment at the start of your meetings will not accomplish this. Hopefully, you found the recent forums to be informative and productive, and you will consider hosting more in the rest of the district towns. We understand that hard conversations lie ahead, and we want to be a part of them in a meaningful way.
Data and Research from Independent Sources
Another request that I noticed repeating in the notes and comments was taking the time to review data and research from outside sources. What approach have other comparable districts taken as they have merged and consolidated? What have been the impacts in other small rural communities when schools are closed? What does the research say about the optimal grade configurations, school size and educational opportunities for children? These and many questions like it need answers outside of what our administration has provided so far. In any other organization, it would be challenging to undertake changes of this magnitude without consulting the independent data and research that is already out there.
Which brings us to the current timeline. Many people from all of our district towns (including myself) have been asking you to change your timeline to accommodate a process that includes all of the above. It does not seem possible to investigate and outline robust educational opportunities, find and consult independent data and research and include meaningful community engagement before your planned redesign vote on November 13. Furthermore, there is a question if you can even meet the established articles of agreement with the existing timeline. Adjusting the process does not mean putting off decisions indefinitely; like many others in the survey and at the forums, I suggest that you aim to bring the bond/redesign package to a vote during the November 2020 general election. Not only does that give you time as a board to get the community’s support by doing the above, it guarantees a much higher voter participation than you will get during Town Meeting in March.
I have participated in the proposed redesign as a community member since the white paper was released in 2017. During this time, I have witnessed a lot of growth from the board and want to appreciate that as well as acknowledge the ongoing challenges of transitioning to one district. It has been a tremendous amount of time and energy from all of you. I also want to see you embrace that growth and have the courage to imagine the possibilities and let community voice in as you make decisions that will have real impacts for generations. Please, don’t get distracted by the administration’s leadership style of fear, uncertainty and doubt that breeds division in our district. You as the board have the power to take a step back and develop a process that includes the vision, creates community buy-in and ultimately does what is best for our children and district.
Cory Stephenson is an HUUSD parent and lives in Moretown, Vermont.