As the Harwood Unified Union School District (HUUSD) Board is in the midst of considering multiple change scenarios, I appreciated the opportunity to attend the two community forums that were held and to interact directly with members of the community on the subject. Although there were many things discussed, the main thing I took away from the events was a need to simplify. While I appreciate the deep and thorough evaluation the administrative team did at the direction of the board, I found that even the most engaged and thoughtful members of our community were struggling to follow our naming conventions, make sense of the data and see a clear path forward. It became clear to me at these forums that we need to simplify both the options we are considering and our explanation of them. I’m hopeful that we will consider and pass motions to further limit the scenarios being considered, rename them in a way more conducive to a discussion, and assign a subset of the board to summarize and describe them in a way that can be easily understood.
At the urging of a few members of the community, I recently visited Moretown Elementary and Fayston Elementary. In general, both of these visits reinforced my belief that our elementary schools are amazing places and our administrators are doing topnotch work.
In Moretown, I had a chance to see the vibrant energy of the school in person. One scene that sticks out for me is watching the third- and fourth-grade “mentors” escorting their assigned pre-K buddies through the halls and outside for recess. Physically and operationally the MECA program is well integrated into the building, making it easy for families to count on their children being well taken care of in that building regardless of the day of the week or time of the day. Another thing that sticks out for me was a fairly obvious change in energy when I walked from the pre-K through grade four section of the building into the grades five and six section of the building. The difference in environment, programming and opportunities for fifth- and sixth-graders at MES compared with Crossett Brook Middle School became clearer to me. I look forward to further discussion as a group around options that preserve the MECA/preK-4 environment at Moretown Elementary while providing more robust opportunities for fifth- and sixth-graders.
In Fayston, I had a chance to observe the beautiful and peaceful environment of the school, especially since I visited on a sunny fall day. While the building, grounds and environment were peaceful and pleasant, what stood out to me most was a general sense of emptiness, in terms of the number of people in the building as well as the amount of empty or underutilized space. While some are quick to blame the low enrollment and general emptiness of the building on the district and the superintendent, I don’t agree with these accusations and I don’t believe they are founded in reality or fact. The reality is that it costs nearly $10,000 more to educate a student at Fayston Elementary compared to Waitsfield Elementary. Those costs are increasing as more and more families exercise intradistrict choice and send their students to another school in the district. The reality is that most, if not all, of the residents of Fayston are within the School Proximity Index of Waitsfield Elementary, meaning the same studies being used to argue against a school closure would safely consider Waitsfield Elementary to be a local school for Fayston residents. As a board, I expect we will continue this discussion. And while I appreciate discussion, dialog and debate at the board table, I would ask my colleagues on the board that we do our best to base these discussions on facts rather than conjecture, rumor and innuendo.
I have also taken an opportunity to attend three different meetings of the “Friends of the District” group to hear their feedback in person in addition to reading it via email and in their frequent letters to the local newspapers. I appreciate the engagement, commitment and dedication of the members of this group; it has been extremely difficult to find any common ground. Throughout the discussions, two overarching themes have emerged. First, while some level of acknowledgement is given to the idea that we need to spend responsibly, the foundation of much of the feedback is the notion that money is no object when it comes to education. Second, it seems clear to me that regardless of how much data we collect or how much engagement we do, the only acceptable outcome for this group is a decision that no elementary schools will be closed.
Finding common ground is made even more difficult because we can’t seem to agree on a set of facts on which to base our discussion and debate. The extent to which this debate has become a microcosm of the larger climate of public discourse in this country is increasingly troubling to me. Facts, data and information that are inconsistent with strongly held beliefs are met with protests and arguments that the facts and data are essentially “fake news” or the result of a conspiracy operating inside the district. There seems to be a belief that the accuracy of a statement or validity of a viewpoint is directly proportionate to the level of passion and anger with which it is expressed. With this said, and while I’m personally finding it difficult to find areas of alignment with this group, I appreciate their recent efforts to be clear and specific in their requests of the board. I would encourage any of my colleagues on the board who are sympathetic to the ideas and proposals being put forward by this group to raise their motions at the board table for consideration.
I look forward to continued discussion, engagement and collaboration with my colleagues on the board and despite the difficulty of our current situation, I firmly believe that our board, our district and our community have the strength and character required to persevere and be better for it.
Grace, Waterbury, Vermont, serves on the HUUSD Board.