This opinion piece is addressed to the HUUSD Board.
As a former board member, I’ve sat at your table. It’s hard work. The decisions before you are layered and nuanced, and they have a generational reach. Those decisions are really hard and I feel the majority of you are getting them wrong.
I put my name forward in Moretown for a spot on the now-defunct Moretown Elementary School Board because I’m an educator and figured my experience would make me a good board member. I realized I didn’t know much about being on a school board, and this was exacerbated when I joined the HUUSD Board in 2016. I tried to learn as much as I could though, and I even contributed to the first conversations about redesign in early 2017 in a way that makes me cringe now. I supported things that sounded good. Saving money sounds good. Words like "fiscal" and "projection" and "economies of scale" sound good. But I was forming opinions based on limited data and even thinner analysis. I was openly communicating for two reasons: 1) I assumed back then that talk of redesign would result in an investigation of educational philosophy, pedagogy and programs, but that conversation still hasn’t taken place; and 2) I didn’t yet know what I didn’t know about redesign (a bad mistake to make).
I realized sooner than most that something was off. I took time for deep reflection, and I immersed myself in the study of school consolidation and closures in order to match this information up against what I already knew and continue to learn about teaching and learning. I eventually decided to leave the board because I thought the process was broken, and because I wanted to openly educate the public about the stakes.
- School closings have an adverse effect on student well-being and academic achievement. Longer student commutes mean students take part in fewer co-curricular experiences, and low-income students and students from other historically marginalized and underrepresented groups are most severely affected. The equity and opportunity gap widens.
- Communities that lose schools lose their sense of place and civic connection.
- Communities that lose schools lose population, have lower property values, lower per capita incomes, a less equal distribution of income, more per capita income from public assistance and more child poverty.
- Your plan won’t actually save taxpayers much money.
One of your members went on the radio recently and responded to community questions that it’s erroneous to say that you haven’t done your research. When has research been discussed at a board meeting? The above examples are from peer-reviewed studies, and yet you allow members of your body to swat them aside as if they’re mere opinions. Other than a middle school presentation last year and the various numbers Brigid Nease and Michelle Baker have supplied, when has research been discussed? Which decisions have been research-based? Which schools and districts and towns have you visited to see the impact for yourselves? Which consultants have you hired to help you make these decisions? Which professors and researchers have you brought before the board? What is your five-, 10- or 20-year plan based on research? How will you pay for and staff the new programming you say will be made possible by a school closure, and how do we know that programming is research-based and any better than the schools and programming we have now?
And, those are only the surface level questions. Here are deeper questions:
- What do your choices say about your implicit biases and privilege?
- What do your choices say about the superintendent's implicit biases and blind spots?
- How do your choices relate to your values? The community’s values?
- Why did you not let the vision work finish before you began modeling scenarios?
- Will your choices decrease or increase the equity and opportunity gap?
- Who is accessing after-school programming and will any of these students not be able to continue because of longer bus rides?
- Who is utilizing social workers and special educators and is there a disproportionate percentage of students affected by a potential closure?
- Who is accessing flexible pathways and will moving seventh- and eighth-grade to CBMS actually decrease opportunities for students?
- What will happen to Harwood’s art and music programs if the seventh- and eighth-graders leave?
- What will Duxbury and Waterbury parents say when they find out that some of their teachers are actually going to be the ones cut because of a shared faculty seniority list?
This process has been going on for a long time, and you still can’t answer these questions and many others that thoughtful community members have been asking you with any sort of coherence.
Organizations like the Vermont School Boards Association and your own employees tell you to worry about the budget, that it is not the job of a school board to insert yourself into the educational process. That brings up one more huge question: What could be more of an insertion into the educational process than a vote to close a school?
I work with students on the difference between intent and impact. Good intentions mean little if the impact is disastrous. You know what? The impact of this process has been really bad. You’ve stoked fear in the community, you’ve pitted towns against each other, you’ve placed our learners and educators in limbo, and you haven’t kept the interests of our most vulnerable children at the forefront of your conversations. It could turn disastrous if you vote to close one of our schools.
I leave your majority voting block with three question sets:
- Which research are you basing this generational decision on? Are you willing to have that discussion or are you going to be willfully ignorant?
- Do you know what you don’t know? Are you even qualified or informed enough to vote on district redesign? Will you ever be?
- What if we’re right and you’re wrong – what happens then? What is your redesign assessment plan? What is your contingency plan? What is your emergency plan?
It’s not too late to admit your mistakes and go back to the beginning. The only way forward is to reject austerity and attrition by empowering our amazing educators, students and community members to co-construct the most robust, equitable, inclusive and culturally responsive district in the state.
Peter Langella is a Moretown, Vermont resident.