By Alex Thomsen
Community engagement and transparency -- these are two concepts that the HUUSD Board worked hard over the last five years to prioritize. The proposed middle school merger and failed bond vote involved much community input as well as multiple data packets with updated information for community members. And yet, with a brand new board in place (nine new members since the last bond vote), the board appears to have forgotten the lessons of past boards.
Buried in the leadership report of the May 24 2023, school board agenda, I came across the following -- “Configuration of the Harwood Campus: We will be voting on June 13 whether to keep the Harwood Campus 7-12 (keeping the building configuration as it) or if the Harwood Campus will be 9-12 (moving the 7th and 8th graders to Crossett Brook).” Curious about what data had been presented to the board to help guide members in this decision, I went looking through the past board packets and was unable to find any data, or information. Also in search of community engagement opportunities or publicity to the community about the vote, I found nothing.
I ask our Harwood community -- is this how we want decisions to be made at the board level? Do we care about community engagement and transparency only when it is convenient, or do we believe that those are fundamental parts of a healthy school board? Do we think our board members should be making decisions based on what feels right to them or based on data? A current board member told me that the middle school merger is “a very controversial item, and many on the current board see it as an albatross hanging on any future bond, so the idea is to come out early in the process, and vote to say whether the middle school merger will or won’t be part of any new bond.” Even if this is true, doesn’t the community get a chance to weigh in on this early in the process with updated financial data and enrollment numbers, or does only the board get that opportunity and without any data?
Community engagement in the fall around the bond will be in name only if the most controversial part of the bond -- the merger of the middle schools -- is removed. Even if there is no merger, it is important for the community to understand why the board might make that decision. With a multi-million dollar bond in the future, our community needs to see the board considering potentially creative solutions to offset expenses.
A healthy board engages with its public even when it’s hard, or perhaps especially when it’s hard. The board owes it to the community to postpone this vote until they have updated enrollment data and financials as well as opportunities for the public to participate in a robust discussion. With a significant bond proposal in the future, the community needs to trust the school board and the way it makes decisions.
Thomsen served on the HUUSD Board since its inception in 2016 through March 2021. She also served on the Act 46 Study Committee and prior to that the Waterbury-Duxbury school board.