From creating school board–deprecating websites and protesting wearing the color red to filing lawsuits and putting ads in the paper to vote down the budget, community members have found a variety of ways to voice disapproval of the school board’s plans to close and consolidate local schools. At Town Meeting on March 3, the public will vote via Australian ballot on the new school budget ($39,770,000), which calls for the consolidation of middle-schoolers at Crossett Brook. With this meeting around the corner, the school board is eager to demystify the decision-making processes that spurred on a districtwide school consolidation. On Friday, February 14, school board chair Caitlin Hollister and vice chair Torrey Smith met with The Valley Reporter and Waterbury Record to discuss everything from staff cuts and community petitions to budget and bonds. While the interview was in progress, teachers in the district were receiving reduction in force notices (RIFs) as well as reassignment notices.
Here are 10 things the board chairs want the public to know before Town Meeting.
1. The new budget does not reduce programming.
“We are not reducing programming. I can appreciate that whenever we lose a teacher, whether it’s through a RIF or a retirement, the quality of a program may change. That was one of the things that the board made really clear when we looked at these different budgets; we wanted to see budgets that didn’t affect programming,” said Hollister.
At the last board meeting, several teachers spoke to the board with concern that their special education program, HCLC, would suffer due to the planned teacher RIFs. “The HCLC is a good example,” said Smith. “At the meeting there was an implication that the program would go away because the two teachers that run the program have very low seniority. Of course, the RIFs happen according to union rules which are seniority based. It’s not that that program goes away, only that the people that staff that program are likely to change,” said Smith.
2. Now is the best time to cut staff.
In terms of pure RIFs, the school board will cut 7.8 positions as part of the middle school consolidation. “All of us are keenly aware of wanting to settle those decisions as soon as possible. While contractually the admin team is not required to make these decisions now, the most responsible thing to do is let teachers know where they stand,” said Hollister. “While we don’t want to see anyone lose their job, it’s almost hiring season. So, folks that we might unfortunately lose are going to be in the best position to look for future employment.”
3. The staffing plan is flexible.
At the last school board meeting, teachers warned that the reduction of a special educator would be illegal: The school is legally required to provide services to students with special needs.
“The staffing plan will continue to change,” said Hollister to the press. “If kids with high special needs move in, the district will hire the people to serve them.”
4. Moving fifth- and sixth-graders helps create solid jobs while saving money.
According to Smith, moving Moretown fifth- and sixth-graders to Crossett Brook benefits teachers and taxpayers exponentially more than moving seventh- and eighth-graders from Harwood alone.
“When the administrators started looking at moving seventh and eighth, there were a lot of these little half positions. But when they were looking at moving the fifth and sixth as well, suddenly they were able to collapse these little bits and bobs into basically solid jobs. And that’s quite a large difference in terms of savings between just merging the seven/eight and seven/eight plus five/six,” said Smith.
5. Moretown fifth- and sixth-graders will benefit from increased programming after the merger.
For Smith, the middle school merger means more programming opportunities for fifth- and sixth-graders, who will have more educational opportunities at a bigger school.
“When we decided to merge the fifth- and sixth-graders, it allowed us a lot of staff savings while at the same time providing more programming for those very same fifth- and sixth-graders. By bringing more kids together, we can have fewer teachers delivering the same number of, or more, opportunities. Now those same fifth- and sixth-graders will get exposure to two world languages instead of just one. They’ll be able to participate in a huge band on a weekly basis, which they just can’t do in their small schools. By combining everyone we can reduce staffing. So, yes, maybe we reduce it by 28 percent, but we are not cutting programming,” said Smith.
6. The board is prepared for the cost of the transition.
A million dollars in savings was a key factor in the board’s decision to approve a budget that called for middle school consolidation. When asked how much the board has investigated the cost of the transition, Hollister replied, “Extensively.” She listed expenses associated with the temporary classrooms. “There’s the installation costs, which is a one-time expense, and then the $75,000 yearly lease. We’ve prepared for that,” said Hollister. “We’ve looked at the specifics also. It will be attached to the building; it will be heated and air conditioned. The transition teams will decide how it’s used.”
7. The board is strategically building up the maintenance reserve fund.
One point of contention around the new budget is the fact that it calls for allocating $1.8 million to the maintenance reserve fund, a sum that some people believe should be put into preventing staff cuts or lowering the tax rate. When asked why the board keeps increasing the maintenance reserve fund, especially since they are going out for a bond in June, Hollister said, “We know from our auditor that we want to build up our maintenance reserve. We also know there’s no guarantee on our bond yet. If we bank on the bond, we are postponing some of our maintenance projects. We need to continue to take care of these campuses and don’t know how long it will take for us to pass the bond. We’re hopeful, but again we need to plan as responsibly as we can with the money we have on hand.”
Smith emphasized that the maintenance reserve fund needs to be large, given that it goes to repairing multiple campuses. “That used to be one of the biggest weaknesses of our system, that we did not have enough in the maintenance reserve. When you have seven campuses, you can pour through that fast,” said Smith.
Hollister also explained the consequences of putting surplus money into the budget. “We want to be careful that we don’t spend out our surplus to make our budget smaller at a given year because then we’re going to have to pay for that the following years. It’s one thing to use the surplus for a one-time expense; it’s another to say we’re going to use the surplus to spend down our budget this year and next year the costs are going to continue to go up like we’ve seen, and we won’t have the same kind of surplus available,” said Hollister. In other words, if the board decided to put maintenance reserve money into the budget this year, the community would feel a double hit next year as costs rise and the surplus is depleted.
However, even the money in the maintenance reserve fund is not enough to cover the $3 million addition needed at Crossett Brook to accommodate new students. The board hopes to pay for this addition with the bond.
8. People should vote for the budget.
Voters will vote on the budget via Australian ballot on March 3, 2020. Currently, a cohort of the community has demonstrated clear disapproval of the budget and has gone so far as to put ads in the newspaper telling people to vote the budget down. Hollister is crossing her fingers that the budget passes, since the consequences of it failing, according to her and Smith, are “brutal” and “dire.”
“I worry about the budget passing every year,” said Hollister. “I think every year we have people voting yes and no for different reasons. … If our budget didn’t pass, we know by statute what we would have to do. By statute, we would have to rewarn a budget. You can rewarn the same amount or you can warn a lower amount. You just have to do it seven days in advance. If that doesn’t pass, you can try again. If you don’t have a budget by the end of June, you can borrow up to 87 percent, which is dire. I really want to be able to support our schools,” said Hollister. “That would be brutal,” said Smith.
9. Voting down the budget won’t stop the merger.
At a court hearing on January 31, the school board’s attorney told plaintiffs, who sued the board for violating their right to petition government, that if they were dissatisfied with the school board’s decisions, they could express their dissatisfaction by voting the budget down. Given that this budget calls for the consolidation of middle schools, some people may believe that if the budget fails, the merger will fail too. However, according to Hollister, that is not the case.
“In any situation, you can have a protest vote. It won’t necessarily change the outcome. An example is what happened in South Burlington in 2017. Again, you can’t know why anyone voted for or against a budget. But 2017 was a time when they were changing their mascot. And the budget was voted down twice. But they eventually passed a budget and they did not go back to their rebel mascot. A protest vote may send a message; it may not change an outcome,” said Hollister, implying that if the budget is voted down, the board will simply present another budget until it is approved.
“The merger changes that we are talking about are not contingent on the budget passing. With the transition teams happening, with families expecting changes in where their children are going next year, with staff expecting it, with this work underway and with the majority of the board voting for it. I expect it to continue,” said Hollister.
10. The board will consider new petitions to change the Articles of Agreement.
When the Vermont Coalition of Community Schools petitioned to change the Articles of Agreement so that the public could be included in votes regarding school closures, the board denied those petitions because the definition of school closure was “too broad.” When asked if the board would accept another petition with a new definition of school closure, Hollister said, “Indeed.”
However, Hollister made it clear that the board would not accept a petition to change the Articles of Agreement without legal consultation. “When we were in court around the petitions, the judge asked our legal counsel: Would you accept a petition for 6E that didn’t include this last petition? And our lawyer said, ‘We would advise our client to accept this petition.’ The board is not against petitioned articles. We would consider anything that comes to us with signatures. We are going to consider it, we’re going to do our due diligence, we’re going to be thorough, we are going to ask for legal advice, because our Articles of Agreement are important,” said Hollister.