(This letter was sent to HUUSD Board chair Christine Sullivan on August 16, 2018.)
Dear Chairwoman Sullivan,
Please accept this letter as formal notification of my immediate resignation from the Harwood Unified Union School District (HUUSD) Board. I would like to thank Superintendent Brigid Nease, director of finance and operations Michelle Baker, and all of the district administrators for their work. While I have vigorously opposed certain decisions, I am confident that my critiques at the board table have been about the work (not the people behind it), and I am proud of that fact. Educating our children is one of the hardest and most important jobs in our communities, and I have a great collegial respect for the entire HUUSD staff. When referring to the writing revision process, author Neil Gamain said, “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right.”
Make no mistake, something is definitely wrong with the HUUSD Board. Under the guise of being trustees for the entire district, and under the guise of equity-based decisions, the board has been blinded by the collective and forgotten about the individuals impacted most by the choices being made: the students – especially the most vulnerable students. I tried to ask questions, raise concerns and plead for caution. But you refuse to change. When former board members spoke out, you refused to see it. When a former administrator spoke out, you refused to see. When community members speak out, you refuse to see it. The majority of the board almost always joins you. I sometimes joined that majority, wrongly conforming to a culture that’s unable to accept discourse or ideas that don’t mesh with your agenda or plans.
In the words of Thomas Jefferson’s character from the hit Broadway musical “Hamilton,” “If there’s a fire you’re trying to douse, you can’t put it out from inside the house.” And so that is why I must become a member of the community. If I remained a member of the board, I would be complicit in a process that I do not believe in. It’s important for the community at large to understand the current process – or lack thereof – that is underway with the goal to bring a Harwood renovation bond to voters in May of 2019. At the last board meeting, the majority of the board accepted a recommendation to hire ReArch Company of South Burlington to serve as a construction manager for the Harwood bond exploration. ReArch presented the board with cost estimates and timetables for the construction project, and the majority of the board enthusiastically touted the potential cost savings and guaranteed timetables and pricing. But there was a glaring problem: Plans for the project haven’t been accepted yet. In fact, TruexCullins, the design firm the board hired, hasn’t even presented them to the board. Guaranteed timetables without floor plans, let alone blueprints? It’s a sham!
I don’t say this to disparage ReArch, a company who is clearly just trying to gain a job; I say this to tell you and the board in no uncertain terms to wake up! Then there is the rushed nature of the project and lack of community engagement. When dozens of community members come to board meetings to share concerns, board members often say that we aren’t hearing from enough voices, yet when the board partnered with TruexCullins to elicit community opinions about the Harwood Middle School, only two people from each town were allowed to attend. When I raised concerns about the board’s commitment to the community, I was quickly rebuked as a lone wolf. I was told that the board does indeed care about the community and that the Truex event should be proof of that. Dozens is too few, but 12 is more than enough? The math doesn’t add up. The Harwood Unified Union School District Board can’t have it both ways. You need to decide, and you need to decide soon: Are the upcoming community engagement events with consultants for show only, or do you actually care about what the parents and taxpayers in this district think? If it’s the latter, then you are on the wrong path. When community engagement consultant Sue McCormack first appeared before the board’s Community Engagement Working Group last spring, she said she would recommend pausing all discussions on district redesign in favor of a robust series of community conversations. The board didn’t listen. The Harwood bond is redesign by a different name. If the middle school changes, it will have generational ripple effects in our communities. Schools could close, educators could lose jobs and students could suffer.
The board feigns pause while quietly plowing ahead, before community engagement, before establishing criteria, before deciding on metrics and before doing any research. Please don’t forget that education is a serious field with experts and researchers and real data. As a librarian, I've been researching these issues through my subscription databases and journals, and I know your favorite hometown librarian would be happy to point you in the direction of the relevant studies. To start, I’d recommend resources on school consolidation from the Rural School and Community Trust, an organization that has compiled a great deal of evidence about the detrimental effects of public school mergers and closings in the 1980s, '90s, and 2000s, with such themes as rural busing, the unintended economic collapse of small towns, and the emotional toll that such events have on young children.
Which brings me back to our most vulnerable students. Students with emotional or physical disabilities, low-income students, students from marginalized backgrounds; these are the students the board needs to plan for. The last student off the bus on the farthest rural road on the darkest winter day is just as important as the soccer star who might have a better experience on a unified middle school team.
Most educators understand this as universal design: creating a system that moves beyond equality and equity and toward a complete social justice in all facets of all programs. The board clearly doesn’t have the same understanding, instead bickering over averages and ratios and sharing resources.
The board does not even set the tax rate for the district. That happens in the back rooms of the State House long after Town Meeting Day.
So, I need to ask, what is your purpose? And I’m not talking about a set of subjective roles and responsibilities developed by a lobbying organization. I’m talking about your real purpose. What is the purpose of the board?
If you are not prepared to take the steps necessary to truly reckon with that question, then I recommend that you step down as chair and make way for someone who is.
Langella lives in Moretown and has served on the HUUSD Board since it was created in 2016.