Welcome back to school, friends and neighbors!
As a retired school board veteran and proud parent of two children who have gone through our Harwood Union preK-12 schools, I write to share reflections on where our school district has been and where we ought to go.
On various local media outlets, we imbibe (mis)information about the current state of affairs with our local schools and our board. I suggest that thoughtful and forward-thinking citizens adopt a three-pronged approach moving forward.
1. Honor our shared history.
In 2016, district voters overwhelmingly supported board consolidation. We created a new governing body to make decisions on behalf of all preK-12 students, moving from board representatives focused on the interests of a single school/town to board trustees charged with considering the preK-12 district as a whole.
Our decision to consolidate governance created a preK-12 system focused on the educational needs of all our children. It brought possibilities like additional programming and opportunities for sharing resources, merging middle schools, and reducing Harwood bond expenses. All property taxpayers received immediate relief, in part due to five years of tax rate discounts.
We all love our local elementary schools. Let’s remember the history of each, and all that we inherited through consolidation.
• Warren: Decades of deferred maintenance on the Warren school facility necessitated a $2.55 million bond, in addition to work currently being addressed through a capital improvement plan. The cost of both are spread across our Harwood district instead, ensuring a lower and more stable local tax rate.
• Fayston: The year before merger took effect, enrollment had dipped to 86 students from a historic high of 115. Resulting increases in per-pupil expenditures and the local tax rate threatened programming. The first years of merger brought the benefit of a 10- to 15-cent reduction in the local tax rate.
• Moretown: Enrollment had declined over nine consecutive years, dipping below 100 students. Moretown had the district’s highest per-pupil expenditure and highest tax rate. Attempts to reduce both threatened programming and led to implementation of less-than-ideal classroom configurations.
Additionally, Moretown had an operating deficit and bonded debt which is now spread across our entire district. Through the merger, Moretown citizens received the benefit of an 18-cent reduction in the tax rate.
• Waitsfield: Reductions in enrollment had led to smaller cohort and class sizes, and unpredictable fluctuations in the tax rate. Additionally, maintenance projects, technology upgrades and contributions to contingency funds were deferred in attempts to stabilize the tax rate. Merger brought an 11- to 15-cent reduction in the tax rate.
• Waterbury/Duxbury: Long-term debt associated with Thatcher Brook Primary School limited annual spending on programming, leaving it the lone school without foreign languages. With the merger, both Duxbury and Waterbury received a roughly 5-cent reduction in local tax rates.
Now, three years later, we must move forward with strategic decisions to preserve and enhance preK-12 programs across the district, plan for our collective future, and save district taxpayers money.
After several years of focus, informed work, and careful study of all options by our district leadership team and board trustees, it’s clear that closing our Fayston school and merging our two middle schools makes the most sense — pedagogically, fiscally, and programmatically.
2. Trust the process.
I urge all of our elected school board trustees to honor the “round the table” board process. As trustees, please consider the needs of every student in our entire preK-12 district.
Our families are already voting with their feet — so please, get out in front of these challenges when it most makes a difference. It is apparent to everyone awake and paying attention that we need strategic action; something needs to be done.
Let’s all focus on what is best for our kids. The education they receive is not linked to a specific building, but to the educators and school communities responsible for delivering it. Please review the above list of reasons why we merged and the benefits it has brought over the past few years.
It is vital that we listen and consider all viewpoints, not just those that are loudest or have a vested interest in a specific outcome. I ask that you consider our shared history, the data our board and district leadership are using to inform strategic decisions, and the realistic options before us in forming strategy for a successful course of action.
I know we are all busy. Please stay up to date on emerging information, and participate in engagement opportunities. During my Harwood board tenure, I sometimes witnessed a loud vocal minority derail board process and initiatives. Dissent and debate are vital, and we also must honor both the process and the good work done to date.
3. Speak up.
Every time I speak publicly on this matter, I hear from friends and neighbors across our district. A few disagree with me. Most say “Right on,” but don’t have the time, energy, wherewithal, desire, or courage to speak up in support of systemic change. I encourage all of you who have maintained silence, please, speak up.
Let’s do what’s best for all our students, schools, communities and taxpayers. Closing our Fayston school will be painful in the short term, but will open up more opportunities for our kids and families. Merging our two middle schools will create new and more equitable program opportunities for seventh- and eighth-graders, and save our taxpayers money.
Change is difficult, but inevitable. Collaborating as a district allows us to focus on positive outcomes. The time for strategic school redesign is now: for our kids, our families, our schools, and our communities.
Rob Williams lives in Waitsfield. Email letters to firstname.lastname@example.org.