On the first Tuesday in March, voters in four of the six towns within the Harwood school district will head to the polls to elect representatives to the board.
In Moretown, Lisa Mason and W. Chris Noyes face off for a single seat on the board, while Waterbury voters will decide a contested race between Michael Frank and Kelley Hackett. In Waitsfield, incumbent Christine Sullivan is running unopposed, and in Duxbury nobody declared his or her intent to fill the seat being vacated by Garrett MacCurtain.
The Waterbury Record sent out a questionnaire to each of the candidates seeking their thoughts on some of the most important issues facing the district. In lieu of answering questions, Sullivan offered a statement, which is included at the end of this story.
Below, are the responses the paper received.
Why are running for the Harwood board?
Frank: I am running for school board because I want the best possible education for our children while remaining fiscally responsible. With rising costs and a shrinking student population I am willing to make those difficult decisions that are in the best interest of the students and residents of our community.
Hackett: For our schools to grow and thrive, I believe that we need to have clear intentions, thought-out plans that benefit our entire community, and transparent, strong communications.
Mason: I see a need for a strong voice coming from Moretown with a vision for a future that involves thriving small schools, engaged communities and long-term growth and vitality.
Noyes: I have young kids in the school district and want what is best for their education. I have various business interests within our district that are impacted by school spending decisions. The board needs members who can empathize with the needs of children and taxpayers.
Do you support moving middle school students from Harwood to Crossett Brook?
Frank: Yes, I believe that bringing our students together earlier is the correct decision. It isn’t just the fiscally responsible decision, it is the best decision for the students.
Hackett: While I support merging the middle schools for the many benefits and opportunities that it would provide for our students, I find the short timeline for this transition to happen this fall rushed and disorganized. I would prefer the district take the next year to allow time to prepare for such a significant change. However, if elected, and if the plan remains in place, I will do my best to ensure that all stakeholders are at the table to make the shift successfully.
Mason: I do not support the decision to move them next year. I have been to three board meetings where middle school teachers from both schools have stood to explain why this move, on this timeline, is not in the best interest of the students. I do not believe a comprehensive plan was created before decisions were made, leaving us vulnerable to unexpected outcomes.
Noyes: I support larger peer groups (not class size) as students progress though their education. Starting with a smaller, more intimate setting during early years of education, progressing to larger more diverse groups. This may mean Harwood students moving to Crossett Brook or vice versa. I didn’t have a seat at the table for this decision but feel it is a step in the right direction.
Do you support moving fifth- and sixth-graders out of Moretown Elementary?
Frank: Yes I do. Crossett Brook Middle School borders Moretown and many students live very close to the school. This, coupled with combining 7/8 grades will save approximately $700,000 the first year and over $900,000 in future years while increasing access to educational programing.
Hackett: I am not opposed to moving the Moretown 5/6th graders, but I am curious to learn more about why this is a preferred plan for students.
Mason: No. They have had the opportunity to choose Crossett Brook since the beginning of school choice, and have largely chosen to stay in their K-6 model. This proposal and decision seemed rushed and cavalier, being justified by small budget savings rather than student interests.
Noyes: I support larger peer groups (not class size). My reservation with this decision is the speed in which I feel it was decided. More input from various stakeholders would have been my preference. Ultimately, children are resilient and I feel a Crossett Brook experience can offer a more robust education; i.e., music/language/athletics/etc., than can be offered at Moretown simply due to the number of kids being served.
Do you support the closure of Fayston Elementary?
Frank: Yes. This year it costs $29,035 per student to educate the 60 students at Fayston Elementary, while 4 miles down the road it costs $19,381 per student.
Hackett: I feel it is necessary to understand all the advantages and disadvantages of a proposed closure to be sure it is in the best interests of the students and the community.
Mason: Not at this time. Diverse small school opportunities are a large reason new residents choose to settle in the Mad River Valley.
Noyes: At what point is a school too small to meet the social and emotional needs of its students? This is a discussion that needs to be had with regards to Fayston. It wasn’t long ago Duxbury voters faced a similar question.
Is now the right time to seek approval for a construction bond?
Frank: Yes. Harwood is in need of repair. The bond has been put off for years and now is the right time to go forward. At Crossett Brook Middle School the operational savings will offset the cost of the needed construction. It is the right decision for our children.
Hackett: Yes for both the pressing needs at our high school and to expand Crossett Brook Middle School. However, I would prefer to complete middle school construction, then move students.
Mason: I am OK with the timeline. I do think that the bond should be secured before there is a plan to move any students to temporary classrooms.
Noyes: Finalizing school reconfiguration should happen before voters are asked to support a bond.
Should teachers have a greater say in school reconfiguration?
Frank: Teachers should have a voice. I welcome dialogue that is comprehensive, fiscally responsible, and solution-focused that is aimed at providing students with the best opportunity to succeed.
Hackett: It is imperative that teachers have a voice at the table in school reconfiguration. They know their students best and they are the catalyst to the success of a redesign.
Mason: Absolutely. There is no one that understands the needs of the students and what determines their success better than our teachers. Their voice is essential in developing a plan that will best serve our students.
Noyes: Teachers should definitely have a seat at the table when it comes to school reconfiguration.
What other issues would you like to address?
Frank: Please vote yes on the school budget. Some are urging people to vote no in hopes that the next budget will be larger, not smaller. Voting yes is the fiscally responsible decision.
Hackett: I would like to shift the conversation away from buildings and focus on retaining students and ensuring that we are offering high-quality programming and education for our children.
Mason: I understand we have a real challenge of declining enrollment. I don’t think the board or administration has a clear understanding of why our students are leaving, or not coming in the first place. I would much rather deep dive into this challenge and develop plans to address the root causes and reverse the trend, rather than closing and consolidating, leaving little room for future growth. We have a greater vision for our district, and I want a plan that reflects where we want to go.
Noyes: Any citizen concerns brought before the board.
Statement from Christine Sullivan, running unopposed:
I am running for re-election to the HUUSD Board for the opportunity to help bring to fruition projects currently underway in our district, especially the Harwood bond. My experience with hiring, facilities and teacher and support staff negotiations are an asset. I also offer continuity that would be beneficial to oversight and budgeting.
I support redistricting Valley 7th/8th graders and Moretown 5th/6th graders to Crossett Brook. This represents a commonsense approach to some of the challenges our district faces with equity, quality, enrollment and affordability.
That we can provide additional and richer programming opportunities for these students and find budget reductions that translate into tax savings for our community makes this a rare opportunity. I believe the board should continue to study and consider the closure of Fayston Elementary.
No one wants to close a school, but we need to honestly look at whether a micro-school with consistent grade cohorts of ten or fewer students best serves their needs, and whether continuing to devote an inordinate amount of district financial resources to that school’s operation is in the best interests of all Harwood district students.
Actions like these can yield savings that offset the cost of a bond to address infrastructure needs at our campuses, mainly Harwood. The environment in which our children learn influences their overall experience. The quality of our facilities should speak to our students, and the broader community, about the value we place on their education.