Harwood school board vote

The Harwood Union school board is moving forward with a construction bond proposal based on the idea of closing an elementary school.

The board voted Nov. 13 to continue exploring and developing a districtwide realignment plan that includes closing Fayston Elementary School and moving all seventh- and eighth-graders — as well as Moretown’s fifth- and sixth-graders — to Crossett Brook Middle School.

The vote does not carve the plan into stone. However, the plan will be used to shape the direction of the bond proposal for school construction work that the board will craft between now and late January for presentation to voters in March.

Nonetheless, the meeting drew a standing-room-only crowd — and many others sitting on the carpet — with many people in the audience expressing opposition to any school closures.

“These are more than just schools. They are cornerstones in our community,” said Matt Henchen of Moretown. “I have a real problem with people in one community voting to close a school in another community.”

Numerous residents implored the board to maintain the status quo and not make plans to close a school in the future.

Maintaining the status quo “doesn’t mean ‘do nothing,’” said Danielle Kent of Moretown. “It means listening to your constituents.”

Leigh Michl of Fayston asked the board to consider the effect that closing Fayston Elementary will have on the town.

“These changes will impact property values and the economy,” Michl said. “These changes will reduce enrollment across the district.”

However, two people encouraged the board to move forward with the realignment plan.

“We have the ability to combine students, save money and bring people together,” said Michael Frank of Waterbury.

Jeremy Gulley — a Waitsfield resident with two children in kindergarten and fourth grade — also supported the board’s plan.

“The elementary school is not what defines a community for me, and regardless of how this plan shakes out, I’m sure my kids would get an excellent education,” Gulley said. “I would be fine with closing Waitsfield and sending my kids to Warren.”

A very specific motion

The motion approved by the board — see the graphic to learn how each board member voted — was not created on the fly, but was crafted by Ed Adrian, a lawyer hired by the board to offer advice on whether the board has the authority to close a school.

The articles of agreement governing the merger of the Harwood supervisory union into a single unified school district in 2017 state that, in the first three years of operation, a school cannot be closed without a vote of approval from townspeople where the school is located.

Adrian advised board members that, while the board can’t close a school yet, it can vote to continue to explore a plan that involves school closure.

Several board members — and members of the public — took issue with this distinction.

“Voting tonight appears to sidestep the intent of the articles of agreement,” said Jonathan Clough, a board member from Warren, a view echoed by board member Theresa Membrino of Waterbury.

“Regardless of what the lawyers say, this is about the spirit of the articles of agreement,” Membrino said.

“Finding loopholes to cut corners, is that ethical?” asked Sasha Bianchi, a Moretown resident. “This board has had trouble with the trust of the public for years. This is not helping.”

However, board vice chair Torrey Smith pushed back on the idea of maintaining the status quo as she recalled what a status-quo budget — no increase — looked like.

“The reason we are here is because last budget season, to try to keep a reasonable budget, we were looking at cutting five teachers, five interventionists, or the elementary school foreign language program,” Smith said. “When we talk about keeping the status quo, that’s what keeping the status quo look like. It’s figuring out how to sew a little tighter here and duct tape a little bit there. That’s what keeping things financially feasible in the status quo looks like, and it chips away at the opportunities our kids have.”

Bond and backlash

While the vote was a small step toward realignment, it was the result of concerted effort over the last seven months by the board, which started with nearly 30 options that were whittled down to this plan. However, in the next few months, board members will have their work cut out for them.

In addition to crafting a budget for the 2020-21 school year, the board will work on a bond plan calling for extensive renovations to Harwood Union High School and expansion of Crossett Brook Middle School. The deadline to finalize a bond proposal so it is on the ballot for town meeting is Jan. 22.

Several members of the public said they intend to vote against the bond proposal because of the board’s vote on the realignment plan.

“I cannot support your current process, and should you move forward, I will vote against the budget and against the bond, and I will encourage everyone I know to do the same,” said Cory Stephenson of Moretown.

“Should I vote against the bond?” asked Sasha Bianchi of Moretown. “I’ve never voted against education spending, but how else can I express my dissatisfaction?”

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