The Harwood Union school board will not allow a town meeting vote to require voter approval for closing any school in the district.
Board members voted Jan. 22 not to accept petitions to place two proposals on the town meeting ballot. The petitions seek to amend the agreement that governed the merger of the six Harwood towns into a single school district in 2017. One would require voter approval before closing any school in their town; the other would require similar approval for reconfiguring a school’s grade structure.
Under the agreement, after four years of operation, the board has the authority to close or reconfigure a school.
Before the meeting, the board received legal guidance that the school board, not voters, has the power to close or reconfigure schools.
“Given the broad authority that the Vermont Legislature has given to school boards to adopt policy and manage the buildings — including their use, students, staffing and programming — the content of these petitions is not within the authority of the voters, and so the school board is not obligated to warn them,” said Nicole Mace, an attorney with McNeil, Leddy and Sheahan, who summarized her five-page opinion to the board.
“So, if we warned these petitions, we would be eroding the board’s ability to govern the district?” asked Rosemarie White of Warren.
The legal opinion drew plenty of criticism from the public, including Ron Shems, town attorney for Moretown.
“Moretown is distressed about grades five and six being removed from the school and is now taking a very hard look at withdrawing from the district. Moretown is also looking at other remedies it could have,” Shems said.
“I reviewed the legal opinion given by your lawyer and I disagree with it. The opinion does correctly state that the petition has to be within the purview of the electorate, and I think that’s the case here. The electorate approved the articles and the electorate can take the articles away.
“The opinion incorrectly states that the articles intrude on policy and make policy judgments. The articles require process, not policy at all,” Shems said.
On Friday, Shems filed a lawsuit against the district, seeking to force a vote on the petitioned amendments.
“Placing the articles on the warning wouldn’t decide the issue,” said board member Gabriel Gilman of Moretown. “It would submit the question to the judgment of all the voters in the whole district and everyone within it. I don’t understand how that would be anti-democratic.”
The petitions follow a board decision in November to continue exploring a plan to close Fayston Elementary, move fifth and sixth grades from Moretown Elementary to Crossett Brook Middle School, and relocate Harwood’s middle-school pupils to Crossett Brook.
On Jan. 15, the board adopted a budget that would make the last two changes this fall.
All told, the petition governing school closure garnered 791 signatures across the district’s six towns, or 7 percent of the 11,233 registered voters. However, support varied from one town to the next. In Fayston, the petition drew 242 signatures, 19.4 percent of the town’s 1,247 registered voters. In Waterbury, only 30 of the town’s 4,427 voters signed the petititon, 0.7 percent.
Board member Kristen Rodgers of Moretown said the petitions “should be a wakeup call to the board, that we are not doing something right and we’ve angered a huge population of our community. I think the right thing to do would be to warn these (articles).”
John Hoogenboom, a member of the Moretown Select Board, implored the board to warn the petitioned articles.
“Thirty-one years on the Moretown Select Board, and we’ve had petitions submitted before and we have always honored them,” Hoogenboom said. “It’s the right thing to do. Never mind what’s legal. It’s about what’s right. Leave it up to the voters.”
Moretown resident Matt Henchen said that, when voters approved the district merger in 2017, many didn’t know they were giving the board the authority to close a school, and said voter approval of the merger should not be seen as an endorsement to give the board so much authority.
“They voted for it because they felt like they had no choice,” Henchen said.
“I don’t think this is a good petition. I think it overreaches,” said board vice chair Torrey Smith of Duxbury. “Having one town voting on something that affects the whole district, that’s problematic. I thought we’re supposed to be working together here.”
Disclosure: Reporter Josh O’Gorman once worked for Nicole Mace at the Vermont School Boards Association.