A federal judge has rejected an effort to give voters in the Harwood Union school district the power to influence school closures.
The decision came Friday, Jan. 31, in U.S. District Court in Burlington, where Judge William K. Sessions III considered arguments filed on behalf of the Moretown town government, Moretown resident Laura Schaller and a group called the Vermont Coalition for Community Schools. The lawsuit asked the court to compel the Harwood school board to warn a pair of petitioned articles for town meeting on March 3 that would give greater power to the electorate on how schools are used and/or closed.
The board rejected the two petitions Jan. 22. One proposed requiring that, to close a school, the district get the approval of voters where the school is located. The other would have required voter approval before substantial changes were made in how a school is used.
The petitions were a reaction to the Harwood school budget proposal for 2020-21 that would move Moretown’s fifth- and sixth-graders to other schools, and move all Harwood middle school students to Crossett Brook Middle School.
All told, the petition on school closure drew 791 signatures in the district’s six towns, 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 petition, 0.7 percent.
In his 15-page decision, Judge Sessions wrote that, to prevail, the plaintiffs had to demonstrate “irreparable harm,” and the likelihood that the lawsuit would ultimately prevail.
Ron Shems, lawyer for the plaintiffs, argued that immediate action by the court was needed.
“It needs to happen in time for town meeting because we want public participation,” Shems said after Friday’s court hearing. “More voters are going to come out at town meeting, especially during a presidential primary year, than would come out for a special meeting.”
Judge Sessions said that argument was not sufficient to warrant immediate action by the court.
“While that may be accurate, there appear to be other avenues for votes prior to the commencement of the 2020-21 school year,” Sessions wrote.
Sessions noted that the electorate had numerous options other than a court injunction, such as a special meeting, the upcoming bond vote in June, or voting down the proposed budget in March.
“These alternatives undermine plaintiffs’ claims of irreparable harm,” Sessions said.
Judge Sessions also referred to the 2018 Vermont Supreme Court case of “Skiff v. South Burlington School District” — the same case cited by Harwood attorney Nicole Mace in her opinion to the district — that states voters do not have the right to offer a petition on an issue over which they have no authority.
“The statute does not include a right to include articles for a vote over which voters may have an opinion, but ultimately do not have the power to decide,” the Supreme Court decision states.
“The court does find that the board properly viewed the proposed amendment as usurping the powers granted to school boards by the Vermont Legislature,” Sessions wrote, citing law that grants school boards broad authority to “have possession, care, control and management of the property of the school district.”
Sessions also found that the lawsuit was unlikely to succeed and that “the balance of hardships does not tip decidedly in plaintiffs’ favor, and that the plaintiffs have not demonstrated irreparable harm.”
Harwood board chair Caitlin Hollister welcomed the ruling.
“The federal court’s decision is affirming of the school board’s recent votes on the petitioned articles and in the sound legal guidance we have followed. Our voters expect us to be well versed in the details of our articles, to operate legally and responsibly, and to thoroughly review any petitions that come before us,” Hollister said. “As we discussed in the board room on Jan. 22, many board members would welcome the opportunity to discuss potential amendments to our articles of agreement that align with Vermont state statutes.”