Harwood school board members and school officials have their work cut out for them.
In the coming months, they will tackle a trio of issues, each of which would be challenging on its own, but together will test the abilities and the limits of people responsible making the hard decisions.
First and foremost, there was the definitive defeat of the proposed school budget by nearly 800 votes last week. It was the first budget defeat for the unified school district since its creation in 2017.
Second, board members — three of whom are new to the board — will have to decide whether to continue down the path of school district reconfiguration. That path has produced months of contentious public meetings, with many parents arguing against merging all middle school students at Crossett Brook and plans to turn Moretown Elementary into a K-4 school.
On top of all of that, board members plan to propose a construction bond ranging from $25 million to $46 million for voter approval in less than 90 days.
“I think we can anticipate some long nights in the Harwood library. It’s not going to get any easier, and we’re going to have to prioritize,” said board chair Caitlin Hollister. “There are a lot of people who want to slow down, and there are others who think we’re not moving fast enough.”
Among the first items of business for the first board meeting since the budget defeat — at 6 tonight in the Harwood library — will be electing the school board chair for the upcoming year.
“I am certainly willing to stay on,” Hollister said, “but like everything, it’s up to the board.”
Board members will have to decide what to do about the budget — when to offer a proposal for voters, and for how much. The $39.4 million budget that voters rejected would have been a 3 percent increase from current spending.
In crafting a new proposal, board members will have to consider the factors that led to its defeat in the first place.
Leading up to the vote, a vocal group of people said they would vote against the budget as a way to protest recent decisions by the board, including but not limited to:
• Planning to close Fayston Elementary, as well as the aforementioned changes to Crossett Brook and Moretown Elementary.
• Voting to freeze intradistrict choice for some students, only to come back and reverse that decision at the next meeting.
• Proposing a budget that called for the changes to be made this fall at Crossett Brook and Moretown.
• Refusing to accept a pair of petitioned articles that would have given voters a greater voice in how and when schools are closed.
Hollister noted that in 2019, 45 percent of voters opposed the budget, even without the controversial issues listed above.
“It’s hard to speculate, in terms of why thousands of people voted,” Hollister said. “We know that 45 percent of our voters rejected the budget last year, and did so without any major changes.
“But, yes, we heard from people who would be making a protest vote, and there was a lot of confusion about what a no vote would mean, and when there is confusion, people tend to vote no. I have to imagine that some of those votes were controversies over change colliding with the budget vote.”
Of important note is the sheer number of people who cast votes this year.
In 2019, 1,929 voters cast ballots, about 17 percent of the 11,233 registered voters across the six towns in the district.
This year, 5,302 voters cast a ballot, a turnout of about 47 percent. At least some of that turnout can be attributed to the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, but there was also no shortage of people who wrote letters, posted online and bought advertisements calling for a budget defeat.
“I think the folks that opposed the merger would like to believe that every no vote can be attributed to the dissatisfaction with the merger, but prior history would indicate that people will vote no because they think the budget is too high and think their tax rates are too high,” said Superintendent Brigid Nease.
Nease and Hollister said it will take some time to decide on a new budget proposal.
“I’ve never heard of a defeated budget that was later passed when the budget is higher,” said Nease, who suggested the next vote would likely come in mid-to-late April.
“I wouldn’t expect major decisions or clarity within the next week,” Hollister said.
Bond proposal, merger plans
While it’s unclear what specifically led to the budget defeat — higher taxes, dissatisfaction with proposed changes in the district, or a combination of the two — it is clear that those same factors also could affect voter support for a construction bond.
The board has been talking about major upgrades at Harwood Union High School, which opened more than 50 years ago.
The board has set a date of June 9 to ask voters to approve the construction plan, and it’s unclear if there will be any shift in voter sentiment in the next 89 days.
Last week, Harwood was among nine Vermont districts where budgets were defeated. In at least two cases — South Burlington and the Slate Valley School District in western Rutland County — those budget defeats were accompanied by rejection of construction proposals.
Before board members decide on a construction proposal, they will have to decide if they wish to continue on the same path.
“The board will have to decide if they’re going to go forward with the merger plans,” Nease said.
“I have to believe we will continue on that course,” Hollister said. “I think that’s a question on so many board members’ minds — how do we go forward with this?”
Board members will also decide if and how to respond to voters in Fayston and Moretown, who — on Town Meeting Day — held nonbinding votes of “no confidence” in Nease and called on her to resign.
“I was surprised by that. I was saddened by that,” Nease said. “I believe that any person would hope that they have a fair evaluation process and that the evaluation process looks at the work that they’ve done, the accomplishments they’ve made and the good deeds they have done.
“I have no intentions of resigning.”