The Harwood Union school board has tentatively proposed a 2.1 percent budget increase for the 2020-21 school year, and has once again reversed itself on sending all seventh- and eighth-graders to Crossett Brook Middle School in 2020.
The board’s proposal of $39,427,342 is $826,480 higher than the current budget of $38,600,862.
The board also decided to move all Harwood Middle School seventh- and eighth-graders to Crossett Brook, and reconfigure Moretown Elementary from a K-6 school to a K-4 school.
The vote came Jan. 15 after nearly two hours of discussion and opposition from numerous teachers and residents.
Among them was Kelsey Burnell, a Moretown resident and a middle school teacher at Crossett Brook, who read a letter she and 27 fellow teachers signed in opposition to moving the Harwood students to Crossett Brook.
Angela Selvaggio, a Fayston resident and Harwood middle school teacher, read a nearly identical letter, signed by 15 teachers at the school.
Both letters asked board members to delay the move until they first create an itemized budget of how much it will cost, and where the funding will come from.
In this case, “funding” means voter approval of a bond to finance repairs and additions to schools throughout the district. In April, the board established a timeline that would have included a bond vote in March. However, after being consumed with the creation of a districtwide realignment plan — which was approved in November and includes the middle school merger, the closure of Fayston Elementary and eliminating fifth and sixth grades at Moretown Elementary — the board pushed out the date of the bond vote to June 9.
“What happens if the bond fails and the merger takes place?” asked Wendy Moore, an eighth-grade science teacher at Harwood Middle. “Is there a contingency plan in place?”
Merger savings, merger costs
School administrators offered a breakdown of the $1,015,000 savings that could be realized with the changes at Harwood Middle and Moretown Elementary schools, the majority coming from a net reduction of 14 full-time jobs:
• Four seventh- and eighth-grade teachers, saving $300,000.
• Two fifth- and sixth-grade teachers, saving $150,000.
• Two special educators, saving $150,000.
• One administrator, saving $110,000.
Board member Gabriel Gilman of Moretown suggested that the cost-savings figure should take into account the cost of moving Harwood and Moretown students to Crossett Brook.
The moves are projected to result in larger classes, with 21-22 students in fifth grade, 22-23 in sixth, 21-22 in seventh, and 25 in eighth grade. Vermont’s education quality standards advise class sizes of no more than 25 students for grades five through eight.
To make space, the district is looking at leasing a four-classroom annex at a first-year cost of $314,158 — $74,148 to lease the structure, $78,000 in sitework and $75,000 to build a corridor connecting the annex to the main building.
Subtracting the cost of the portable classrooms, the merger is projected to save $700,842.
While the vast majority of teachers at Crossett Brook and Harwood appear to oppose the merger, administrators unanimously support the move, said Superintendent Brigid Nease.
“We hear the concerns about timing, and we think that we can and we would — especially with the great staff we have — we will be able to accomplish that in six months.” Nease said. “We understand that you may not take our recommendation, but that is our recommendation.”
Board member Theresa Membrino of Fayston said that, “overwhelmingly, every teacher in the building doesn’t want to see this happen,” Membrino said.
Waterbury Select Board
The Harwood budget vote came two days after the Waterbury Select Board spent an hour discussing how the school budget affects the municipal budget.
After the meeting, the Waterbury board sent a letter to the Harwood board, saying it did not support any of the six school budget options, with increases ranging from 1.6 percent to 4.9 percent.
“Local select boards, including our board in Waterbury, often wonder how we can raise enough revenue to address issues and provide services that that are the responsibility of cities and town when a common perception is that education spending takes up too much of the available tax resources,” the letter reads. “However, as we struggle to develop our own budget, trying at the same time to keep it affordable, we cannot presume to recommend any one of the six variations of the base budget you are considering.”
The Waterbury Select Board has not yet set its proposed budget, but it is looking at proposed municipal tax rates that range from 51 cents to 55 cents for every $100 of property value.
Under the proposed Harwood school budget, Waterbury’s education tax rate will be $1.75 for every $100 of property value.
District plan, decision reversal
The Harwood board spent much of 2019 creating a districtwide plan; in November, it approved a plan to merge Harwood seventh- and eighth-graders to Crossett Brook, change Moretown Elementary to a K-4 school and close Fayston Elementary.
The plan does not include an implementation date, and one month later, the board rejected a proposal to move the Harwood students to Crossett Brook this fall.
Some board members and residents were upset that the move was once again on the table.
“When I see something that has been voted down back on the table, it makes me frustrated and upset,” said Valerie Welter of Fayston. “It leads me to question the competence of the administration.”
“This feels like a shortcircuiting of that process, especially throwing the fifth and sixth grade back into the mix as well,” said board member Tim Jones of Fayston.
“We’re basically redesigning the district, but we are doing it without the plan we said we would make,” said board member Maureen McCracken of Waterbury.
However, several board members pushed back on the idea there’s no plan.
“I don’t think it’s fair to say we don’t have a plan to move five, six, seventh and eighth because we voted on a plan to do that,” said board member Alexandra Thomsen of Waterbury. “There’s no better public referendum than a budget vote, so if the public doesn’t like this budget, they can not vote for the budget.”
“I’ve been frustrated by the repetitive votes, and we’ve heard the same arguments so many times,” said board member Jonathan Clough of Warren. “As far as seeing the budget as a referendum, if the budget is voted down, would we come back with a higher budget? Has that ever happened?”
As this story goes to press, the Harwood board is meeting to sign the warning for the budget. Whether the board goes with the budget it approved Jan. 15 or reopens the discussion on mergers and budget is anyone’s guess.