A group of Moretown residents has sued the Harwood Union school board for rejecting a pair of petitions aimed at changing the district’s governing articles, in an effort to stave off closure of Moretown Elementary School.
The lawsuit asks the court to force the board to include their petitions on the Town Meeting Day agenda and ballot. It called the board’s rejection “preordained” and “legally unfounded.”
A hearing on the lawsuit is scheduled Friday, Jan. 31, in Washington County Civil Court in Montpelier.
“The (Harwood) board’s decision to exclude the petitions from its annual meeting warning and ballot is part of its pattern of behavior to avoid public input and scrutiny,” the suit alleges.
The suit — filed by Montpelier attorney Ron Shems on behalf of the Moretown town government, the Vermont Coalition for Community Schools and Moretown resident Laura Schaller — was entered last Friday in the Washington County court. The plaintiffs want a court order forcing the board to include their proposals at town meeting.
The Vermont Coalition for Community Schools is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to protect schools within the Harwood district from closing, and to raise money for lawsuits like this one. Numerous residents with children attending Moretown Elementary School and Harwood Middle School are part of the group, including Schaller, who has kids in both schools.
The lawsuit states that the Harwood district “considered closure of the Moretown Elementary School in a number of contexts.” Those include “a so-called ‘white paper’” published in 2017 by Superintendent Brigid Nease; “several school configuration scenarios” proposed over the past two years; and a “repurposing” of the school to serve as a regional preschool and the district’s administrative offices.
The lawsuit notes that the school board voted Jan. 8 to move grades five and six from Moretown to Crossett Brook Middle School in Duxbury, just over the town line shared with Waterbury, but is not moving grades five and six from other schools. It contends the school board “never presented a rationale, studies or objective data” supporting closure or reconfiguration.
Harwood Union Middle and Fayston Elementary schools have also been on the school district’s chopping block at one point or another over the past year. The lawsuit also takes issue with that, claiming that the school board has gone so far as to say that Harwood Union Middle School isn’t even a school. As for Fayston, the lawsuit claims the school board has essentially worked to budget the elementary school out of existence.
States the lawsuit, “The (Harwood board) has and continues to contort common-sense meanings by pursuing school closure under the guise of school configuration, the budget process, or claiming that a school is not a school in order to avoid the public input required” by the articles of agreement.
Moretown gets less
The lawsuit says the “shifting and unfounded plans” for Moretown Elementary are “destabilizing and a significant concern for Moretown and its residents.”
The plaintiffs argue Moretown Elementary School plays an integral role in the town, but the school board never even visited the town or the school in an official capacity.
That role includes the school’s location next to town offices, recreation fields, forest “and other village amenities”; its use as a venue for public meetings, elections and town events; and its role as an economic driver for the town. The suit asserts that more than 50 new homes have been permitted in Moretown over the past five years, “many for families with young children drawn to Moretown in large part by its school.”
The Moretown Select Board invited the school board to hold a public meeting in town, meet with the board and tour the school, the lawsuit claims, but “the (Harwood) board has consistently ignored these several invitations and requests. It has never held a public meeting in Moretown, and never visited the school.”
Even the school board’s own representative from Moretown has received the cold shoulder from her colleagues, the lawsuit claims. Kristen Rodgers was elected to the school board last year.
“She has since been subject to hostile, abusive and demeaning behavior from the (Harwood) board,” states the suit.