I have decided that I will not run for re-election as Waterbury member of the Harwood Union school board in March, and wanted to take an opportunity to thank everyone who has engaged with me over the past five years about the complex and difficult issues facing our board and our schools.
Although I know not everyone always agrees with me, I hope it is clear that I have taken my role very seriously and endeavored to do what is best for our students, schools and communities. As I prepare to step down, I would like to share some thoughts for the next school board candidates and the community that will vote for them.
I have struggled mightily to find the right balance between challenging assumptions and supporting a specific path forward for our district.
Any chosen path will have trade-offs, but to be successful it needs to be supported by the board, the administration, and the majority of the community. Even the best plan will fail if it is continually under assault.
So once a path is decided, I hope that no one works actively to undermine the work, even if they have misgivings. That said, we owe our neighbors the respect of publicly acknowledging their misgivings and justifying why we believe the path we have chosen is best despite those concerns.
Which leads me to the other side of the balance: Ensuring that we have found the best path by challenging assumptions and getting details.
I know I have gained a reputation on the board for asking questions that some may think stalls the work. I realize others may have already decided the path they prefer while I continue to ask for more details. I don’t believe our path is a foregone conclusion. We will know we are there when any community member who takes an interest will be able to know what the board knows, understand the specific costs and savings associated with a proposed plan, and even if they don’t agree with the path, feels that the decision-making has been reasoned and supported by facts, not emotions.
It is clear we are still developing what we know to be facts. On two of the biggest decisions our district is facing right now, information has evolved and, in some cases, continues to shift, making decision-making especially challenging.
The first example is related to the savings associated with closing a school. When I first joined the merged board four years ago, I thought that even though I was not anxious to close any of our great schools, I might have to vote to do so because it would likely save us a few million dollars.
It turns out my assumption was wrong. The net savings of closing the Fayston Elementary School discussed in recent months are likely less than $500,000. I believe the trade-offs that accompany that decision are too great for such savings, but more to my point right now, I am concerned that other board members are working from a different number than the one I just quoted. I had to work it out myself from the data provided only recently in October.
Example 2: Last year, the board received a “back-of-the-napkin” estimate of approximately $1 million in savings that would come from merging the seventh- and eighth-graders into one school. The estimate was based on $800,000 in staff cuts. In the fall, we learned that, while we would be able to cut some staff positions, we would likely need to add others and also invest in more building space. Based on information I have seen, I estimate that the net savings of combining two middle schools would be between zero and $500,000 (depending on your appetite for large class sizes, non-core classes and cramped quarters).
Imagine my surprise when at the Jan. 8 meeting the figure of $1.2 million was stated multiple times as the projected savings, and new documents from Jan. 10 show about $1 million in operational savings. Granted that $1 million is not a net number, but it is still surprising. I look forward to learning more.
My point in highlighting these examples is not to point the finger at what others may believe, or to argue that my number is right, but rather to assert that it is important to challenge assumptions and get details — and then agree on one set of facts that stays constant.
To that end, I encourage the board to develop plans, including detailed costs and savings, and then, once ensuring that those projected net numbers will not change significantly, make them available to the public. I also think it’s critical that we put any required investments in front of voters and ensure they will fund our proposed path before we take it.
I hope that the next Waterbury board member, and the community that votes for them, will consider the value of challenging assumptions and getting details to ensure that the path forward is the right one. Honestly, being the question-asker is often an uncomfortable role to play, but I believe it is an essential one.
Maureen McCracken is a board member who lives in Waterbury with her husband Reed and two high schoolers, Kate and Grant.