An open letter to residents of the six-town Harwood Union school district:

We are writing to ask you to vote in support of the two items that will be on the Harwood ballot this year. Our board has worked to develop a budget that ensures high-quality education for our students and makes responsible use of your tax dollars.

• The first item on the ballot will be to approve a district budget for fiscal year 2021 in the amount of $39,772,342, which represents an equalized tax rate of $1.65 per $100 of property value. 

You may have read about budget pressures faced by districts across the state — double-digit health care cost increases, declining student enrollments and looming maintenance needs. Many districts around the state are having to choose between steep tax rate increases and cuts to valuable programs.

At Harwood, we struggled with these same pressures. The school board reviewed eight possible budgets, ultimately choosing a budget with a 3 percent increase in spending and a 2-cent increase in the equalized tax rate. By rezoning Moretown’s fifth- and sixth-graders to Crossett Brook Middle School and combining all seventh- and eighth-graders at Crossett Brook, we are realizing our long-term goal of bringing more of our middle-level students together and increasing their social and enrichment opportunities, while reducing our originally projected expenses by a net of $700,000-plus in annual savings.

To ensure adequate space for these additional students, the district will install a temporary annex at Crossett Brook (the cost of which is already included in the budget).

• The second item on the ballot will ask voters to allocate surplus from fiscal year 2019 to the district’s maintenance reserve fund. Since merging, we have been able to use this maintenance reserve to cover the cost of important repairs and updates — like repairing and repainting Moretown’s exterior ($101,000) and updating the boiler room in Warren ($125,000) — that would have been very challenging to afford prior to the unification.

Devoting this surplus of $1,880,109 toward maintenance reserve will allow us to continue to be responsible stewards of our seven campuses.

In some ways, this is the first time the merged district’s budget has had so many systemwide implications. We’ve heard our voters raise important questions and we’ve tried to answer a few of them below:

• If I vote no on the budget, will students still be moved to different schools?

When the board approved the budget to put before voters, it identified a dollar amount for school district spending. That dollar amount is what the electorate will be voting on, not how the money is spent. Board policy and our district’s leadership team (all the building principals as well as central office staff) guide actual staffing plans and educational programming decisions. As voters, you are deciding on a bottom line: whether to authorize the school district to spend $39,772,342 in the next fiscal year. 

Once the board chose a budget to present to our voters in mid-January, our principals and teachers began the challenging work of reconfiguration, and families began their own preparations to ensure a smooth transition for their children next fall. We do not expect that the board will ask our staff and families to change direction if the budget fails. Configuration of grades has never been contingent upon the budget passing. 

• How big will the classes be at Crossett Brook?

Vermont’s Educational Quality Standards indicate that, for grades 4-12, “when taken together, classes shall average less than 25 students per teacher.” Next year, we anticipate middle school class sizes on average to be just under 23 students per core class, with some as low as 21 and some as high as 25 (in the eighth grade, which is an unusually large cohort of students). Applied academics classes will range from 16 to 22 students.

• Are any schools closing?

No. The changes encompassed in this budget are to (1) reconfigure Moretown Elementary School as a pre-K-4 school (like Thatcher Brook already is) and to rezone the town’s fifth- and sixth-graders to Crossett Brook and (2) reconfigure Harwood Union as a 9-12 school and rezone all seventh- and eighth-graders to Crossett Brook. 

As part of our long-term planning, the board has discussed the possibility of closing Fayston Elementary School at some point in the future. However, this is still in the exploration phase and the school cannot be closed prior to July 1, 2021, without the town of Fayston electing to do so. Fayston Elementary will continue to operate next school year.

• Why haven’t my taxes decreased with Act 46?

While your taxes have not decreased, they have been lower than they would have been without Act 46 for several reasons, including:

— The Act 46 Accelerated Merger tax incentive has already saved district residents a total of 24 cents on the homestead tax rate — about $840 in property taxes over the last three years for a $350,000 house. 

— This year’s budget reflects two major changes in the configuration of our schools that would not have been possible before the merger and that will save $700,000 this year and $900,000 annually going forward. That is equivalent to about 3 cents on the homestead tax rate this year and 4 cents per year in perpetuity ($105 this year and $140 after that for a $350,000 house).

To summarize: in addition to savings already felt in the previous several years, this year’s equalized tax rate would be 8 cents higher without the Act 46 merger — or about $280 more per year in property taxes for a $350,000 house.

• What is the impact on teachers?

We heard from over 100 teachers during the last couple of months in our planning. A dominant theme of their comments was: We support moving the seventh- and eighth-graders together; we just want to wait another year. 

Many of the teachers’ concerns revolve around the implementation of the middle school changes and these details couldn’t be fully developed until the board finalized its decision. Now that the decision has been made, teachers and staff are working with our principals to make a comprehensive transition plan and address the many understandable questions from students, families and staff.

The reconfiguration will include reductions in staff districtwide, and this does create a very real sense of uncertainty and concern for our staff and even our students. Our hope is that, through retirements and transfers, we will be able to find positions for as many of our talented educators as possible. Our principals are working to confirm their staffing plan in the coming weeks so that our staff can confidently make plans for next year.

• What happens on Town Meeting Day?

The school district’s budget questions will be voted on by Australian ballot on March your town office. We also welcome you to join us for our annual meeting on Monday, March 2, at 6 p.m. in the Harwood Union library to hear a detailed presentation of our fiscal year 2021 budget. 

Thank you.

Caitlin Hollister is chair and Torrey Carroll Smith, is vice chair of the Harwood Union school board.

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