The Harwood Union school board has eliminated two scenarios in which all students in grades five through eight would attend Crossett Brook Middle School.
On Oct. 16, the board voted to shelve two realignment proposals; one called for closing one of the four elementary schools in the Mad River Valley, while the other called for closing the Fayston and Moretown elementary schools, with the latter turning into a pre-K magnet school.
In June, the board identified three scenarios to realign the eight schools across the six-town district, with an eye toward crafting a bond proposal to place before voters on Town Meeting Day in March.
With the elimination of two scenarios, the board is left to consider what it refers to as “Option D” and its many permutations. Fayston Elementary would close; fifth- and sixth-grade students would continue to attend schools in Moretown, Waitsfield and Warren; and all students in grades seven and eight would attend middle school at Crossett Brook.
This scenario offers several options for where Fayston students would attend school. All students could go to Waitsfield — requiring construction of one or two new classrooms — or half the students could go to Waitsfield and half to Warren.
A third permutation, offered by Superintendent Brigid Nease Sept. 25, would send all of the district’s seventh- and eighth-graders to Crossett Brook, which would also house all fifth- and sixth-graders from Duxbury, Moretown and Waterbury.
Moretown Elementary School would become a pre-K-4 school like Thatcher Brook Win Waterbury. Waitsfield and Warren elementary schools would remain open for pre-K-6, and Fayston would close.
At the Oct. 16 meeting, the board tabled a motion to study a proposal to keep open all four Mad River Valley Schools.
That proposal would use Thatcher Brook Primary School for pre-K-2, send all Duxbury and Waterbury students in grades three through six to Crossett Brook, and send all of the district’s seventh- and eighth-graders to Harwood Middle School.
The plan would leave a lot of room at Thatcher Brook. There are now 204 students in kindergarten through second grade, and Thatcher Brook has a capacity of 480 students, according to the Agency of Education. Looking at the current numbers, the plan would put 277 students in grades three through six at Crossett Brook, which has a capacity of 400 students.
Board Chair Caitlin Hollister said the board would consider Oct. 23 whether that plan deserves study.
Thus far, the board has held two public hearings on the realignment plans, plus an hour for public comments Oct. 16 and Oct. 23. In addition, the board issued an online survey, asking district residents: “What comments or reflections would you like to share with the board as we engage in long-term planning for our preK-12 school system?”
A number of the 134 respondents complained that the survey — which offered suggestions for criteria in deciding whether to close a school — was missing an essential component.
“Suspiciously missing from this list of criteria is ‘impact on educational outcomes,’” wrote Stacey Peters of Warren.
“Absent from this survey is student educational outcomes. Enrollment per building is not an educational outcome,” wrote Jeneve Joslin of Waitsfield.
Many respondents urged the board to abandon its current timetable, which calls for a decision Nov. 13.
“Slow down, and take a few steps back, and try again. While we appreciate your efforts tremendously, this process has taken a wrong turn,” wrote Brian Mohr of Moretown.
“Please slow down and consider the effect of these changes on the community, property values, and the ability to attract new families to the area rather than just the financial bottom line. Our kids and community are worth more than that,” wrote Amy Polaczyk of Warren.
A handful of respondents urged the board not to wait any longer.
“Don’t be afraid to close a school or two,” wrote Robert McNeish of Fayston.
“It is time to take a stand ... make a decision ... and move forward,” wrote Warren C. Noyes of Moretown.
Others called for more community discussion.
“Please take your time to hold public meetings/hearings/listening sessions in the district towns and at the very least in towns whose schools could be impacted by the redesign,” wrote state Rep. Maxine Grad, D-Moretown.
“Engage the community; hear and absorb their comments and suggestions. The community needs to buy into the ultimate plan to support (both financially and emotionally) this unified district,” wrote Deb Powers of Fayston.
Discussion, legal advice
At the Sept. 25 meeting, board member James Grace of Waterbury suggested holding a forum in one of the valley towns that face the possibility of school closure, and, if necessary, delay the Nov. 13 vote.
“Having both of our forums on the Waterbury side was something we probably should have thought about,” Grace said. “If we prefer to take six weeks rather than four weeks, I’m all for it, but I’m not in favor of putting this off indefinitely.”
Grace made a motion to hold forums in Fayston and Moretown, where schools might close. The board voted to table that motion until the Oct. 16 meeting, where Grace withdrew his motion. In an opinion column this week, Grace discussed the challenge of finding common ground with constituents who oppose school closure of any kind.
“It seems clear to me that, regardless of how much data we collect, or how much engagement we do, the only acceptable outcome for this group is a decision that none of our elementary schools will be closed,” Grace wrote. “Finding common ground is made even more difficult in that we can’t seem to agree on a set of facts on which to base our discussion and debate.”
Board chair Caitlin Hollister said the board will not hold any additional public hearings until the board receives a legal opinion about its authority to close a school.
The articles of agreement that govern the Harwood district merger state that the board may not close a school prior to July 1, 2021, without a vote of approval from residents of the town where the school is located. Some members of the public believe the articles prevent the board from creating a merger plan until then.
J. Paul Giuliani, the district’s attorney, told the board that it has the authority to make a plan to close a school.
“In my opinion, there is no statutory impediment to the board studying school closure well in advance of the July 1, 2021, lockout expiration,” Giuliani wrote in a letter to the board dated Sept. 17. “Further, there is no legal impediment to the board making a school closure decision today, to take effect at some future date.”
At the Oct. 16 meeting, the board moved to seek a second legal opinion from a lawyer who had no affiliation with or has done prior work for the Agency of Education, the Vermont Principals’ Association, the Vermont Superintendents Association or the Vermont School Boards Association.
Hollister said she is searching for a lawyer who fits that description.