In less than two weeks, the Harwood Union school board faces a self-imposed deadline for a decision that could close a school.
But now, the board is seeking a legal opinion on whether it has the authority to make that decision.
The question is whether the articles of agreement — under which Harwood’s six towns merged into a single school district in 2017 — allow the board to contemplate closing a school.
In a lengthy review of Harwood’s future, the board has narrowed its options. One scenario would close Fayston Elementary School and send all of the district’s seventh- and eighth-graders to Crossett Brook Middle School. Two permutations of this scenario would keep open the remaining Mad River Valley schools for grades K-6, while a third permutation would turn Moretown Elementary into a school for kindergarten through grade 4.
The articles of agreement 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 devising a merger plan until then.
The board has received advice that asserts it has the authority to create a plan — but not necessarily implement it — prior to 2021, both from the Agency of Education and from the district’s lawyer, J. Paul Giuliani.
“In my opinion,” Giuliani wrote, “there is no statutory impediment to the board studying school closure well in advance of the July 1, 2021, lockout expiration. Further, there is no legal impediment to the board making a school closure decision today, to take effect at some future date.”
So, why the need for another legal opinion?
“A school closure is one of the biggest and most dramatic changes a school board could implement, and so I think, understandably, board members want to feel that we are approaching a vote on a potential closure as responsibly as we can,” said board chair Caitlin Hollister of Waterbury. “Because we are a new board, it’s not like we have a lot of prior decisions to refer back to. I really see it as the board is looking for more confidence so the board can work more responsibly and really articulate to the public how we see any changes rolling out.”
The board’s motion calls for a second opinion from a lawyer who had no affiliation with and has not done prior work for the Agency of Education, the Vermont Principals’ Association, the Vermont Superintendents Association or the Vermont School Boards Association.
The board has chosen Ed Adrian, a Burlington-based lawyer who meets the criteria while still having a background in education.
“I primarily represent parents and teachers in issues that come up regarding school districts, such as special education, governance, union matters and disciplinary matters,” Adrian said.
In addition, Adrian spent 10 years as a prosecutor with the Vermont Secretary of State’s Office of Professional Regulation, and was a deputy state’s attorney in Franklin County. He also served on the Burlington City Council.
The board has set Wednesday, Nov. 13, as its deadline for making a decision on its authority.
However, at its most recent meeting, the board decided to meet Nov. 5 to receive Adrian’s legal opinion.
“I think we are on track to make a decision on Nov. 13. What that decision is remains to be seen, for several reasons, one of which is getting a second legal opinion,” Hollister said. “We’ll still be taking into account the other legal advice we have, but I think the board is eager to have some further clarification there, and I think that will determine what sort of action items we will place on the Nov. 13 agenda.”
So, what happens if Adrian’s opinion differs from Giuliani’s, or the advice offered by the Agency of Education?
“That’s a question for each individual school board member,” Hollister said. “I think it would be cause for additional discussion.”
Board vice-chair Torrey Smith said “it would depend on where the disagreement was. In our conversation with Mr. Giuliani, we felt some things were more clear-cut than others, so it would depend on where the disagreement was because there were several levels of question and interpretation.”
The school-closing question is part of a larger push to create a long-term plan that would dictate the scope of a bond for Harwood Middle and High School.
“One of the big questions for the Harwood school is, is it going to be a 9-12 school or a 7-12 school,” Smith said. “Even with no change, we would have more information than we have today.”
Smith and Hollister said that, regardless of the decision on Nov. 13, the board wants to present a bond proposal to voters in March, which would require that decisions be made in January.
So, if a decision is made on a plan on Nov. 13, how long would that plan be expected to stand?
“The board hasn’t taken any formal action on that. In hoping to vote on a long-term plan, even if that was current status, it’s my hope is that it would be a multi-year plan,” Hollister said. “This is a lot to put our communities through even a year from now to restart that process. But, I could imagine a plan that would have some other decision points ahead of us, and with that, there may be new information needed, new engagement opportunities, so I do see it as multi-year and multi-stage.”
“I really think we need to make a decision that will work well for mid- to long-term time,” Smith said. “We can’t predict what will happen in the future, so we can’t guarantee that further discussion would come up for five to 10 years, but I think we should — considering how disruptive this has been for staff, for kids, for families — we really need to try and make a plan that will last for five to 10 years, at least.”