Residents from Waterbury through the Mad River Valley are reacting to scenarios that could close one or more schools, while asking them to approve a $30 million construction plan.
In the past two weeks, the Harwood Union school board held a pair of community forums to discuss plans that could close one or more schools in the valley while relocating all middle school students in grades five through eight to Crossett Brook Middle School in Duxbury.
The first forum — Oct. 1 in the Harwood Union High School auditorium — drew about 20 people, who listened to a presentation on the plans and then gave their opinions.
The board is reviewing three scenarios — or four, if you count doing nothing and maintaining the status quo — to realign the the seven schools within the district. Those scenarios include:
• Keep pre-K-4 classes at Warren and Waitsfield, while using Moretown Elementary for early childhood education and closing the doors of Fayston Elementary.
• Keep three of the four valley schools open, but only for pre-K through grade 4, and closing the fourth school.
In both scenarios, all students in grades five through eight would attend Crossett Brook Middle School.
• Close Fayston, while keeping Moretown, Waitsfield and Warren open for pre-K through 6.
Details on the plans appeared in last week’s Waterbury Record and are available, starting on page 10, at bit.ly/harwooddistrictplan.
The realignment is tied to the board’s plan to ask voters to approve a bond to finance repairs to the high school and Thatcher Brook Primary School in Waterbury, and possibly renovations at Crossett Brook, depending on the realignment plan chosen by the board. Depending on the plan, the bond amount could range from $31.5 million to $39.1 million, and add between 10 cents and 15 cents per $100 of value to the property tax rate — $200 to $300 per year on the bill for a house worth $200,000.
At the Harwood forum, Leigh Michl of Fayston pointed to the declining high school enrollment and asked why voters should be asked to spend money on the school, as well as construction to make room for students who would be relocated to Crossett Brook.
“Given the declines at Harwood, how does it make sense to borrow $20 million to $30 million, move 20 percent of the students, and spend $3 million to $6 million to accommodate them?” Michl said.
From 2015 to the most recent numbers available from Sept. 13 of this year, Harwood’s enrollment in grades seven through 12 has fallen 11.6 percent, from 674 students to 596, and overall district enrollment has dropped by 3.5 percent, from 1,957 students to 1,889.
Superintendent Brigid Nease suggested that the high school enrollment decline is due in part to dual enrollment, which allows students in grades 11 and 12 to attend college-level classes. This year, 15 Harwood students are taking advantage of the statewide program.
Intradistrict choice also plays a factor; this year, 28 middle school students from the valley — who, without choice, would attend Harwood — are going to Crossett Brook. At the same time, three students from Waterbury and Duxbury are attending Harwood Middle instead of Crossett Brook.
David Goodman of Waterbury, who was chair of the Harwood high school board before district merger in 2017, said that in 2015, his board voted to spend $75,000 to study the improvements needed at the high school.
“We spent countless hours going through all of the scenarios and got to a point where we were ready to put it to a vote for the community, except that hanging over it was the question — would there still be a middle school here?” Goodman said. “We very reluctantly decided at the last minute that we could not ask you all to vote on a bond when we hadn’t decided whether there would be a middle school here, and we also knew you couldn’t decide on merging the middle schools until we all decided as a community on an entire district redesign.”
Goodman said closing a school is not something any board member wants to do.
“Nobody signed up to close schools, but 50 years later, our district is drastically different than it was,” he said.
Jack Barnes of Moretown was worried about property values.
“I would expect that, if Moretown (Elementary) were to close, I would experience a devaluing of my real estate,” Barnes said. “I would like to know if the school board has considered that in their evaluations.”
“We have heard that property-value concern, and obviously it’s a real one,” said board chair Caitlin Hollister. “I think the school board has not taken it up as something that we have agreed to as a criteria or a category to use in evaluating our scenarios. That’s not to say we couldn’t do so.”
Crossett Brook forum
At the second forum, Monday night at Crossett Brook, Brian Fleischer asked board members about their methodology as they consider the scenarios.
“It’s all about the money, from what you’ve done up until that point,” he said. “Has there been any assessment of how a school closure will affect a town?”
Nease told Fleischer that the board had not directed school administrators to consider that question. Hollister said the board will discuss the need for additional data at its next meeting.
Dana Hudson of Waterbury Center suggested the board delay its decision, drawing applause from the crowd.
“I think these sorts of forums are so crucial for community buy-in, and I’m worried about the timeline. I understand that for some people this has been going on for years, but to me it seems quick,” Hudson said. “Perhaps we could wait until the 2020 presidential election, where you would have more community participation.”
Nease suggested that the uncertainty over district realignment might affect school staffing.
“I get it, and I know people feel it’s rushed,” Nease said. “There’s a level of uncertainty among the faculty at those schools, and I’m worried about how some of them might make different decision about where they will work.”
The board is facing a tight, self-imposed deadline.
On Oct. 16, the board will meet, and is expected to allow extra time for public comment. At that meeting, the district’s lawyer will be on hand to field legal questions.
On Oct. 23, the board expects to eliminate one or more scenarios, and on Nov. 13 choose the scenario it will use to craft the bond proposal. The board expects to finalize the bond proposal in January and present it to voters at town meeting in March.
Will there be any additional forums? At the Sept. 25 board 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.
“This is a very traumatic discussion, and the least we can do is have those discussions in those communities,” Grace said.
In the end, the board voted to table Grace’s motion, and is expected to revisit it Oct. 16.
In the meantime, the board is asking the public to take an online survey, available at bit.ly/harwoodplansurvey.