People are upset that the Harwood Union school board is thinking about closing one or more elementary schools in the Mad River Valley.
Since April, the board has worked to winnow nearly 30 proposals to reconfigure where students from kindergarten through grade 12 go to school. The proposals ranged from changing nothing to closing one or more elementary schools to closing all the schools and paying tuition for students to attend schools in other districts.
The work of the past three months began after the board failed in February and early March to reach consensus on a plan to move seventh- and eighth-grade students from the Harwood campus in South Duxbury to Crossett Brook Middle School, located in Duxbury near the Waterbury town line.
At the time, board members argued that the decision should be part of a districtwide realignment plan, as opposed to just dealing with two grades and two schools.
In the intervening months, board members discussed and dismissed nearly all the proposals. On June 12, they settled on three possible scenarios. Much like the proposal earlier this year, all three plans would put all seventh- and eighth-graders at Crossett Brook.
However, all three plans also call for either eliminating one or more grades from the elementary schools in the valley, or closing one or more valley schools altogether.
Option A would keep preK-4 classes at Warren and Waitsfield, while using Moretown Elementary for early childhood education and closing the doors of Fayston Elementary.
Option B would keep three of the valley schools open — while closing one of them — but only for grades pre-K through 4.
In both scenarios, all students in grades five through eight would attend Crossett Brook.
The third scenario — Option D — would close Fayston, while keeping Moretown, Waitsfield and Warren open for pre-K through 6.
At the board’s most recent meeting on June 26 — and the last meeting until a board retreat Aug. 28 — members of the public objected not only to the plans, and how they were made.
“I feel as if this board is continuing to make decisions in a vacuum,” said Laura Schaller of Moretown, who was one of several people in the audience wearing orange T-shirts bearing the words “SAVE OUR SCHOOLS”.
“Is is it too much to ask that you make decisions based on facts and solicit information from outside the administration?” Schaller asked the board. “Their opinions should be respected but they should not be the only source on which you make decisions that will affect our towns and schools for years to come.”
Schaller was one of several residents who compared the discussion of district realignment with the discussion about creating a district vision in 2018. While the latter process took an entire summer and invited parents, teachers and students to offer their input with the help of a paid facilitator, the planning to realign grades across the schools did none of those things.
“I’m a little bit disappointed that the options got dwindled down so quickly and I kind of agree with some of the other people in the audience that maybe the public wasn’t involved in contributing to the options as much as it should have been,” said Beth Garvin of Fayston.
Numerous Moretown residents expressed concern about how school closure would affect their town.
Matt Henchen said he recently bought a home in Moretown, “and we never would have done that if not for the amazing school. We’re also concerned about the number of families who might not move into our community in the future. I guarantee young families will not look at Moretown if we do not have a strong school.”
“This school has been a center of our community since 1888,” said John Hoogenboom, a member of the Moretown Select Board. “To close it would be absurd. This is an important part of the community and the Moretown Select Board certainly does not want to see it closed.”
Catrina Brackett of Moretown has three children in Harwood schools.
“I bought my house in Moretown for the elementary school,” Brackett said. “This summer, we were planning on putting in a new house on our land, but have chosen not to. I’d like to stay. I’d like the school to stay.”
Heather Swann of Moretown has a daughter in the elementary school.
“I feel like closing the school is exacerbating the problem of Vermont in general,” Swann said. “Vermont can’t maintain its population. It’s dwindling and the state is dying. We’re not going to survive.”
Even residents of towns where school closures are not proposed expressed concern.
“A school is really the heart of the community, and closing schools will further erode the willingness of people to move to the valley,” said Kate Wanner of Warren.
However, Mari Pratt of Duxbury, vice chair of her town’s select board, advised people to have faith in their elected officials.
“We have to have faith in what we have chosen. We elected them,” she said. “Be supportive in every way you can. I went through this years ago when we merged with Waterbury and lost our little elementary school. We need to support them from the get-go, and not just wait until they come up with something we don’t like.”
Before taking its summer break, the board took no action to alter the proposals. However, the board did authorize school administrators to spend up to $15,000 to have ReArch Co., a construction firm based in South Burlington, provide construction cost estimates for the three proposals.