Exhilarating AND Challenging! HUUSD Consolidation Year #1 (Summer 2017)
A conversation with HUUSD board communications working group chairman Rob Williams and HUUSD Superintendent Brigid Nease
Q. The HUUSD board is responsible for overseeing the work of a single employee - YOU - as superintendent of our supervisory union (SU). I think we can all agree it has been both an exhilarating and challenging year. As our superintendent for eight years, how would you describe this past year as our first under the Act 46 unified school program, which was overwhelming approved by voters in all six of our towns - Waterbury, Duxbury, Fayston, Moretown, Waitsfield, and Warren?
A. You said it well - exhilarating and challenging. The exhilarating part was and will continue to be, imagining with my administrative team, what could be possible now that the old financial barriers have been lifted so that we can share resources and grow collectively together. I have felt since the beginning eight years ago that the WWSU had considerable untapped capacity.
However, it has been more challenging than I could have imagined. I would describe it as closing down seven businesses and opening a new one all at the same time. You can't imagine all the work - what needs to get done - just to change our name!
The board has struggled and so has our administrative team. In order to make progress and achieve desirable goals, we all need to make some sacrifices, compromises, and move forward assuming good intentions. We made promises to our taxpayers. All the economic problems that existed prior to Act 46 both within our SU and statewide haven't gone away. Our students and those for many years to come are counting on us to get it right.
Now that we have pooled our resources, I really feel that what comes next, both financially and operationally, means that we need to accept our geography from Warren to Waterbury, acknowledge that the buildings that we have are what we have, and persevere to develop a redesigned operational delivery model that puts students first, positions our SU to be exceptional and innovative, all while delivering an effective and financially sustainable educational system to the taxpayers when compared with others in Vermont.
Q. Can you describe the most significant specific accomplishments of our SU this past year?
A. In spite of the difficulties this year, we did marry 7 very separate budgets together into one - no small feat. Through this process, board members and building administrators became aware of the many differences and inequities that exist. Everyone gained knowledge and understanding throughout the process as each member became intimately aware of each school’s unique qualities. We established board working groups and got them well underway working on communication to the public, policy development and revision, and facility needs in all seven buildings and the central office. Our large new team engaged in considerable board training from the VSBA and our school attorney. Ground rules and operating procedures were developed. We developed and adopted a new “school choice” policy that allows families to send their children to any of the schools within our district regardless of the town they reside in. This policy was one tangible outcome of our many discussions about working to increase student enrollment in our SU. I expect we will continue to find ways to adopt additional policies that provide the greatest amount of choice and flexibility so that families move to our towns, stay in our towns, and graduate their students from Harwood Union High School.
Q. As someone who spends a tremendous amount of time traveling around our supervisory union in conversation with students, staff, teachers, administrators, parents, and citizens, sketch out for us what you see as our greatest challenges and opportunities over the next ten years?
A. The single biggest challenge, in my opinion, is getting all stakeholders to understand and believe that we may have to give up things important to us now to realize an even better future for many generations of students to come. I think we need to strive to make any changes we can to grow our enrollment. That said, the entire state continues to see a steady student enrollment decline and has for 10 or more years. We have a statewide funding formula so the statewide landscape has always affected us greatly. We can't afford ourselves now.
Everyone loves our schools for good reason. They are some of the best in the state and in the nation, by design, hard work, and commitment by our taxpayers, not by accident. Change always comes hard. Human beings do not usually like to get out of their comfort zones, especially when they believe things are going so well. But, if you are slowly and quietly being choked from within, so that you cannot grow and change to modernize, you become outdated and ultimately less attractive to new home buyers. That is what is happening. Schools are forced to defer maintenance, fight to maintain the programs they have currently, and just tread water. How many businesses would last with this business model?
The elephant in the room is our real estate. We have seven school buildings that we are trying to sustain. Hard choices need to be made as to whether we fight to the death to sustain all of them, all the while trying to provide exceptional learning environments for each and every student. Can we really do both? Or, could all students be offered more if we combined buildings and/or grades of students?
B. The opportunities seem almost overwhelming?!
Yes. There are so many opportunities and possible combinations that I hesitate to speak about them. My disclaimer here is that I am not wed to any one particular plan. I do strongly believe though that we need to roll up our sleeves and get to work exploring all the configurations of a possible redesign. Through this work, we need to identify the gains and losses, guesstimate the likely financial gains, evaluate long term sustainability, and engage the larger community in the decision making to define a new "us". If in the end we adopt none of our many ideas, that's fine too because we will have proven that we explored all possibilities and rejected them because of specific reasons. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Mindset is a very important word these days. Folks keep speaking about the seven silos. My dream is that instead of "breaking down those silos" we learn to cherish and appreciate the differences of each but redefine community as encompassing all of them, blending them together from Warren to Waterbury.
Q. Some voters are skeptical that our unified SU can actually save money through “efficiencies.” Can you speak to this concern?
A. Saving money is always hard to articulate. It is important to acknowledge up front that savings also includes not spending what you otherwise would have had to spend. Reducing increases, covering fixed increases from within the budget savings, and cost shifting to cover new costs are much harder to represent in the way we present budgets.
Usually we look at savings as merely what gets reduced. We absolutely will save through efficiencies by being 1 instead of 7. I look forward to sharing a list of these specific savings but it is a bit too early to do that because we have operated all year the old way. Those savings will begin to be realized after July 1, 2017. I can tell you that through bulk purchasing just within the last two weeks we have saved considerably in supplies, fuel oil, copier paper, copier bids and leases, technology, service contracts, and so on. Next year we will have 1 audit instead of 7.
I think what some folks might be asking is will we achieve 1) sustainable savings or just transitional savings?; and 2) will the savings be sizable enough to positively effect tax rates? That's the million dollar question, no pun intended. Any savings is good and should be realized. We cannot afford to be of the mindset that “oh well, that only amounts to a half of a penny on the tax rate.”
Q. Can you paint us a picture of what our SU could be ten years from now? What kind of SU do you imagine helping us build?
A. Wow! I do love this question. Everything I am about to say is, of course, contingent upon feasibility studies and community will.
If I were putting students first, I would absolutely bring them all together at 5th grade and keep them together as a larger cohort from 5th through 12th grade, the middle and high school years. The group would be large enough to maintain robust class sizes that provide for more cognitive discourse, to adequately field sports teams, to create and/or expand band, chorus, drama, dance, the arts, student government, outdoor education, speech and debate team, future engineers, robotics, and the list goes on. The social peer group would be healthier and expanded for all students. No matter how hard you try to align learning opportunities, the students will tell you how different their experiences were and are. Transitions are difficult and contribute to a slower pace, if not backsliding. Removing them from grades 5-12 in my opinion would be best for students for all sorts of reasons.
I would move all 5/6 into Crossett Brook Middle School (CBMS) and all 7/8 into Harwood Union Middle School (HUMS). This is similar to other SU's that reconfigured grades to deal with buildings while capturing the assets of grade groupings. Is it ideal? Maybe not. But I doubt we are going to build completely new buildings. Would it involve a longer bus ride by about 5-7 minutes for some already on a long bus ride? Yep. But as a parent, I would trade that for better, more robust, and extended learning opportunities. At that age, the truth is they snooze, use technology or complete homework on the bus anyway. What we could provide our students if they were grouped this way would be truly wonderful and help us to develop an even greater model in our towns, attracting more families.
The population in Waterbury and Duxbury is growing. Thatcher Brook (TBPS) is bursting. I would move grades 3/4 to CBMS and make TBPS a birth to grade 2 building. Yes, I just said birth. Early education has exploded over the last 5 years. Many of you have heard, I am sure, of the challenges with space that led to the almost eviction of the Children's Room at TBPS. That was unfortunate, but we still have competing needs. With more space, we could meet those needs. I would expand the Children's Room model in that end of the district and open one up in the valley.
If moving 3/4 to CBMS is not possible or something folks can get around, I would still do whatever it takes to capture these young families, whether it means modular units, yurts, whatever. Young families move to towns that provide services for children, younger and younger. I would make each school site available for parents with before, during and after care from 7:15 am until 6:00 pm. This is what families need today. I would partner with recreation groups and run summer camp/school options at both end of the district.
I would focus the needed bond at Harwood Union to support the all 7/8 there, as well as to provide for personalized learning and wellness. What do we need to change in the facility? Harwood Union should become a community hub, what you, Rob, like to call a “communiversity.” The construction project could include whatever is necessary to offer evening classes and opportunities; technology, pottery, language classes, painting, dance, starting a business, the sky is the limit. Make this a revenue stream. I would build your own central office on the Delong property; it would pay for itself in no time at all, be central to the operation, and could help support a more year round longer day model.
Of course I have other ideas if only I could be Queen for a Day, but I think I will stop here.
Q. What do you say to voters and citizens that are concerned about the possibility of having to shut down one or more school buildings in our SU?
A. Truthfully, they may be right. It is all going to depend on what we can continue to afford. Do we want to keep fighting to have exactly what we have now, or do we want to transform to hopefully provide more and better opportunities that have a better likelihood of drawing home buyers to our community at large and keeping them here? These are big deal decisions - I get that. I would hope that if any of our buildings closed, it would only be in how we are using them presently. I would like to think that we could re-purpose any building to be a part of the larger plan. All the buildings are great assets to have unless we allow them to turn into detriments because we are too afraid to change and take some risks.