Court rejects injunction request in Moretown lawsuit

Published: Feb. 3, 2020 at 8:33 AM EST
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The town of Moretown is suing its own school district, but the first day in court didn't pan out as the town hoped.

In a 15-page ruling, U.S. District Court Judge William Sessions rejected the town's request for an injunction that would have put a question on the Town Meeting Day ballot allowing residents to weigh in on a decision to reconfigure schools within the Harwood Unified Union School District.

Residents have said that a provision in the new unified district that doesn't require input from local residents in the closure decision violates their constitutional rights.

"I think sometimes when there's disagreement about how fast or slow things should move, that's where its really hard to find common ground," said Caitlin Hollister, the chair of the Harwood Unified Union School District HUUSD School Board.

In a letter issued last month, the HUUSD notified parents and residents it would reconfigure its six-town district by next school year.

The town of Moretown and the Vermont Coalition of Community Schools argue that it's too soon. They say putting a vote to the people to change the district's articles of agreement can't come soon enough.

"It needs to happen in time for Town Meeting because we want public participation. More voters are going to come out at Town Meeting, especially during a presidential primary year than would come out for a special meeting," said Ron Shems, the attorney for the town of Moretown.

The lawsuit says the district illegally rejected petitions to put measures on the March ballot. The district says it rejected them based on one of the petitions' last sentences, defining school closure as "wholly or partially repurposing a school building from classroom instruction to another use."

Judge Sessions backed the school district's decision, saying the wording is too broad. The ruling also says that town leaders and the coalition didn't show how a lack of immediate action by the court would cause "irreparable harm."

Both sides can agree on one thing -- that this whole process proves Vermont's newly merged school districts will likely all go through similar growing pains.

"Everyone anticipated that after a tryout period, there'd be adjustments, and every district has its own experiences and they'll tweak the articles accordingly," said Shems.

"We are all learning a lot as we go, as we navigate our way through this Act 46 merger, and this is the next step in figuring out how to proceed," said Hollister.

Part of the district's school reconfiguration would eliminate Harwood Union Middle School, moving all seventh- and eighth-graders in the district to Crossett Brook Middle School in Duxbury. The school board says because the middle school is built into the high school, it's not really closing anything.

Michael Frank of Waterbury has two third-grade daughters who attend Thatcher Brook Primary School in Waterbury. He says the consolidation will give students a more equitable education, evening out class sizes and offering additional learning opportunities.

"My kids play basketball, and they're third, fourth grade at Thatcher Brook. They play on a Harwood basketball group. So, we've combined the sports of the district for basketball and they play with kids from all over the district. We are one district. We're one community. I think we should start being looked at that way and stop defining ourselves just by town borders," said Frank.

Hollister says if the district doesn't reconfigure schools, it would have to make sacrifices elsewhere, like cutting liberal arts programs.

The towns will vote on whether to approve the $39 million school budget in March.