Moretown community 'blindsided' by Act 46 fine print

MORETOWN, Vt. (WCAX) Residents of Moretown are fighting an effort to close their elementary school under a provision of the new unified district that doesn't require input from local residents.

Moretown Elementary is one of Harwood Unified Union School District's eight schools unified under Act 46. The school board's proposal means fifth- and sixth-graders at the school will either go to Crossett Brook Middle School or another local school.

But some Moretown residents say the board's actions violate their constitutional rights.

"It feels like they're forcing our hand. They're making moves that make it so that we really don't have the option to stay curious, make the plan, see if it's the best plan," said Lisa Mason of Moretown.

Mason says she doesn't feel like the Harwood Unified Union School board has given the townspeople the opportunity to do that.

Mason grew up in Moretown, where the elementary school has taught pre-K through sixth-graders since it's inception.

"By changing that, I think we're less attractive for new families that are looking to settle in the area -- to think that their fifth-grader's going to have to take a bus or be driven 30 minutes away starting in fifth grade, entering a much bigger school," said Mason.

Those concerns prompted Mason and other community members to unite under what they call the Vermont Coalition of Community Schools. After hearing about a shakeup for the schools next year, the group circulated a petition. The petitions sought to amend Harwood Unified Union School District's Articles of Agreement, specifically those outlining school closure and grade reconfiguration procedures.

The articles are the terms community members voted to accept when the towns' schools unified under Act 46 years ago. Two particular parts of the agreement say the school board can reconfigure and close schools without approval from the towns.

The Articles of Agreement vary in each unified district. For example, voters in the Addison Northwest Supervisory Union were able to save Addison's and Ferrisburgh's elementary schools last year, at least for now.

So even though the towns covered by Harwood Unified Union School District will vote on the school budget on Town Meeting Day in March, the school board can move forward with its current consolidation plans, regardless of whether the budget passes.

"Don't trust that the board, the administration is necessarily thinking of the entire community. Don't be blindsided," said John Hoogenboom, the vice-chair of the Moretown Selectboard.

Hoogenboom says Mason, along with other townspeople, really didn't know what they were signing onto when the districts merged and now many want it changed.

But last week, the school board rejected that petition, so the coalition and the town of Moretown crafted a lawsuit.

"It's not necessarily the case that it's a bad idea. It may turn out to be a good idea in the future, but not now," said Hoogenboom.

Town leaders and the coalition say they just want the school board to slow down and give the taxpayers more say.

WCAX News asked School Board Chair Caitlin Hollister why the petition was rejected. She said in a written statement they had to accept or reject based on how it was written and that they couldn't alter the language.

"We're at the point where the board is making decisions to actually make actions for the upcoming year without the plan having been made, without a lot of major questions having been answered," said Mason.

Hoogenboom and Mason want to emphasize the importance of reading the fine print of your school district's Articles of Agreement, so you aren't blindsided down the road like they were.