DUXBURY — All seventh- and eighth-graders in the six-town Harwood Unified Union School District may ultimately wind up attending Crossett Brook Middle School, but a divided School Board didn’t have the votes to make that determination Wednesday night.
Faced with a committee’s recommendation to embrace a plan to bring all of the district’s seventh- and eighth-grade students together under one expanded roof, the 14-member board balked.
In a decision that prompted the committee to question how it should proceed with plans for the broader bond issue the board hopes to present to voters next year, school directors refused to lock in a key piece of that complex puzzle.
Seventh- and eighth-grade students from Fayston, Moretown, Waitsfield and Warren currently attend school at Harwood Union School, and the proposal recommended by the committee would move them less than six miles up the road to an expanded Crossett Brook campus, which currently serves fifth- through eighth-graders from Waterbury and Duxbury.
Board members collectively cast roughly 60 percent of their weighted votes against the recommendation, which some said they couldn’t support and others argued wasn’t ready for prime time.
Theresa Membrino felt they weren’t ready.
A board member from Fayston, Membrino said she appreciated the committee’s work, but believed the plan to expand Crossett Brook was “premature.”
“It’s not an absolute ‘no,’ it’s a ‘not right now,’” Membrino said. “I don’t think we’re ready.”
Membrino wasn’t alone in suggesting the board pause, develop a coherent vision, evaluate its assets and decide how best to use them.
Though some argued that is precisely the process that has been playing out for months, others said they were troubled by the piecemeal approach and reluctant to endorse a middle school solution that would rule out other options.
Rosemarie White, who represents Warren on the board, defended the Crossett Brook option, which she said would free up valuable space at Harwood Union High School.
White, who serves as chairwoman of the committee, said that would allow the panel to seriously explore upgrades to the dated high school campus that would expand educational opportunities for students from all six towns.
White said creating a Harwood-based science, technology, engineering and mathematics academy was one possibility and incorporating “makerspace” for students was another.
“It will be a travesty to delay this opportunity,” White said. “We can provide our high school students with such a gift.”
White acknowledged concerns about the district-wide implications of a still-evolving bond proposal, but said that shouldn’t stall the planning process.
“We should not continue to penalize our high school students because we are worried about possible changes that may or may not happen at our elementary schools,” she said.
Melissa Phillips, one of Waterbury’s representatives to the board, suggested members compromise on the middle school proposal.
She said the board could agree that seventh- and eighth-graders who now attend Harwood will go elsewhere if voters approve the bond issue, without yet committing to sending them to Crossett Brook.
Phillips argued the compromise would provide the committee the clarity it needs to consider changes to the Harwood campus, while leaving the door open to other middle school options, including one that could serve fifth- through eighth-graders in the four Mad River Valley towns.
Though Phillips’ amendment was handily rejected, the Crossett Brook option failed as well.
Proponents of that plan stressed that everything from its conceptual design to its $8 million price tag were extremely preliminary, subject to change and could ultimately be abandoned as the broader project comes into sharper focus.
However, those uneasy about making the decision worried it was too soon to commit to Crossett Brook.
Superintendent Brigid Nease set the stage for the vote by telling board members there was no wrong answer, just differing opinions that should be sorted out as part of a process that is “comprehensive, thorough and looks at absolutely everything.”
If concerns about under-enrolled schools and high costs had changed, Nease said board members should say that and act accordingly. If they remained important considerations, she said that should drive decision-making.
Either way, Nease said, the effort that went into the committee’s recommendation was useful.
“None of this work is wasted,” she said, stressing the importance of community engagement in developing a global vision for the district.
“I would urge you not to let fear paralyze any of the dialogue,” Nease said.
Though Wednesday’s vote was frustrating for committee members, they were asked to come back with questions for the board in order to advance their work.