Monday, October 17, 2016

How Are We? Please Don't Fade Away...


How Are We? Please Don’t Fade Away…

For the past eight days, it seems as though every other minute I am being asked, how are you? How are your students, faculty, and administration? Simply put, we are not well, but we will be ok. We are Harwood Strong.

Eight days ago our Harwood School Community received the tragic and unbelievable news that we had lost five wonderful, bright and talented Highlanders; Eli, Cyrus, Mary, Liam and Janie, in a senseless traffic accident. There are no words adequate to describe the loss of these students. Our grief and pain are felt deeply by everyone around the state because we all know that these five students could just as easily have been our sons and daughters, and that any one of our schools could be suffering this tragedy.

Immediately on Sunday, the Harwood Crisis Team went into action. We partnered with other professionals who offered help as well as local clergy and opened up the HUHS building on Sunday and Monday to all those needing to come. Monday, our crisis team gathered to plan for the opening of school on Tuesday. Nothing could have prepared us for this week. We remained steadfast in our mission to keep all students safe and supported, and the gut wrenching grieving continued. None of us really know what we are doing. There is no script, no plan for this. We keep putting one foot in front of the other, work hour to hour, day to day and week to week, as we mourn deeply with the families of these students and our communities.

Following the beautiful vigil on Monday, our students returned. We continue to provide individual and group counseling services, art therapy, service dogs, a dedicated memorial space where students can leave mementos and write special messages about their friends, several gathering spaces set up with food and other supports, assemblies, debriefings, and regular messages home to parents. We are taking our lead from our students. They are telling us what they need as they figure out what that is.

The path of healing we are traveling together will become a long road. By the time you read this, we will have attended at least four memorial services alongside our students, providing busing to each. I cannot begin to explain to you the pervasive, deep pain present every day in our building. I cannot begin to explain to you the immense courage, empathy, love and hope that accompanies that pain. 
Our students are remarkable. Their ability to openly share their feelings of grief and remembrances of their lost friends would blow you away. They exude maturity, wisdom, and compassion far beyond their years. You can be very, very proud of them.

You can also be very proud of the entire staff, faculty and administration at Harwood. I remain in awe of their strength, dedication and skill to help and support our students while they themselves are grieving. They inspire me and I admire them.

Our students, staff and administration are comforted and feel loved by the overwhelming generosity and kindness coming our way from other schools, businesses, individuals, and so many from around our beautiful state of Vermont. The numerous cards, flowers, food, gifts, and donations are sincerely appreciated and needed. You are lifting us up.  I would like to sincerely thank you all on behalf of all of us.

As we move forward, things continue to change day to day. We will continue to provide whatever support is necessary to take care of our kids.  Fortunately, with help from the Governor’s Office and the Agency of Human Services, we are able to bring on a Clinical Crisis and Recovery Coordinator and a Social Worker to support HUHS, funded by AHS. This will help us immensely.

Some of the other pieces we are working on are offering some other therapeutic options for students, such as trauma informed drumming, Tai Chi, Yoga, and other exercise opportunities. Staff from all the schools in WWSU are gathering and preparing written memories about all five of our lost students, which will be compiled into memory books for each of their families. Soon, parents will be invited to participate in a parent night focused on how to provide support for students struggling with grief.

Our students, along with the faculty and administration, are planning a Celebration of Life for Eli, Cyrus, Mary, Liam and Janie on Monday, October 24th from 6:00-8:00 at HUHS. More information will be coming, but I can tell you that event will be held in the gym, with live streaming into the auditorium. This will give us a capacity of about 2200. Parking will be limited at HUHS because staff and many students will already be parked there. We ask you to park at your local schools and businesses and we will provide busing from those locations.

Thank you for helping by walking on this healing path with us. No one would wish to be on this journey. All of us wish we could simply awaken from a very bad dream, but that isn’t possible. We need to remain each other’s soft place to fall. Often with tragedies of this magnitude, the outpouring of support naturally fades over time. Stay with us. Please don’t fade away. Our kids at Harwood and, due to the widespread ripple effect of this tragedy, in schools throughout the state, need us and they will for some time to come. We are Harwood Strong. Community Strong. Vermont Strong.


Monday, May 9, 2016

Vermont School Board of Education Approves WWSU Plans for Merger

Vermont School Board of Education Approves WWSU Plans for School Merger
By; Brigid Scheffert Nease, Superintendent

On April 19, 2016 at the Capital Plaza in Montpelier, the State Board of Education approved the plan submitted by the WWSU Study Committee to merge our existing seven school boards into one. As most taxpayers know by now, the WWSU Study Committee, Executive Board, and administration have been meeting twice a month for almost nine months studying this law and its ramifications. Act 46 requires supervisory unions to merge into one board with one budget in what Act 46 calls a "preferred structure" that serves grades Pre K-12. We can do this now, with some local choice along the way, and receive incentives, or we can sit back and wait until the Agency of Education(AOE) and State Board of Education(SBE) merge us anyway by 2019.  Doing it later means doing it their way, without incentives and enduring other serious negative financial consequences for several years.

Voters in each of our six towns will be voting by Australian ballot on June 7th. They will not be voting on Act 46. It is law and not likely to be changed any more than Act 68. They will be voting whether or not to merge our boards into one, based on the information they have been provided by their local school board representatives about the pros and cons.

The wwsu.org website continues to provide the best source for up to date information. The Articles of Agreement, which spell out the specifics particular to our WWSU schools, and the narrative Study Committee Report with appendices, including financial calculations and projections, and a summary of all the individual schools' assets, debts, surpluses, and deficits, will provide very specific details. A Story Card for each town that identifies specific town details has now been posted. All of our meetings have been recorded by Mad River TV Channel 44 - who deserves our thanks - and can be viewed by anyone via computer. The WWSU Study Committee and Executive Board have held three public forums to present their findings and to engage the public in a Q & A. A fourth will be held on Monday, May 23rd at the Big Picture in Waitsfield at 6:30.

The future communication plan includes a full page ad in our local papers, expected to run 5/26 and 6/2.  A Public Hearing will be held in each town within 10 days prior to the vote. A flyer will be sent digitally and be on hand at the hearings.

I encourage every taxpayer to become informed, get his/her questions answered, attend the forum and Public Hearings and come out to vote. In my opinion, Act 46 is not a perfect law, but it is law. It is not going away, any more than Act 60 or 68 is.  There is no doubt in my mind that if we do not take advantage of the incentives and merge now, we will be merged by the state in 2019, having lost significant savings. Our reports provide pages and pages of pros, cons, predictions, calculations and the like.

We could spend many hours discussing the law based on student opportunities and equity, efficiencies and operational capacity, and what sharing students could mean for our towns in what will continue to be years of declining enrollment. The board teams have spent countless hours discussing what could be possible in the future, from combining middle schools, to reconfiguring the elementary grades.  We may do none of these things, but without one board and one budget we cannot even have the conversation. In the end, I believe the upcoming vote will likely be decided on the issue of reducing or slowing the growth of property taxes.

Act 46 will not solve the larger, very significant issues with the education funding formula, serious declining enrollment, and economic development problems in our state. But, it will provide some tax incentives and some significant safety nets for us to offset whatever lies ahead while Montpelier decides what they will do about these larger issues over the next five years.  

Our schools are hit harder than many by the way the funding formula works. We have little allowable weighting in our numbers. This, along with our continuing declining enrollment, is a recipe for disaster. We simply cannot afford ourselves now. Over the course of the next FY 18 budget cycle without this merger, there will be no status quo to hang onto.  Merging now and taking advantage of these incentives is the best chance we have to reduce and/or slow the growth of property taxes without deep cuts to core programs and the arts.

The bottom line is without a merger taxpayers will pay more.  With a merger taxpayers will pay less. We could spend hours debating how much more or less. That is because it is difficult to predict the decisions a new unified board will make, other spending across the state and what the Common Level of Appraisal (CLA) will be.  Many of these variables are out of the control of local boards. That’s how the crazy formula works.

We do know though that not merging means walking away from 1) approximately 5.7 million dollars in just the reduction of the tax rate over 5 years.  In the first year it is 10 cents, in the second, 8, in the third, 6, in the fourth 4 and in the fifth, 2; 2) Approximately one third of the benefit occurs in the first year, an equivalent of approximately $1,816,000 based on last year’s numbers;  3)130K in grant transition money; 4) 100K in efficiency savings for things that are duplicated now in all seven districts (e.g. seven audits are reduced to one); 5) keeping the small schools grant money indefinitely (about 110K annually); and whatever financial savings can be generated from a waiver against the spending target thresholds.

In September 2015 when those threshold targets were published, our schools collectively would have needed to cut approximately $1,179,000 to avoid the double tax penalty, with 800K at HUHS alone. We do not yet know what the not to exceed targets will be for next year, but the picture doesn’t look pretty. Out of the gate the state will be short an estimated 35.8 million: 18.8 million in surplus from the education fund and 17 million in reserve rainy day funds ponied up by local boards to meet the targets this year, both of which artificially soften the tax blow this year.  But if we are merged, these targets are waived for at least next year.

Further savings come from being held harmless from declining enrollment, and not having taxes rise above 5% regardless of spending. This is of real benefit to our communities, given the bond we will need to bring Harwood up to code and complete necessary repairs to this 1960’s facility. Other, more complex elements also save money on the incentives side.

Everyone should be aware that merging could bring negative consequences, as well. Change is hard and sometimes uncomfortable. There is a sense of loss of local control and town identity. Some are afraid of taking on others' indebtedness, though our calculations show that it all ends up pretty even. The committee addressed many of these challenges in the Articles. It can be unsettling to not have a complete picture of what decisions will be made by the new unified board in the future.


Act 46 is here to stay. The bottom line is, Vermont has chosen to pay for all schools out of one check book.  As such, it doesn't matter what the tax rate is in any given town. If we merge, our towns will pay less.  If we don't, our towns will pay more.  Even though many may have concerns about consolidation, the tax incentives offered appear too great to ignore. It is my hope that on June 7th, informed voters will have weighed the pros and cons and made the difficult decision as to what is best for our six WWSU districts. Regardless of the outcome, I ask that you take a minute to sincerely thank your local school board members for the countless hours of meetings and study that they have put into this work. They are a tremendous bunch of people and I feel honored to work with them.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Act 46: Where Are We in the WWSU?

The Act 46 WWSU Study Committee, the WWSU Executive Board, and the WWSU administration have been meeting twice a month for almost eight months studying this law. Act 46 requires supervisory unions to  merge into one board with one budget in what Act 46 calls a "preferred structure" that serves grades Pre K-12. We can do this now, with some local choice along the way, and receive incentives, or we can sit back and wait until the Agency of Education(AOE) and State Board of Education(SBE) merge us anyway by 2019.  Doing it later means doing it their way, without incentives and enduring other serious negative financial consequences for several years.

I would like to remind everyone that all the documents, previous press releases, and financial calculations that the Study Committee has worked with can be found on our website at wwsu.org

The study work has been completed and all the reports submitted. Three important documents were generated and sent to the AOE and our attorney for review. These documents are The Articles of Agreement, which spells out the specifics particular to our WWSU schools, the narrative Study Committee Report with appendices, including financial calculations and projections, and a summary of all the individual schools' assets, debts, surpluses, and deficits, and finally, the required Study Committee Worksheet. All three documents can be found on our WWSU website on the homepage and under the Act 46 tab. All of our meetings have been recorded by Mad River TV Channel 44 - who deserve our thanks -  and can be viewed by anyone via your computer.

The State Board of Education will consider our plan for moving forward and may approve it at their meeting on April 19th. The Study Committee will hold four public forums to present their findings and to engage the public in a Q & A. These forums will be March 31st at HUHS in the library at 6:30; April 27th at HUHS in the library at 6:30; May 11th at Thatcher Brook Primary School in the gym at 6:30; and May 25th at the Big Picture in Waitsfield at 6:30. A big thanks goes to the Big Picture for hosting us and donating the use of their space.

At future meetings, the Study Committee and Executive Board will further develop a thorough communication plan. Individual "story cards" are being developed for each town identifying the pros and cons specific to that town. The communications plan is not fully decided upon but will likely include a mailer to all voters and possibly an insert in the local papers. All towns will vote by Australian ballot on June 7th. A Public Hearing will be held in each town within 10 days prior to the vote.

I encourage every taxpayer to become informed, get his/her questions answered, attend the forums and Public Hearings and come out to vote. In my opinion, Act 46 is not a perfect law, but it is law. It is not going away, any more than Act 60 or 68 is.  Our reports provide pages and pages of pros, cons, predictions, calculations and the like.

We could spend many hours discussing the law based on student opportunities and equity, efficiencies and operational capacity, and what sharing students could mean for our towns in what will continue to be years of declining enrollment. In the end I believe this vote will likely be about reducing or slowing the growth of property taxes.

Nine other supervisory unions in Vermont have already held their votes. All nine voted to merge, and to form one board with one budget in order to capture the significant incentives offered. None of these votes were close. They passed with a 70% margin of voters in favor. That is because those taxpayers believe they cannot afford their schools now, there will be no status quo to hang onto, they will be forced to merge within a few years anyway, and that the incentives are too great to walk away from.  They also believe -- and rightly -- that taking this action will reduce and/or slow the growth of property taxes.

The bottom line is without a merger taxpayers will pay more.  With a merger taxpayers will pay less. We could spend hours debating how much more or less. That is because it is difficult to predict the decisions a new unified board will make, other spending across the state and what the Common Level of Appraisal (CLA) will be.  Many of these variables are out of the control of local boards.

Not to merge means walking away from 1) approximately 5.7 million dollars in just the reduction of the tax rate.  In the first year it is 10 cents, in the second,8, in the third, 6, in the fourth 4 and in the fifth, 2; 2) 120K in grant transition money; 3) 100K in efficiency savings for things that are duplicated now in all seven districts (e.g. seven audits are reduced to one); 4) keeping the small schools grant money indefinitely (about 110K annually); and whatever financial savings can be generated from a waiver against the spending target thresholds.  Further savings come from being held harmless from declining enrollment, and not having taxes rise above 5% regardless of spending. Other, more complex elements, also save money on the incentives side.

There could be negative consequences. Change is hard and sometimes uncomfortable. There is a sense of loss of local control and town identity. Some are afraid of taking on others' indebtedness, though our calculations show that it all ends up pretty even.

Act 46 is here to stay. The bottom line is, Vermont has chosen to pay for all schools out of one check book.  As such, it doesn't matter what the tax rate is in any given town. If we merge, our towns will pay less.  If we don't, our towns will pay more.  It is my hope that on June 7th, informed voters will have weighed the pros and cons and made the difficult decision as to what is best for our six WWSU districts.