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Two 'no' voters: Why the Harwood Bond failed
By Beniamino Nardin, Harwood High School
November 2nd, the day of the Harwood bond vote, was a cold, crisp Tuesday. Around midday, in the Waitsfield Elementary School parking lot, residents hurried in and out of the building to cast their ballots.
Few offered comment.
In the weeks leading up to the vote, there were heated exchanges between community members, particularly on Facebook. In one post, a man told a teacher to put on his “big boy pants.”
Some citizens did stop to share their views, but asked to remain anonymous.
“We’re excited,” said two parents. “We know how important this is for the future of the students.”
A younger man emphasized that “this bond will impact the next 25 years. Simply investing in education and young people is essential to the success and longevity of the Valley.”
Others were less supportive. “As much as I want that school to improve, I don’t know if it’s the time,” said an older woman. “Why didn’t we do this 10 years ago?”
In fact, an earlier bond failed in 2009. The current bond has been in the works for 7 years.
The $59,545,312 bond was a proposal to improve and renovate the Harwood Union High School building, consolidate the district’s two middle schools and provide Harwood students with new educational opportunities.
The bond failed — by a 3 to 1 margin.
“The resounding ‘no’ vote is definitely a disappointment,” School Board Chair Torrey Smith told The Valley Reporter. “Our board worked intensively over the last several years to find agreement on what to include in the bond, and this proposal was overwhelmingly supported by our board members.”
Students had also been hopeful.
The core of the bond would have refurbished the Harwood high school building. Students have to deal with sagging roofs, chafing asbestos tiling, trash cans maneuvered in the hallways to capture a steady leak of tea-colored water, old duct-taped baseboards, yellowing, crusting paint, and a parking lot pocked with potholes. They were eager to see the Harwood building get the improvements and renovations it desperately needs.
“I was surprised by how big the split was,” said Wanda Sullivan, a Harwood senior. “I was surprised that people didn’t really seem to value our learning environment as much as I thought.”
So why did the bond fail?
In all, 2,599 residents across the six towns voted no.
Although every voter differs, conversations with two longtime Warren residents show that, like issues in school communities across the state, Harwood’s divisive school bond ended up being less about education and more about economics, and tensions in the community.
In the summer of 1966, Randy Taplin left New York University and traveled to Vermont, where he built houses in Warren.
“I was a fairly competent carpenter,” said Taplin. “And I thought, ‘God, this is gonna be so much more fun than being an English professor.’ ”
Back at NYU that fall, he had an epiphany. “I was like ‘Forget this,’ ” he said. He returned to Vermont, where he’s been ever since.
Today, Taplin works at a sawmill in Warren, Vermont, one of the six towns whose children attend Harwood Union High School.
He was a select board member for eleven years and has been actively involved in the community.
“I have an emotional connection to Harwood,” he said. “My son went there, my daughter went there.”
Taplin said he’s “an old-fashioned liberal” who believes in funding education.
He also opposed the Harwood bond.
“I never voted against a school funding issue in my life,” he said. “A lot of people voted against a school board vote for the first time in their lives, and they’re feeling crappy about it.”
Like many voters, Taplin saw a difference between what the school needed and what the school wanted.
The bond contained four different sections.
$22 million would have gone to the necessary fixes to the school. These include a new roof, a repaved parking lot and new windows to improve natural light.
$14 million would cover the general function and efficiency of the building, like improving insulation, lighting, heating and furnishing.
$17 million would fund new opportunities for students, like a second gym, a new outdoor track and brand-new science labs.
The last $6 million would add space to Crossett Brook Middle School, to accommodate consolidation with the Harwood Union Middle School.
Taplin does know that, in some shape or form, a bond is necessary.
“For years, the Harwood school board has been remiss in not maintaining that building,” said Taplin. “It isn’t the current board’s fault. There’s plenty of blame to go around.”
“[But I] don’t believe in this catch-all bill they put forth,” he said. “The price tag was too high.”
To Taplin, it felt like “something that hadn’t been thought out, excessive and overambitious, and out of touch with what the common guy can manage.”
He disagreed with the plan for a second gymnasium and a state-of-the-art track. “Kids have to have good facilities,” he said. “But they don’t have to have top-of-the-line facilities, especially when people are feeling pinched.”
There are important economic differences between the six towns in the district. Where Warren’s per capita income is $47,000, both Waterbury and Duxbury’s is $36,000.
The towns situated in the heart of The Valley, closest to the ski resorts Sugarbush and Mad River Glen, have higher per capita income than other towns.
Had the bond passed, it would have increased the education tax rate by $0.14, or about 8%.
Taxpayers with a home valued at $250,000 would have paid an additional $350 per year, and a home valued at $500,000 would pay about $700 more.
A property valued at $200,000 in Warren was already paying upwards of $4,300 a year in property taxes.
For Taplin, the bond vote was a clear message that the school board hadn’t listened to the community.
“When I was a school board member, I’d call someone up and have a one-on-one conversation,” he said. “The reason you have a member from each town is that that guy is supposed to have his ear to the ground in his town asking, ‘What do you think about this proposal?’”
He said another bond vote should be held soon, but the bond should be half the price and much more concentrated.
Not everyone sees things the way Taplin does.
Jane Regan, Harwood history teacher, had a different idea of what the Harwood bond should have prioritized.
She recognized the necessity of the building’s upgrade on a pedagogical and environmental level, but she felt there was something significant missing from the bond.
“It’s too bad that none of the funding is going to human resources,” said Regan. “You can have the most beautiful building, but if there’s no staff to run it...”
Although Regan supported the bond, she feels that too often teachers are overlooked.
“What about the people that clean our halls? They keep this school running,” she said. Regan recognized that the bond was a “one-time thing” that would address a multiplicity of issues, but she strongly believes that human resources need to be moved into the spotlight.
“Human resources can’t be paid a fair wage,” Regan said. “They need to be paid a good wage.”
Jito Coleman has lived in the Valley for 41 years. He spent 40 years working in the renewable energy business, serving as chief engineer and president of Northern Power for 25 years and a renewable power consultant for a subsequent 10 years.
“Both my kids went through Harwood and the school system here,” said Coleman. “Both got a great education. Both have done very well for themselves.”
But when Harwood’s bond was on the ballot, he voted against it.
For Coleman, the bond vote was about the identity of the community. He said he approaches school issues with a lens of “Is this who we are? Is this how we think?”
Harwood Union High School is situated in Duxbury, just outside Waitsfield’s border. Six miles north is Crossett Brook Middle School.
For many taxpayers, the proposal to consolidate the middle schools was unacceptable.
The consolidation was unpopular because it would mean a longer commute for Warren, Fayston, and Waitsfield students, who would need to bus an extra half hour each day.
“It’s evidence of the ram-down-your-throat consolidation, a restructuring with a vision of some big suburban school district,” said Coleman.
Coleman thought the bond vote was also a referendum on the outgoing HUUSD superintendent, Brigid Nease.
“Since she arrived in the Valley, she hasn’t felt comfortable with the culture and the attitude of the community,” said Coleman. “Everything that’s happened since she arrived has eroded the ability of the community to participate in school decisions.”
Nease declined to comment for this story.
But the bond vote was bigger than any one person. As in other communities across Vermont, the tension surrounding consolidation has deeper roots.
In 2016, the Act 46 School Governance Consolidation merged 45 districts in 39 towns across Vermont to form 11 new union school districts.
This act merged the towns of Waterbury, Warren, Waitsfield, Moretown, Fayston and Duxbury into the Harwood Unified Union School District (HUUSD).
36% of Warren voters opposed the Act 46 consolidation, while only 6% of Waterbury voters did.
“It’s not about Vermont, it’s not about The Valley,” Coleman said. “(It was being) homogenized into some suburbanized vision of how things are done.”
The bond vote brought all these issues together and maximized them, highlighting the political disconnect in the community.
“When you get a vote like that,” Coleman said, “the feeling is visceral.”
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