Parents, Students and Staff React to Hazen Austerity Budget

by Doug McClure

HARDWICK — On Thursday, January 7, the Hazen Union School Board held an informational session proposing a greatly reduced school budget for FY2022.

At the meeting, Orleans Southwest Supervisory Union (OSSU) Director of Finance Brittany Currie explained that an error put the school over the state-mandated threshold for cost per equalized pupil. The state penalizes schools that spend too much on their students. The penalty was further exacerbated by another drop in the school’s enrollment, she said. A bond vote to address the half-century-old building’s infrastructure problems was scrapped in the fall due to financial issues caused by COVID-19.

“There were no good choices, just a bunch of really bad choices,” Principal David Perrigo said. “Nobody feels good about this, nobody feels that this is a step toward making Hazen a better, stronger place for our kids. This is all pretty unfortunate that we have to do this.”

Perrigo said steps were taken to avoid staffing cuts, including a 32% cut to instructional and tech supplies and a reduction in the maintenance budget for professional services. Even so, cuts to faculty and staff were unavoidable, he said.

Every department with the exception of athletics and driver education saw double-digit cuts. Athletics remained the only department with funding equal to that of three years ago with a 59.41% increase from FY2021’s budget. Athletics’ $150,103 proposed budget is greater than the combined budgets for math, English, music, P.E., art, world languages, science, social studies, technical education, and driver education. [Ed. Note: the increase in the athletics budget is in large part due to a reclassification of expenses. Please see related article on the revised Hazen budget]. World languages was cut by $5,984, or 86%, social studies by 71%, and P.E. by 54%. Math, English, music, science, and driver education were cut by slightly under 50%.

Salaries for teachers are proposed to take a 7.46% cut while coaches’ salaries would be kept the same. Mid-management salaries were increased by 58%. Supplies for the drama department are proposed to get a 91.3% cut of $5,250 to $500 for the entire year. The food budget was cut by 36.71%.

The overall proposed budget cuts work out to 5.06%.

Residents, teachers, and current and former students at the meeting took exception that the arts departments would take the biggest hits, including effectively losing two staff members. Tech ed./ woodshop teacher James Raas, who is part of that department, said he had “dedicated 32 years of my teaching career to the OSSU” and “I see our shop as the engine that powers our whole school curriculum.” He said his department embodied every initiative the OSSU was taking, including learner agency, Flexible Pathways, Personalized Learning Plans, and social-emotional learning. Raas said shop class “often provides a calming effect”, especially for students who have experienced trauma, and the shop itself helps every other department in the school. “As hard as these [budget] decisions may be, please don’t drain the oil from the engine,” he said. “Instead, make every attempt to maintain a healthy engine and power us in the future. Keep the position full-time.” Raas later compared the cuts to a similar situation with Craftsbury Academy’s budget years ago, what he called a “downward spiral” of successive yearly budget cuts. “Less things and less choices mean less people will be interested in joining your school,” he said.

Music teacher Talan Bryant described the school’s arts and music programs as “pretty high-achieving programs that can keep up with programs from around the state.” He listed the music department’s accomplishments and said “Music serves as a form of self-discovery that goes beyond just the elective of music. There’s a therapeutic benefit.”

Art teacher James Lockhart said, “I’ve had so many kids over the years tell me that art class was the only reason they were coming into school. Arts is where all the other [educational] content is applied. These electives are very important to these students. Some of them wouldn’t come to school otherwise.”

World languages and martial arts teacher Anja Pfeffer said “We cannot afford to cut any personnel. We talk constantly about a trauma-responsive approach to teaching which we desperately need and will need more as time goes on. It’s the relationships and ways of relating to the students that are key. It’s not the curriculum, it’s the relationships.” She added that cuts to support staff already operating on too thin of a margin would be problematic.

Several current and recently graduated students agreed. Lucas Whitaker, a senior last year, said, “I’ve been to, I believe, seven different schools in my life and Hazen had the best arts department I’ve been a part of.” He said a family tragedy made his senior year “very rough” and the arts teachers helped him get through it. “I think the happiness and mental health of the students is important, and for a lot of people, it’s lifesaving,”
Whitaker said. “I know for me music and arts has been what’s kept me going. Without that, a lot of students would have a very hard time even getting through the day.”

Senior Leo McMurtrie, who said he moved here from Boston in 2015, echoed Whitaker’s words. “I have been someone who, along with plenty of other people I know, struggled with their mental health,” he said. “A lot of the aspects of school didn’t help, such as bullying. The arts have been somewhere where I actually felt comfort. I was able to be myself and express myself without fear of being judged or ostracized.” He said arts teachers “have really guided me through school. They have been a huge part of my life and I genuinely do not know where I would be without them. Arts is a huge part of my life and plenty of other people’s lives and taking that away would genuinely hurt a lot of students.”

Senior Olie Grant said they went to Hazen Union for both middle and high school and had the same math teacher for three years. “There has been no one more impactful than my teachers,” they said. “Whoever it is [that gets cut] is going to matter to someone a whole lot. The relationship we form with our teachers is very much a two-way street. That’s going to be really hard.”

Parent Susanne Gann, whose son attends Hazen, said “We need to invest in our schools now to attract families and get students to stay. Investing now means that in the future that tax rate will be decreased.” Like Raas, she referenced the budget cuts at Craftsbury Academy. She said if the board explained why the budget might incur a state penalty and increase taxes, taxpayers might be willing to accept it as Craftsbury taxpayers had. She added that the possibility of Raas being cut was “very upsetting” to her son. Gann said the dropout rate was raised as a concern in a prior principal’s report and “if you cut positions that students get excited about coming to school for …” She described the classes as “vital to kids” and the reason they feel motivated to come to school. “As a taxpayer, a mother, I would rather the board present to the taxpayers a budget that meets all these students’ needs and has a higher tax rate and face the consequences of it maybe failing than present a budget that doesn’t meet needs and fails,” she said.

Hazen Union graduate Daisy Reyes said she now attends UVM in large part because of the investment Hazen teachers made in her as a student. She said cuts would mean “lost moments for students, and for a lot of students, those moments could be the ones needed to push them through to graduate. Speaking from personal experience, if I had lost any of those relationships, I might not be where I am today.”

Resident and Wolcott Elementary school teacher Kim Beckley said “As a taxpayer, I would prefer to help schools that are fully funded, fully staffed, that are able to meet the needs of our students and meet the needs of the future of our town than cut these positions. It’s really hard to attract and keep people for half-time positions.”

Former student Anne Hanson said, “Hazen was a grounding place for me, the courses I was able to take, arts were growing at the time [and] they fortified me. It opened the doors to life beyond Hardwick.” She said she returned to Hardwick to work at the OSSU. “In this nation, in this time when there is so much disaffection, we really do have to think from the perspective of aspiration,” she said. “Who do we want to be?”