FAIR HAVEN — The newly-formed Slate Valley Unified Union School District — merging the schools of Castleton, Hubbardton, Orwell, Benson, West Haven and Fair Haven — is hoping to file for bonds in May or September to update and reconfigure school infrastructure.
“Our schools no longer fully support either the existing or future educational programs that this community desires for its children,” Superintendent Brooke Olsen-Farrell said in a statement. “Addressing our facility needs is an essential step in realizing our district’s educational vision.”
Olsen-Farrell said Fair Haven Union High School is due for decades-old deferred maintenance. Now that $437,000 in school safety upgrades have been completed, the front of the high school has been redesigned and the merged district has been formed, school officials are deciding how to better serve students with the current facilities.
“This project isn’t focusing on how old the buildings are and what buildings might close,” said Casey O’Meara, director of curriculum for the district. “We’re thinking about how we want education to look going forward: What do you see education looking like in this district? It has to be more of a conversation: How can students be best served to meet their needs? What’s necessary to be productive as members of a society?”
Olsen-Farrell said the district is also considering creating a middle school, possibly on the high school grounds.
Also, the district is hoping to better serve its younger generations by transforming the Castleton Village School into an early childhood center, in collaboration with Castleton University, Olsen-Farrell said.
“We’re looking at a huge bond for the district and re-configuring our schools for 2021,” Olsen-Farrell said. “When budget cuts had to happen, it was in maintenance. If we’re going to address that issue by putting out a bond, we’re seizing the opportunity to re-organize our space.”
In addition to replacing HVAC systems, updating buildings for ADA compliance and hiring new staff, Olsen-Farrell said the school district has formed a Slate Valley Innovation Committee, a group of district parents and community members tasked with brainstorming ideas for future district development.
“Exploratory, innovation committee meetings are open to the public,” Olsen-Farrell said. “A presentation to the School Board will be on (Jan. 28), and from there we’ll go out and solicit more community feedback.”
“I have a 7-year-old, and I’m interested in making sure her education is equal to everyone else’s,” said Benson resident Gerry Volpe, a parent representative on the Slate Valley Innovation Committee. “I’m also a lifelong educator, in addition to being a taxpayer and a parent.”
Volpe said he’d like to see more involvement on a district-wide basis and for the district to adopt a more collective, structured system.
“We’re starting to see that,” Volpe said. “I really value the small Vermont-school experience, but I want to make sure she has the same opportunities as everyone else. I’m hoping for movement that will balance both of those, and still balance the smaller community and the smaller school and make sure they have the same opportunities.”
The district underwent more than $437,000 in security upgrades to its schools that weren’t initially budgeted for, including creating the Addison-Rutland Supervisory Union Public Safety Team. The team is a combined effort of local law enforcement, fire department and administration that helped develop new safety procedures going forward, including building-based teams that meet on a month-to-month basis and new visitor procedures.
New safety audits were done in all of the buildings, and new cameras, card access systems and classroom doors were installed, all while the ARSU moved from its location in downtown Fair Haven to its new home in the high school.
Film was placed on the high school windows to shield classrooms from outside eyes, and the school district applied for grants to address mental health needs while updating threat-assessment protocol and adding school-based clinicians and school resource officer positions.
The district hired 60 new faculty members this year, and are considering the creation of a makerspace and partnerships with community health centers in Rutland for telemedicine, so that sick students can stay in school while meeting with a doctor through a computer screen, a pilot program that Olsen-Farrell said she hopes to start at Fair Haven Grade School this year.
“The evolution of Act 77 has created a different language inside the schools,” O’Meara said. “We’re looking at what we want for all of our kids, and we’re working with a consultant who took us through the process. ... We’re asking (community members) what would be your dream list? There’s an excitement to that process.”