BARRE — The lull didn’t last long and two weeks after suggesting COVID-19 cases appeared to have “peaked” in the Barre Unified Union School District, Interim Superintendent Chris Hennessey told the School Board he spoke too soon.
That’s not all the board heard during a Thursday night session that opened with an educator’s plea for “community support” amid challenges associated with the pandemic and saw a parent renew his plea members “come clean” over a parting payment he claims was made to former superintendent David Wells.
Before it was over, the board approved a first-ever lease with the Central Vermont Career Center and learned the first draft of a $46.9 million budget proposal contained a $134,000 mistake.
Speaking on behalf of the Barre Educators Association, Rachel Van Vliet was given the first word and special educator at Barre Town Middle and Elementary School used her two minutes and then some to describe a school system nearing its breaking point.
“We’re trying to meet the increased social, emotional and behavioral needs of our students, scrambling to provide the instruction and content that was missed in the past year and a half, covering for staff who are out, and attempting to fill in for the vacant positions,” she said, acknowledging those pandemic-related challenges are similar to those experienced in school districts around the state and the country.
However, Van Vliet said the Barre district faces additional hurdles. In addition to being large by Vermont standards, she cited its disproportionately high number of children living in poverty and noted that, under a contract that expired nearly five months ago, local educators work more days than their counterparts in neighboring districts and aren’t paid “competitive” wages.
According to Van Vliet, that makes recruiting and retaining qualified staff more challenging and makes meeting the needs of students more challenging.
Van Vliet never mentioned negotiations, which remain unresolved and were discussed by the board during a meeting-ending executive session, and she didn’t propose any solutions to the problems she cited.
“We don’t have a clear answer right now, but we know we need help,” she said. “We need support from the Barre community.”
Van Vliet said one thing was clear to those who work in the school system.
“Damage is being done right now even if it isn’t easy to see from the outside,” she said, adding: “This community has a decision to make: ‘Do we want to rise to meet the challenges presented, or do we want our schools to whither?’”
Hennessey echoed Van Vliet’s sobering assessment and told the board the hopeful forecast he provided two weeks ago had an extremely short shelf life.
According to Hennessey, numbers that had briefly started trending down have since spiked and the three-school district has recorded 17 confirmed COVID cases since Oct. 31.
In a state that just logged 1,100 cases in two days — a record-setting 595 on Thursday followed by another 505 on Friday — Hennessey said vaccination clinics for the district’s youngest students can’t come fast enough.
Barring a change 335 students ages 5 to 11 will receive their first doses of the Pfizer vaccine next Tuesday and Wednesday at Barre City Elementary School and another 100 students at Barre Town Middle and Elementary School during school-based clinics set for next Thursday and Saturday.
Hennessey said the clinics, which will be run by the state Health Department are currently full, but urged parents to continue trying to make appointments on the chance there is truth to rumors additional doses of the vaccine may be allocated to the district.
Hennessey said the vaccines could represent “light at the end of the tunnel,” while noting the staffing challenges referenced by Van Vliet earlier in the evening were real and remained an impediment to the district’s participating in the state’s “Test to Stay” program.
That program offers district’s the option of allowing asymptomatic students considered “close contacts” of someone diagnosed with COVID to remain in school by passing a rapid antigen test administered daily.
The problem in the Barre district’s two pre-K-8 schools, and to a lesser extent at Spaulding High School, is a lack of staff to administer the tests.
Barre Town parent Marcy Kreitz she’d be willing to volunteer.
“I would be happy to try to help because I think our kids are worth it,” said Kreitz, a social worker who administers the tests for her current employer.
Hennessey told Kreitz he might take her up on her offer.
“If we can get a big group of volunteers we can start considering this,” he said, noting that while the district has received offers of volunteer help from roughly 20 residents, Kreitz was the first to volunteer to assist with implementing the Test to Stay program.
Meanwhile, another Barre Town parent, Josh Howard, renewed his request the board publicly disclose the terms of a separation agreement with Wells he claims included an $85,000 payment that was “hidden” at a time the board was struggling to get its budget passed earlier this year.
“I think it’s time to come clean,” he said.
At the time of Wells’ abrupt resignation, The Times Argus inquired about a possible payment, but was told the matter was confidential.
Howard has since publicly raised the issue three times, noting during one of them the board’s refusal to answer was at odds with what occurred in the neighboring Washington Central Unified Union School District. The board in that district accepted the resignation of its own first year superintendent earlier this year and disclosed the terms of the arrangement, which included a payment significantly larger than the one Howard claims Wells received.
In a bit of good news, board members were told the first draft of the budget mistakenly reflected an increase of $199,000 to reinstate and expand assistant coaches’ salaries across all sports. That number, they were told was off by $135,000. The increase needed to pay all the district’s assistant coaches — most of whom have historically volunteered — is actually about $65,000. The $199,000 figure reflects the cost of salaries for coaches and assistant coaches. Only the latter would be a new budgetary expense.