MONTPELIER — The Montpelier-Roxbury School Board got off to a fast start Wednesday night, but stumbled near the finish line when talk turned from investing in the district’s long-neglected track to the “toxic environment” that had one board member requesting a “restorative circle” with Superintendent Libby Bonesteel.
The words “tension” and “friction” were used to describe the result of what School Director Amanda Garces and others repeatedly characterized as a “communications issue.”
It’s one Garces said has persisted since she joined the board six months ago and has left her feeling “unwelcome” and occasionally “attacked.”
Those are loaded words, but they are the ones Garces used, and she tossed in “toxic environment” for good measure during what turned into a near hour-long discussion that concluded with board members agreeing they probably need professional help.
That’s how it ended.
It began with Garces balking at the chance to inquire about an administrative plan to spend the second batch of federal funding the district will receive from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund.
“I don’t feel really welcome to ask questions around ESSER 2 funds,” she said without elaborating.
Garces didn’t need to because when the subject first surfaced two weeks ago, board members were reminded their role with respect to the ESSER money is purely advisory and the decisions had essentially been made.
That didn’t sit well with Garces, who views herself as a voice for equity on the board and had questions about the decision-making process.
At the time, School Director Jill Remick pushed back, suggesting she resented the implication the district’s professional educators hadn’t made equity a part of their calculus and based their decisions on what was best for all students.
The brief exchange prompted a flurry of emails that had one member who missed the meeting — Andrew Stein — and another who left early — Gerri Huck — watching the video.
Both came away with the same impression.
“Some of these questions don’t come across as questions they come across as expectations and accusations,” Stein told Garces after School Director Emma Bay-Hanson’s attempt to “clear the air” over what she characterized as a “misunderstanding.”
“I don’t think it was communicated very well to the board what our role was going to be in the ESSER process and the decision-making process,” she said.
The observation quickly blossomed into an uncomfortable conversation.
Some board members didn’t say anything, and Bonesteel didn’t say much, but she did remind school directors that if they have questions, emailing them to her is appreciated, but actually asking them in public is required.
As far as the ESSER 2 money, Bonesteel reiterated the funds, like other grants the district receives, are revenue to the district and how they are spent isn’t really the board’s call.
“Unless I’m making decisions that go against policy blatantly … then those are operational decisions for me to make.”
Bonesteel said the third round of money from the ESSER Fund does require “meaningful consultation” by August. She said school officials are looking for clarity about what that means, but it will likely involve preparing a plan to spend the money and soliciting feedback on the proposal. It won’t be an opportunity for people to dictate how they believe the money should be spent.
That’s when Garces said she felt “unwelcome” and “attacked” and defended her right to inquire about how public money was being spent.
“If asking questions … are being seen as an attack on the administration we have huge communication issues,” she said.
Garces bristled at the “stay in your lane” line she said she has been fed since being appointed to fill a vacant board seat last December, suggesting the board has bigger problems.
“We really should rethink the issue that we have around the way that we treat each other,” she said. “That is not healthy. It’s a toxic environment and we need to be able to solve that.”
Enter Stein, who noted that intended or not, Garces’ delivery helped fuel the “friction,” an assessment later echoed by Huck, who said she was struggling to understand what the issue with respect to the ESSER 2 funding was.
Huck said there was a community meeting, a podcast and emails from Bonesteel starting in March that kept the board and the community well-briefed on plans for the money.
“I think the process was relatively straightforward,” she said.
Huck said concerns about equity in this instance were, in her view, misplaced.
“I feel like the administration is 100% committed and are basing the financial decisions on equity, diversity and inclusion,” she said. “I’m just not clear what is missing?”
Neither was Stein.
“Can you paint a picture of what equity looks like in this case?” he asked.
The question drew a rambling response, but no direct answer from Garces who said accessing remedial summer programs could be an issue for single mothers working full-time jobs and noted mountain bikes are “expensive” perhaps putting one of the district’s summer programs out of reach for some children.
School Director Mia Moore said in her view, reaching out to families the district doesn’t normally hear from should be part of the equity work.
Before it was over Garces suggested the board explore its new-found interest in restorative justice.
“I’d like to actually engage in a restorative circle with Libby,” she said of Bonesteel.
Garces went on to note there may be a cultural component to the “toxicity” she feels every month. She said she has been the victim of “tone policing” and believed she was being judged for everything from the way she talks, to the way she moves her hands while speaking, and the questions she asks.
By then it was clear to everyone that the issue — to the extent there is one — wasn’t going to be resolved before the board adjourned.
Bay-Hanson acknowledged as much, noting board members shared a common goal.
“We all want what’s best for the kids and what’s best for the schools,” she said, adding she was confident Bonesteel enjoyed the board’s support.
However, Bay-Hanson said she didn’t want to be “dismissive” of the feelings expressed by Garces.
“It stings to hear Amanda (Garces) say she doesn’t feel welcome or safe asking certain questions and that feels like something that needs to be addressed and taken seriously,” she said.
Stein proposed retaining facilitator to work with the board to sort through the issues that were raised.
Chairman Jim Murphy agreed — suggesting finding someone with a background in equity issues and board operations would be optimal.
Throughout the discussion Murphy reminded Garces and others that the board’s roles and responsibilities are well-defined and complaining about them was a waste of everyone’s time.
“We’re struggling to figure out a way to operate within the board role effectively,” he said.