EAST MONTPELIER — The Washington Central School Board has launched what will be an ongoing conversation about school governance, and members have agreed that school administrators need to be active participants in that process.
A night that ended in division over whether to maintain membership in the Vermont School Boards Association began with consensus involving the importance of evaluating how best to run a recently merged pre-K-12 school district, as well as the role the district’s leadership team should play in that effort.
Though board members acknowledged it would have been tempting to defer discussion of a reading assignment that was part of a crowded agenda; they agreed that would be a mistake to do so.
They also agreed as they plow through the book “Equity, From the Boardroom to the Classroom: Transforming Districts Into Professional Learning Organizations”, they need to hear regularly from the people responsible for running their six schools. Everyone agreed on that point.
On that point everyone – from board members to building principals – agreed.
It isn’t a forever commitment, but for the foreseeable future the leadership team will attend the board’s biweekly meetings as it weighs a shift to the professional learning organization model outlined in the book they’re all reading.
Though some board members were concerned that might be asking too much of administrators, they were told not to worry about it.
Cat Fair, principal of Calais Elementary School, said she doesn’t relish more meetings, but said she is eager to participate in a conversation about collaboration and how to re-align a previously fragmented network of schools into one consolidated system.
“I feel like it’s important if we’re establishing a relationship that crosses five towns and … seven buildings that we meet every two weeks if you’re going to meet every two weeks,” she said as other administrators nodded their heads.
Aaron Boynton, principal of Berlin Elementary School, echoed that assessment, saying “We are building this together,” Boynton said, thanking board members for valuing administrative input in a process that will involve building trust. It is a conversation that could result in changes – some more subtle than others – said Alicia Lyford, principal of East Montpelier Elementary School. She said school staff will want to be briefed.
“If we weren’t here we would be out of the loop, as well and that leaves a lot of people out of the loop,” Lyford said, suggesting communication will be a crucial part of making any meaningful change.
Board members welcomed that response.
“It’s extremely encouraging to hear you guys say that,” School Director Jonas Eno-Van Fleet said. School Director Chris McVeigh said it was also helpful.
“We’re establishing a new entity and I think by not having administrators here … we’re just sliding back into the the old way of doing things,” he said.
Chairman Scott Thompson opened the discussion, by suggesting the board leave it to Interim Superintendent Debra Taylor to determine whether administrators who answer to her must attend board meetings.
Taylor said administrators had discussed the issue at a recent retreat and agreed their participation in helping stand up a pre-K-12 school district that includes elementary schools in Berlin, Calais, East Montpelier, Middlesex and Worcester as well as U-32 Middle and High School.
“As long as we’re continuing to develop a governance structure the … information our administrators can provide first hand is very valuable,” she said.
It was earlier in the meeting when board members and administrators huddled in small groups to discuss the fist two chapters of a book they’re scheduled to talk about twice a month through December.
A mix of optimism and excitement colored most of those conversations and the agenda item that was almost postponed for a second straight time.
School Director Flor Diaz-Smith made sure it wasn’t.
Though Diaz-Smith acknowledged the meeting was behind schedule she argued deferring the discussion again was unacceptable.
“I think this is the work we need to be doing,” she said.
Roughly 30 minutes later board members Chris McVeigh and Vera Frazier said they were on the same page.
While it would have been easy, McVeigh said postponing what he described as a productive conversation would have been a mistake and Frazier said figuring out how to run the merged school system was crucial.
“This is an important part of what we need to do as a board,” Frazier said. “We need to take the time.”
In other business, board members approved the purchase of $22,420 in playground equipment for Rumney Memorial School in Middlesex and authorized their finance committee to finalize the purchase of a tractor for Rumney after bids are received.
The board also appointed a three-member policy committee and has yet to resolve a lingering question about the scheduling of its annual meeting.
Ironing out that wrinkle may require a special school district meeting, because voters set Town Meeting Day as the date for the annual meeting, which is a town meeting style forum where the district’s moderator, clerk and treasurer are elected and frequently serves as a budget information meeting.
The district’s budget will be voted by Australian ballot on Town Meeting Day, creating a conflict for clerks, who, barring change in the date, would have to squeeze in an annual meeting, which would likely be held at U-32 before the polls open in their communities.
The board agreed to consult with clerks before determining how best to proceed.