BARRE — A school board whose meetings have been described by frustrated administrators as “not normal” just did it again — in a good way.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing, but Thursday night’s meeting of the Barre Unified School Board fit the “not normal” narrative in a way that pretty much everyone felt good about by the time it was over.
Superintendent Chris Hennessey was at the very front of that line.
Hennessey, who has endured a rough month since he and a mix of administrators, staff and community members publicly challenged the board to do better, suggested Thursday night’s session hit the sweet spot.
“I just want to thank the board and the community for the incredible support tonight,” Hennessey said as the public portion of a meeting that, at times, had a pep rally vibe. “I assure you it was appreciated by the administrators and staff.”
That was before the board went into an executive session that included an unscheduled discussion of an issue — Hennessey’s recent performance — that Chair Sonya Spaulding said was resolved following a similar closed-door meeting on Monday.
Spaulding didn’t misspeak when reading a brief statement on behalf the board Monday night, but for whatever reason, board members made it official Thursday night.
“I would like to make a motion that the board has recognized this is a personnel matter, and the issue has been resolved,” said School Director Alice Farrell, echoing the earlier statement.
The motion was unanimously approved — capping a night during which there were honest disagreements, no deep division and a whole lot of appreciation for some of the things the two-town, three-school district is doing.
The meeting was on Thursday night in Barre when residents, still riding a homecoming high, liked a lot of what they heard and board members who have been getting to know the schools said they like what they’ve seen.
Credit the decision to move the reports of Hennessey and building administrators to the top of the agenda instead of leaving them for last when, on late nights — and there have been a lot of late nights in Barre — the written reports typically speak for themselves and don’t generate many questions.
With the exception of the superintendent’s, the reports themselves are not normal.
Other boards get that information in different ways; principals’ reports aren’t routinely part of the public packet of board meeting materials, or included on meeting agendas.
They are in Barre. That was a good thing Thursday night because, after a pair of students from Barre City Elementary and Middle School finished a well-received presentation on a group that nurtures young leaders, board members, administrators and those in the audience were still fresh.
It’s probably why Brenda Waterhouse, co-principal of Barre City Elementary and Middle School, took the time to publicly praise behavior interventionist Marissa Craige for organizing PAWS — an acronym for “People Accessing Wholebeing Support” — that was successfully launched during an open house that briefly delayed the start of the meeting.
Fueled by donated items — from clothing and school supplies to hygiene products and sports equipment — the PAWS program is designed to offer families a free opportunity to get what they need for their children, and in some cases themselves, like many did at the open house.
Waterhouse brought the idea with her from Spaulding High School, where she served for several years as principal, but credited Craige for making it happen in her spare time.
The brief presentation sparked a “how can we help” response from those in the room and set a tone for a meeting that was just getting started.
So was Waterhouse, who plugged ongoing conversations with the YMCA she hoped would lead to the launch of an after-school child care program that would serve roughly 50 youngsters.
Farrell welcomed news the high school was resuming what had been an annual trip to Costa Rica before the pandemic and several spoke about Spaulding’s successful homecoming weekend.
Michael Deering, a city councilor, was one of them.
Deering who offered his assistance to the students who spoke and later to Craige, joined School Director Nancy Leclerc in suggesting there needs to be a serious conversation about constructing a sidewalk that serves the new Allen Street home of an alternative program for students with special needs.
School Director Terry Reil said he definitely planned to attend a coffee with the principals planned at Barre Town Middle and Elementary School and said he left a recent visit to Spaulding High School impressed by what he observed.
“I came out feeling, ‘I think we’re almost back to normal,’” said Leclerc, who like Reil, had a favorable impression of a faculty both described as student-centered and achievement-oriented.
For his part, Hennessey mentioned the recently launched “community coalition,” similar to one Barre Police Chief Braedon Vail helped start in Hartford, to provide assistance to vulnerable families. Vail, he said, was an active and welcome participant in the fledgling coalition in Barre.
“Schools can’t do this alone,” he said.
Though there was one call for “investigation” into recent events, even that was couched in terms of clearing up any lingering “cloud.”
When talk turned to student discipline — an issue that was the subject of some criticism and concern as school was ending earlier this year — those who spoke indicated there is a perceptible difference this year.
That included the mother of a middle school student who was beaten on the bike path near Barre City Elementary and Middle School by fellow students back in June.
“I’ve definitely seen a difference in how things are handled,” Stacy Hubbell said, expressing a sentiment shared by Deering, who praised the district for its proactive response to concerns raised earlier this year.
Hennessey said “clear expectations” have been set for students, and they appear to be making a difference, but he isn’t declaring victory yet.
“We still have work to do,” he said, noting other districts are struggling with similar issues.
The closest thing to controversy the board encountered Thursday night involved a proposal to install LED lights at Spaulding High School.
All agreed the shift from fluorescent to LED lighting was a good idea and would pay for itself over time, but Reil said she wasn’t sold on the need for new fixtures and viewed retrofitting existing fixtures as a more economical option.
Reil wasn’t wrong, but the rest of the board agreed other advantages to investing in new fixtures — from aesthetic to technological — offset the savings.
Though the board almost postponed a decision for more information, they opted not to risk losing a guaranteed 3.99% interest rate they said would expire before their next meeting.
The board voted, 7-1, in favor of entering a 10-year lease agreement to finance the $719,000 project that will replace all the lights in the high school, as well as the Spaulding-based Central Vermont Career Center. Energy savings and rebates are expected to offset much, but not all of the annual payment, which will be roughly $88,600.