Four of five seats are open on the Warren Elementary School Board this year with one candidate running unopposed for each seat. Below are brief bios of the candidates as well as their answers to three questions.
Alycia Biondo was appointed to the board last summer when Laurie Greenberg stepped down to accept a teaching position at Warren Elementary School. She will run for a three-year term. An Ohio native, Biondo came with her family to Warren — “the place we wanted to plant our roots and grow our family” — seven years ago. She has three children in Warren Elementary School and said that she would “help the newly elected people through the upcoming challenges that we will face as a town, a school and a parent and taxpayer community.”
Marie Schmukal is running for the final year of Michael Ketchel’s term as board chair. She moved to Warren from the Boston area with her family seven years ago and has two children who attend the school. She is currently the children’s and assistant librarian at the Warren Public Library with previous work experience in arts administration. She also volunteers as president of the Warren School PTO and is a member of the Vermont Symphony Orchestra chorus and the Mad River Chorale, as well as acting on the Valley Players’ stage.
Matt "Chicky" Staples was appointed to the board seven months ago and is running to serve an additional year. He has lived with his family in Warren for seven years coming from Portland, Maine. Staples has two children at Warren Elementary School and works as a property manager while coaching youth sports and performing solo and as part of a band. “I look forward to the coming year with an open mind,” he said.
Jennifer Watkins is running for a two-year term that Rob Rosen vacated. She is a labor and delivery nurse at Gifford Medical Center in Randolph and has two children in Warren Elementary School. Having grown up in Warren in a family of farmers, Watkins spent her childhood “watching neighbors helping neighbors and seeing this community come together to solve problems and grow into what it is today.”
VR: What are the most important issues facing Warren Elementary School in the next few years?
Biondo: They include, but are not limited to, the repair of our school building and school grounds, our budget — with our first deficit ever and how it will look if a bond vote is passed – and, of course, everything concerning Act 46 — a possible accelerated merger and what that looks like for our town, school, taxpayers and, most importantly, our children.
Schmukal: In the immediate, our biggest issue is dealing with a building that has suffered from deferred maintenance. Over the next few years, and assuming the voters of Warren vote yes on accelerated merger, maintaining the Warren Elementary School identity and values in the face of school consolidation will be one of the biggest challenges. Local control has already been chipped away in recent years and consolidation will bring even more loss.
Staples: The two most important issues are addressing the repairs to the building and a vote on whether to merge in an accelerated manner with the rest of the supervisory union. The former will require passage of a bond to pay for the repairs. This is not frivolous. It is an absolute necessity. The latter will require some real communication with the town as details unfold, as to what a merger would look like.
Watkins: I decided to run for a seat on the school board because I believe that Warren Elementary School and Valley communities are facing a tremendous challenge of deciding what to do in the face of Act 46. I think that how we face this challenge will have lasting impacts not only on the quality of education our children receive but also on the vibrancy and connectedness of our community.
VR: How would you define a well-functioning school board?
Biondo: It is a balanced board that includes parents, local business owners ("numbers people"), and we are lucky to have local legislator Adam Greshin who can keep us updated on what is happening at the state level and, most importantly, people who simply care. People that care about their town, taxpayers and our little people who are just trying to receive a quality educational experience. A well-functioning board listens to each other and the community and operates in a fiscally responsible manner.
Schmukal: It collaborates with the entire community, teachers and the administrators in balancing the educational, social and emotional needs of Warren’s children with the financial realities of living in a town with high property taxes.
Staples: In my limited experience on the board, it seems that a group of people that work with an open mind, solid communication and an understanding that the board is there only to ensure the best operations of the school are most likely to see success. A thick skin and an accounting background seem helpful as well. (I only have one of these.)
Watkins: It’s one that engages teachers, parents and community members, hears their concerns and ideas and then acts accordingly. Given the challenges of Act 46, I think it is especially important for the school board to take an active role in facilitating public forums and ensuring that our community is fully informed about all the options we have available to us. I think the board also has a role in setting the tone for these conversations. It is easy to get divided in these moments, but important to recognize that everyone working on these issues has the best interest of our children at heart.
VR: How do you think the board should balance the concerns and desires of the Warren community with state policies and regulations that may be at odds with the community?
Biondo: It is imperative to be able to listen to the community, including people of the school community, but also the majority of our taxpaying community who may not be involved with the school in any way. We will obviously have to abide by whatever state policies and regulations that are placed on us, but we will also have an obligation to explore all of our options and make sure that we stay connected with what our community desires. Our duty will be to do our best with that holistic approach.
Schmukal: As a public school, we have to adhere to state and federal policies. It is up to the board to inform the Warren community about these policies, welcome questions and concerns and, when appropriate, work with legislators to address community concerns.
Staples: The school board and the community share a responsibility to conform to state policies and regulations. That being said, I share the concerns of losing town control over some policy and budgetary matters. One thing I feel confident about going forward, whichever direction that may be, is that Warren and its school will not lose its identity as a great, clever, unique and decidedly awesome place to be and learn. The town would not allow that and nor would I.
Watkins: It is the board’s job to make sure that the school is in compliance with all state policies and regulations, even if we don't like them. Act 46 is the law and we need to respond to it. But before we can think about what action we want to take, we need to think concretely about what it is we value in our community and what we want to give to our children. While there are many rules and regulations, we still get to decide who we are and what we value.