Members of the Harwood Unified Union School District (HUUSD) Board are making sure that they enter this year’s budget season with a single mindset.
The HUUSD Board met for its first retreat on Wednesday, September 13. The members have been meeting for just over one year, and they officially took over control of the merged district on July 1.
Last year the 14 members (currently there are 12 members due to two resignations), two from each town, were sworn in and thrown almost immediately into the budgeting process. They did not know each other well and conflicts arose throughout the fall over budget disagreements. Board members took time last Wednesday to get on the same page.
“There are laws that you need to follow that you can’t really mess around with, but the culture you create is up to you as board members,” Valerie Gardner, retreat facilitator, said.
The HUUSD Board is unique, Gardner explained, because almost every single member served on their individual town’s school board. Gardner said that most boards have more members with no board experience and so they come with a clean slate.
Board members explained the atmosphere of their smaller boards.
“Our board was pretty relaxed and loose and then there was a time of real volatile things going on where everybody kind of really tightened up the reins and there was a lot of public involvement, public frustration. So, we went from pretty relaxed to pretty strict and then sort of relaxed again knowing that the merger was going through,” Warren representative Alycia Biondo said.
Most individual boards were much smaller, between three and five members, which fostered a much more laidback atmosphere, said Gabe Gilman, the board’s vice chair.
“That small size lent itself to informality in a way that a 14-member board doesn’t,” Gilman said.
Gardner showed the board an example set of board norms, which dictated how the board members would interact with the public and when public comment would be placed on the agenda.
Gardner said that the board members needed to decide whether or not public comment is the correct time to interact with their constituents or if members should listen and direct members of the public to different channels that might be more appropriate.
Gardner also noted the importance of having a well-set agenda that is based on goals that the board members set for the school district.
Gardner also explained to the board members that it is their job to ask the community what they expect from the board and what they see as a good investment.
“I think we need to do a better job making sure that the board, the administration, the teachers communicate with the public and help everyone get on the same page about what a good return on investment looks like,” Peter Langella from Moretown said.
Lastly, Gardner explained that each member needs to decide how they will vote on specific items, as a representative of an individual town or as a trustee of the entire district.
She said that boards that decide collectively to vote as trustees usually get along better. Each member can bring their own constituents’ perspectives into the conversation, but when it comes time to vote, board members should think about the whole district, she said.
“Understand that you have a responsibility to every kid now whether they are in your town or not in your town,” Gardner said.
The HUUSD Board will discuss the retreat, board norms, board goals and the budget process as The Valley Reporter goes to press on September 20.