The only way out is forward

There are currently two stories circulating in our school district about the ongoing work of our Harwood Unified Union School District Board and administrative team.

The first is the story I am intimately familiar with, as 1) a parent of two children who have a combined 22 years of experience in our local public schools, 2) a school board member for 15 years, and 3) a taxpaying citizen in Waitsfield. This story involves the challenging (and rewarding) work of meeting together as a board several times monthly around a table with neighbors elected by member towns, all of us sharing a common purpose – to supervise and work with our capable administrative team (led by our superintendent, Brigid Nease, and finance director, Michelle Baker) as we co-create the best possible educational opportunities for our K-12 students, as affordably as we can.

This school board work is difficult, for reasons with which most of us are familiar: declining enrollment, fiscal austerity measures at the national and state level, etc. Both our current board and our administrative team are comprised of professionals who are visionary, hardworking and thoughtful – and, most importantly, we all care, very deeply, about our kids and our communities. Our current board membership has close to 30 of our own kids attending our local public schools, and all of us participate in our HUUSD meetings wearing our board, parent, and citizen hats alike.

And, yes, you may have heard a second alternative story, voiced by a tiny group of aggrieved citizens, and regularly amplified in the pages of our two local newspapers, that goes something like this: Our current superintendent (an “unprofessional” “bully” at best, and “corrupt” at worst), lords her “undeniably dishonest and hostile” authority over a “captive board” of “spineless” board members, assisted by an “inept” board chair who simply does the bidding of the “grasping” central office. This “scandal” extends to the highest levels of Vermont, and involves the state attorney general’s office and the state auditor’s office, as well as every single publicly elected school board member who disagrees with this particular interpretation of “reality.” Please note: Every quoted phrase above is from materials published in our local newspapers and/or on Front Porch Forum. Both the Vermont attorney general’s office and the Vermont state auditor’s office recently dismissed every single one of this tiny group’s allegations of impropriety and misconduct, citing “a lack of evidence” in all cases.

And, needless to say, this second alternative story voiced by this disgruntled few is completely alien to me. It does not match my own reality or my experiences: as an educator for three decades, a parent for two decades, and a 15-year veteran of board work here in our communities. That this alternative story has gained so much traction in our communities is equally fascinating, given the high level of visibility, transparency and attentiveness to “public process” exemplified by both our administrative team and our current board membership.

So let me be crystal clear – I have the utmost confidence in our superintendent, our finance director, their capable team of professionals in our central office, our hardworking board chair, Christine Sullivan, our new board vice chair, Caitlin Hollister, Rosemarie White, our board member who spends hours each month reviewing our board warrants, and our current board leadership. Together, we are moving forward with the challenging task of HUUSD school redesign, working in conjunction with all seven of our towns.

In the spirit of this seven-town community discussion, I offer five specific suggestions for your consideration:

  • Read beyond the newspaper headlines and the Front Porch Forum chatter and engage your neighbors, your elected representatives, your school leaders and your kids in this important school redesign conversation.
  • Please attend our HUUSD board meetings. You are enthusiastically invited. We have snacks. Drinks. Good ideas. Great conversation. And, occasionally, jokes.
  • If you cannot attend our HUUSD board meetings, watch them gavel to gavel on MRVTV (online at www.mrvtv.com, too, in new high definition).
  • If you cannot watch our HUUSD board meetings, read our board minutes at our HUUSD website. Regularly. School board work is a moving target. Always has been, always will be.
  • If and when you have questions, concerns or good ideas, please share them with your HUUSD trustees – in the spirit of generosity, collaboration and goodwill. When you do, you will find us more than willing to listen and convey them back to the board table.

And, above all else, I urge civility, not toxicity.

As we grapple with our educational challenges ahead, the only way out is forward. As my Fayston colleague Lorraine Wargo wisely reminds us, we can disagree without being disagreeable. And, as an HUUSD board/SU leadership team, we would be grossly negligent (to both our students and our taxpayers) if we do not aggressively explore all educational options and scenarios for our kids and communities moving forward, instead of just retreating back to the status quo or promoting options with which we are most comfortable.

Thank you for carefully reading and reflecting on my words here, and I hope to see you at our next board meeting.

Williams represents Waitsfield on the HUUSD Board.

The Valley Reporter - serving Vermont's Mad River Valley since 1971