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School board looks to ‘build a vision’

Public forum seeks input from community about education issues

BRATTLEBORO—The Town School Board held a public forum, “Learning in the 21st Century,” to gauge community opinion about the future direction of the town’s three elementary schools.

The first in a series of community conversations attracted parents, school administration, and school staff members, who participated in the almost-two-hour meeting at Academy School on Jan. 22.

According to School Board Vice Chair Mark Truhan, the board approved a fiscal year 2015 budget of over $15 million. This reflects a 0.49-percent increase over fiscal year 2014.

The budget is level-service-funded, he said.

Last year, after many hours of discussion by Representative Town Meeting members, the town school budget passed by a handful of votes.

In an email invitation to the meeting, board member David Schoales said the board’s goal was to “build a vision for the schools so we can address the issues many people have raised.”

“It is crucial to have a clear articulation of what citizens want if we are to be able to effectively direct the administration,” Schoales wrote.

The board had initially scheduled the conversation for Oct. 22, 2013. That meeting, however, came on the heels of a contentious board meeting. Members of the public used the meeting to voice frustrations with the school administration and board [“Hearing the public out,” News, Oct. 30].

“We spend a lot and we get a lot [in terms of positive outcomes],” Schoales told the audience.

During the meeting, the audience viewed and discussed a short documentary, Changing Education Paradigms, by Kenneth Robinson, Ph.D., an author, speaker, and advisor on developing creativity in education and business.

Robinson’s video stated that educators are trying to meet future challenges by using an outdated factory model which inhibits creativity. The result, said Robinson, is the alienation of millions of children.

The audience divided into discussion groups. First, the members discussed Robinson’s film. Next, they answered three questions posed by the School Board: What is working, what do people want more of, and how should the board prioritize spending given budget constraints?

In response to the Robinson film, audience members pointed to the value of arts in the classroom, including improving manual dexterity and problem solving.

Some who spoke also stated the heavy focus on standardized testing hurts all students.

Audience members also pointed to larger issues that affect children’s learning like hunger and homelessness.

Based on the discussion he heard, music teacher Andrew Davis said that what people say the want is not what they’re getting.

People who tackled the “what’s working?” question read from a long list of positives like student counseling, music education, the strong communities within the elementary schools, professional development for educators, and arts opportunities.

The group that discussed what the community wanted to see more of pointed to less standardization and greater focus on skills not easily measured by a filling in ovals with a number 2 pencil.

Group members listed using performance evaluations over standardized testing to gauge students’ progress and transparent evaluations of school administration.

The group also wanted students to learn better social skills, critical thinking, and information analysis.

School spending priorities

Discussions about prioritizing school spending raised meaty questions.

Group members asked what influence the community has to direct school spending. They also worried about ensuring that the school budget passes at Representative Town Meeting in March.

Referring to last year’s Representative Town Meeting discussion about chopping $1 million off the school budget, Truhan asked, “But what do [those cuts] look like at the school level?”

His answer: jobs and programs.

Rep. Tristan Toleno, D-Brattleboro, said high education taxes and spending reflect bigger problems in Vermont’s school funding.

“Everyone knows the system is flawed., but no one has come up with [an alternative] funding mechanism that meets that legal standard [set in the Brigham v. Vermont case in 1997],” said Toleno.

Still, Toleno added, although communities can’t shift the state’s school funding framework, they can prioritize programs.

“Focus on what we can do,” he said, “not on the budget itself.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #239 (Wednesday, January 29, 2014).

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