‘Omissions and erroneous descriptions’

The 2014 controversy surrounding the closing of the Westminster West School, from the perspective of one who fought the initiative

WESTMINSTER — I want to acknowledge Dan Axtell's intelligence and his commitment and long years of hard work on our school board. I believe that when he served on the school board, his intentions were honorable.

I am, however, concerned that readers of his opinion will be unable to recognize the omissions and erroneous descriptions and will think they are being offered a narrative that is historical rather than emotional and whimsical.

As a father of three young children and as a person who works to promote the mental health of children, I am very interested in public education.

I was present at the 2014 school board meetings in which the fate of the Westminster West School was being discussed. There are a number of details that readers might want to consider.

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At the time Mr. Axtell is concerned with, all Westminster students, regardless of where they lived in town and what their disability status was, had equal access to the Westminster West School. In fact, in years surrounding the proposed school closing, the school was chosen by families of children who were receiving services though special education, or 504, plans. The parents chose the school because they felt their children's needs would be best met at the smaller school.

Written reports that the school board generated to assess enrollment numbers omitted an entire grade of attending Westminster West students - 13 students total - when projecting a school population of fewer than 20. I discovered this omission and brought up the error at a school board meeting, at which time the numbers were corrected.

Also, in response to the question of declining student numbers for the school, it is important to consider that the administration was unnecessarily restricting the number of grades that would be taught at the Westminster West School.

At the time of the 2014 proposed closing, the school offered a multi-age setting for students. The number of students attending the school could have been stabilized simply by returning the age range of students to what the school had at earlier times.

Additionally, Mr. Axtell's projected savings related to the proposed closing of the school does not take into consideration that the size of the school and the smaller environment were actually protective for some students.

In other words, the Westminster School District, by maintaining a smaller-scale school setting for kindergarten-through-grade-4 students, was serving students in a mainstream classroom without expensive support - students who might have, in a larger setting, needed more intensive special-education services.

Young students prone to anxiety, social overwhelm, or specific learning disabilities, or who have histories of attachment disruption, may be much higher functioning when placed in a more intimate and smaller scale environment.

Doing so can result in savings by avoiding the need to hire additional staff or services to support them. To fail to consider this value, both human and economic, seems myopic.

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It is surprising that, at the time of the debacle, Mr. Axtell could not find some way to assert that the board's errors in terms of open-meeting law were minor.

My experience was that the violation of open-meeting law was clear. Minutes had not been posted in a timely manner. Meetings had not been warned. But beyond these transgressions, at a school board meeting, the school board chair bluntly and incontrovertibly reported that a decision was made to close the Westminster West School with no public-meeting records available at that time to indicate how this decision was arrived at or what was discussed to justify the decision.

The school board members then countered citizen upset by saying that the chair's choice of words were ill-chosen and that the consideration to close the school was not actually a decision.

The decision to continue to fund the school was not made at a school board meeting by a small number of inconsiderate and economically naive people. Once the public was involved, the conversations about the economics became more sophisticated.

More importantly, the final decision to return funding for the Westminster West School back into the budget was made at a very-well-attended town meeting in which a good deal of airtime was given for all opinions. Similarly, our new school board members were elected by significant margins by the townspeople.

Finally - and perhaps most importantly, because it points to the present and future - the Westminster West School has, in no sense of the word, been closed. The building is still funded and is in use.

The use has transitioned so that all Westminster students, grades 1-6, along with their teachers and their curriculum, will be attending an innovative program designed for cycles of week-long immersion in an experiential and social development model of education.

The school and the new program it houses are supported by the current administration and by many families. My 7-year-old daughters reported to me that students are looking forward to going.

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One last note. The town of Westminster is not spending much energy arguing about Act 46. We are conforming with this legislation.

Westminster citizens did decide, again with a wide majority at Town Meeting, to assert the law's admission for current districts to arrive at alternative structures that will meet the intentions of the law.

We have a state secretary of education, Rebecca Holcombe, who, during her visit to the Bellows Falls Union High School auditorium to promote consolidation, overtly and flagrantly invalidated the central importance of Town Meeting and school budget votes at Town Meeting.

The unconsidered drive toward centralized decision-making that Ms. Holcombe represented is, perhaps, a primary reason citizens and school boards all across the state are disinclined to move toward any plan that purports to save money but takes decision making about spending and programming away from local discourse and local voting.

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