WSESD board candidates eye process, priorities

Candidates take on questions about school climate, community relations, getting along with administration, and the now-closed sexual abuse investigation

Residents of WSESD member towns will vote on all candidates for the Windham Southeast School District (WSESD) School Board, including those not from their specific towns, on Town Meeting Day next Tuesday, March 5.

Most of the candidates in the three races for seats on met Feb. 26 in a candidates' forum.

Dummerston Town Moderator Cindy Jerome moderated the exchange, sponsored by The Commons, the Brattleboro Reformer, and Brattleboro Community Television, with questions asked by Jeff Potter, editor of The Commons, and Reformer reporter Chris Mays.

Matt Schibley, who was appointed in October 2023, is being challenged for a three-year term as Brattleboro representative by Lance Cutler.

Two three-year terms as Brattleboro representative are being sought by incumbent Tim Maciel, Colleen Savage, and Richard Leavy.

Neither Schibley nor Leavy was able to be present in person, but Jerome read statements they had provided and answers to questions, which had been provided to the candidates in advance.

Current board Chair Kelly Young is being challenged for a three-year term as Guilford representative by Brian Remer. A third challenger, Deborah McNeil, has dropped out of that race.

Incumbent Anne Beekman is the sole candidate for re-election to a three-year term as Putney representative.

Young has come under scrutiny as the 2½-year investigation into alleged sexual abuse in the District unfolded. It fell to her to make the January announcement that effectively ended the investigation, without disclosing any results to the public and saying the board would "likely" make no further comment.

She noted in her opening statement that the "voice of a board member should be strong and directed about the interests of the entire district and every student."

Saying she works in collaboration as a team with the entire board, Young went on to say, "what I as a board chair present to the community reflects the view of the entire board. I speak for the board, not myself. It is not my opinion because it is not my personal opinion. I am no longer a community member, I am an elected board director."

Young said one of her goals has been to work toward effective collaboration with the administration and the community, "demonstrating professionalism at all times."

District challenges and solutions

Question 1: In running for a seat on the WSESD board, what do you believe are the three biggest challenges facing the district, and what do you feel you bring to the table to contribute to the solutions?

Remer, an educator and facilitator who recently retired from his work for the state of Vermont as training and engagement specialist at the Center for Achievement in Public Service, noted staffing as a concern. He said he's heard that many who work in the school system "are concerned" with the lack of backup/substitute personnel.

He also noted finances - "how we balance the need for quality education with our ability to pay for it" - and school climate.

"As a board member, part of my responsibility would be to help the board act as role model for how it can conduct its business and therefore be an example for administrators, staff, teachers, as well as students, and set the tone for the kind of environment we want to have," he said.

Young, who works as a judicial assistant for the state of Vermont in Windham Superior/Probate/Criminal/Family courts and has served on local school boards for six years, noted the challenge of budgeting and how schools are funded as a primary concern in providing quality education.

She especially noted "outside factors" not in control of the board or administration and said she would rely on Superintendent Mark Speno and the business office "to advise the board on what would need to be done."

She also cited the social climate in school as a continual and complex issue, noting especially the challenges for middle schoolers. Young said she would rely on Speno to advise and develop a plan to address the social climate as well.

Young noted the future use of athletic fields as a potential issue, saying again she would again consult with the superintendent to review and advise on this issue.

For Savage, who settled here in 2020 and has a child at the Green Street School, a sense of community, social climate, and staffing are important.

"I think we could do more to make people feel included and safe, respected, and happy to be in schools," she said.

In comments read by Jerome, Leavy, a former commercial organic farmer who now owns Southern Vermont Home, LLC and has children at Brattleboro Area Middle School and the Academy School, noted infrastructure as the major issue and challenge across the District.

He said he is also "unhappy" with the direction the school lunch program is taking and said he would like to help in both areas. He added that "mental health needs" should be included as a central focus of the District.

Maciel, a higher education consultant for his company, Educational Solutions of New England, has served four years and is involved in the work of the BUHS Leadership Council and the Student Advisory Committee, among others.

He said attracting and retaining quality teachers is key.

Maciel also noted that "removing, alleviating barriers to learning and personal growth" for students who may experience behavior issues, depression, and more is important, as is "how to close the learning gap […] to instill the feeling that every student belongs."

Cutler, a lifelong Brattleboro resident and program supervisor at Kindle Farm School, has a child in the District and one who has been graduated from it.

He also noted the complexities of budgeting as well as staff retention, which he called "paramount" for effective schools and teachers and students to feel safe.

Plus, Cutler said, having consistent staffing "allows the community to trust what's happening year to year."

Noting he believes the District is still struggling with post-pandemic issues that linger, Cutler said, too, that "opportunity with access for students to participate" is key.

Schibley is executive director of the NEARI School in Easthampton, Massachusetts, and father of two boys at Green Street School. He said in a statement read by Jerome at the top of the forum providing a "safe, inclusive, and educational environment" are top of his list.

Calling this a "pivotal time" for the District, Schibley noted a need for "compassion and a levelheaded approach."

His priorities include "improving communication between the board and superintendent, "maintaining fiscal responsibility," and "restoring belief in the board's efforts vis-a-vis the safety of students and accountability."

Schibley said he is "dedicated to our cause and will work tirelessly."

Safety in the schools

Question 2: How, specifically, can you assure survivors of past abuse, as well as parents, students, and concerned community members - and yourselves - that students are and feel safer in WSESD schools since the investigation?

Cutler called the question "challenging" and noted the "nuances of how to support survivors" with things like "social and therapeutic structures." He said he asked his son if he thought there is a difference in the school climate regarding students' sense of safety.

"And he assured me the climate of the school is very different from two years ago," Cutler said, noting that myriad vicissitudes, "not only here but around the country," still affect the post-pandemic transition back to in-person classrooms.

Asking students directly how they feel, said Cutler, is a "big part" of how to assure kids feel safe in schools.

Maciel agreed that students "should be part of solution," but said "there should never, ever be a moment when we feel self-assured and less vigilant to protect our children."

"My heart goes out to victims of sexual assault," he said, adding that "one thing we can do is do everything possible to prevent it from happening again."

Saying the current District policy regarding sexual harassment reflects that effort, Maciel said that - while nothing is ever "enough" - the District must "always look for better ways to keep students safe and healthy and measure that in reliable ways."

He added that any college or university that discovers a graduate has admitted to assault should revoke the offender's degree.

In his statement, Leavy noted such potential assurances as "strictly enforced policy" and said that "consistent, periodic review, and time will help."

He said he believes schools are "aware, generally care, and doing their best."

"Listen to victims," said Savage. "Hear them. Give them the space to be open and honest, be approachable."

Young noted the District has delineated a "certain level of conduct in our schools," and said the past few years have been challenging, with several boards merging and the pandemic.

She said she shares safety as "an absolute priority," noting the board and administration make concerted efforts to make numerous presentations about key programs to help and publicizing information.

Again noting the roles of the school board and administration "are different," Young explained the District's mandatory reporting of any abuse is "clear."

She said it falls to the Superintendent and administrators "to take action, as they are doing" to ensure student safety.

Noting that the challengers don't know all the board has already done in the area of increased safety and survivors, Remer also noted that he understands there are "reasons" why the board has not and cannot disclose information regarding the investigation.

He said that when people live through "difficult or even a positive situation," those experiences "become part of who they are" and they "build resilience," and he hopes that can, "at some point," become the case for survivors.

Remer said he is glad that policies are in place and said that "to make them livable and doable, people need to think about how they apply to their specific situations." He advocates "lots of conversations" about policies.

Information about abuse investigation

Question 3: Are you personally satisfied with the complete blackout of information as it pertains to the investigation as a current or would-be representative of your community?

"Not completely comfortable" is how Remer phrased his response. "At the same time, the way the issue was finalized and shared, I wish there had been more care taken in how that message was conveyed."

"At this point, I'm not sure what can be done," he said, again noting that he is "sure there's a reason" for how it was handled.

Calling it the "most difficult issue" for her in her six years on school boards, Young said "one of the most difficult parts" is that she "feels empathy."

She added she knows all board members have empathy "for anyone who's felt trauma."

"We all want to be able to take away someone's pain, as parents, as community members," she said.

"As board members, we are placed in a position where we have a lot of obligations and sometimes they are difficult to express," Young said. "I feel compassion for anyone who has suffered but, as a board member, there is an expectation we will be addressing the needs of the entire district and, hopefully, people who feel they were harmed feel we are addressing their needs as well."

Savage said she didn't "feel qualified to have an opinion on the matter" as she was not present on the board during the investigation.

Saying it put a "tremendous strain" on each board member, Maciel said, "We are as transparent as we can possibly be."

"If there's any doubt our hearts did not go out to victims of sexual assault, you just don't know the individuals on the board," he said.

In his statement, Leavy said he, also, "can't entirely speak" to the question as he wasn't "in on executive session discussions with lawyers" and thus found it "impossible to say what should be disclosed to the public, but a zero tolerance policy should be implemented."

"No, I'm not entirely happy with it," Cutler said. "But I don't mean that as an insult or for a lack of understanding of the situation the board is in. From a meta-standpoint, there are more things to maybe protect or make sure don't happen. I'm disappointed, but fully trust the board had to make decisions based on what was best for everyone."

The school board in the community

Question 4: How do you view the board's relationship to the community and to the administration? How will you effectively represent your community to the district and represent the district to your community?

Cutler admitted he hasn't had "a strong connection to the board" and had not been "making my best effort," although his daughter has brought issues to him in the past year, which actually prompted his decision to run.

He said he "feels strongly" it would be "great" for more people in the community to be involved so mutual understanding could be "more real-time than reactionary" and that he hopes to encourage more active participation in the community.

While board responsibilities "are spelled out," said Maciel, he believes the board "can be much more proactive" in its outreach to parents and community organizations to keep the channel of communication open.

Noting that one board member duty is to "keep the community informed," as spelled out in law, Maciel said, it is spelled out "also in our hearts."

He said he feels the board is "moving toward a very good, collaborative, cohesive relationship" with Speno and his administration.

Savage noted the board goal of establishing a vision and setting goals for the superintendent and that boards "serve the community" while being also "entwined" with the superintendent.

"They have to collaborate or it doesn't work," she said, adding that she will work to that end and "listen and talk to parents, and listen to what the group wants more than what I want."

Leavy, in his statement, said he views the role of board members "as facilitators," and that they can do so by "listening," adding the "feedback loop needs scrutiny."

He hopes to "keep that conversation going" and said one area to facilitate is with school-based Leadership Councils and to hone their roles in decision-making.

Young again noted that the board oversees district schools and supports the administration, saying it has "sometimes been critiqued for maybe overstepping," so it is important to the remember the board's role versus that of the administration, "the entity that takes the action within the schools."

Leadership Councils and the mini-committee boards, she said, can help, adding the public is "always encouraged" to participate/join and to communicate to board members and the administration.

Saying he "learned a lot tonight," Remer said most basically he sees the board as "a liaison" between the public and the administration.

He said he's looking forward to hearing from neighbors and other communities in the district and encourages the community to be involved.

Polarizing issues and student resilience

Eileen Arama came prepared with two complex and connected questions.

Arama, a social worker in the District and a parent of a high school student, said because she works with individuals and small groups, she has the chance to see "the best some of our students manifest in terms of compassion and caring and emotional growth."

She noted, too, her witness to the struggle of all middle schoolers "for generations" as they "learn to communicate effectively and build and maintain relationships with adults and peers, learning their own strengths and weaknesses and how to use both."

Arama also noted Covid and other general life stressors, some seeming "more intense for our students."

"Some of the manifestations of behaviors are happening without enough notice, much like our challenges with vaping: difficult to detect and requiring a cultural shift to address," she said.

She asked, first, how the candidates saw their role "in supporting a culture within our school district that will help support and address the community needs of students who missed nearly three years of socialization opportunities."

She then also noted that many board members voted "to endorse the office of Diversity, Equity, and Social Justice to provide support to teachers and staff in communicating about the recent events in Gaza and Israel."

She then asked, "as an American Israeli and the mother of a student in this district," about candidates' thoughts "about the current level of extremism in our world, the 'us versus them,' polarizing rhetoric and increasing anti-semitism around the world, even here in Vermont?" she said.

"I see a relationship between the challenges our children face and the challenges we adults face in communicating across dividing issues," she said. "What are your thoughts about ways to enhance and support dialogue among us so that we can model our successes for our children?"

"We're not looking at someone on our doorstep right now," said Young about the war in Gaza. "We're looking half a world away and we're trying to understand them. I can only imagine how challenging it is for a student."

She said as chair she has only voted twice, to break ties, but that she would have voted in support of the statement and advocated they "look in the face of the issue" so "we can see the humanity of it."

Maciel related a story of a mother telling him that, while driving together to a Leadership Council meeting, her son was being bullied and was upset.

Her phone rang while they were in the car and Maciel learned it was the student's "trusted adult," a faculty member who had heard of the incident and contacted the young man.

Maciel noted the conversation that ensued between student and teacher was "so moving."

He said the District teaches content and models values and that the world students are entering "is a very tough place." He added that he likes to think schools are "a cut above" in teaching "skills, social relationships and personal self-knowledge."

Regarding the Gaza statement, Maciel said "education should not be divorced from current events and we made that statement because we saw teachers across the nation struggling with how do you deal with that? And we wanted them to know we're behind them, if they choose to address it."

"Arguing for argument's sake is taking precedence in the world," Cutler said. "Kids are watching, and we need to start modeling a way we can agree to disagree […] rather than constantly creating a polarizing situation."

He added it is "incumbent on schools to teach current events and not be afraid" for questions to be asked and talked about with students.

Jody Normandeau of Dummerston, a former board member, asked challengers whether they have watched videotapes of or have been present for board meetings and, if not, how they would encourage the public to "attend board meetings and hear it for themselves?"

Cutler said he has reviewed "every meeting and read every agenda notes," adding social media tools do help "because people are watching, and the board needs to find ways to encourage community members to have a say."

Savage admitted to catching up as well, saying she's also read board minutes and newspaper accounts of meetings, and she's watched videos. She said she would "make it a priority" and encourage others "to talk about the work and get different ideas, more involvement."

"I'm a big education nerd," she said. "I like learning a lot and I would dive in headfirst and give it my all."

Working in Montpelier, said Remer, made it difficult for him to participate previously, but now he has plenty of time. In his work during the pandemic, when training state officials had to switch to online, Remer said he found that "we miss something when we're not in the same room together."

He said he's learned "it's important to do something different in person, if the intention is to have people solving problems together" and that meetings should be structured so "all feel welcome, and that we all feel we're happy to be there."

This News item by Virginia Ray was written for The Commons.

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