BRATTLEBORO -- The Brattleboro School Board has set a date for a community meeting to discuss issues involving the town's three elementary schools. The board wants to hold the meeting on Wednesday, Jan. 22, though the board is still settling on a starting time and location for the community discussion.
Over the past few months, the Brattleboro School Board has had a large turnout at some of its meetings, with supporters backing up the administration and critics calling for change and lobbing accusations of professional bullying and harassment among the professional staff.
Even before those meetings, Brattleboro School Board members said they were hoping to hold a visioning meeting to get more input from the public on the direction of the district's schools. Those talks, the board hopes, will start at the January meeting.
"We want to know what is going well and what people would like to see changed," board member Jill Stahl Tyler said at the last meeting on Dec. 4.
In October, Academy School teacher Lauren Ashley requested that her grievance hearing be held in public and more than 30 people showed up, though the board did not specifically debate Ashley's case in public session.
At a second meeting held the following week at the Brattleboro Food Co-op about 60 people showed up. A large number of the people who spoke up at that meeting supported Academy School Principal Andy Paciulli and the direction the school was taking. There were also general comments about uneven treatment among some staff and about the district's reliance on standardized testing at the expense of creativity in the classroom. Notes were taken during the co-op meeting and Stahl Tyler and fellow board member David Schoales organized the comments into broad categories that the board now hopes to address.
But even as the board attempts to react to the positive and negative input, district administrators are warning the board to make sure they are ready to work with the public. At the Dec. 4 meeting, Stahl Tyler said she thought it would be easy to put suggestion boxes up in the schools. But Windham Southeast Superintendent Ron Stahley said the board needed to have a clear plan on what was going to happen to those comments.
"I want you to understand the implications of what you are putting out," said Stahley. "You have to know what you might get back and what you're going to do with that."
Oak Grove Principal Jen Hemmingson pointed out that the district already has very clear procedures for parent feedback that concerns personnel.
"Has the board thought about, if you get feedback from a parent about a specific teacher, how you would handle that?" Hemmingson asked. "Our Master Agreement is very specific about parent complaints and what you do with that. So if that came to the board it would skip the whole process and violate the teachers' rights."
Stahl Tyler and Schoales gave a long presentation at the Dec. 4 meeting, though it appeared just about every suggestion they made was going to require review by the district's attorney before being formally presented at another public meeting.
Stahl Tyler said board members who worked on the public comments came up with a strategy which includes putting together a survey for parents, teachers and students. She also said the board could attend staff meetings and maybe develop a new interactive website to collect comments.
The board might want to develop an improved way to gather and respond to concerns from the staff, said Stahl Tyler, but there is already a grievance policy that spells out specific roles and responsibilities of the school and supervisory union administration, and the steps teachers are supposed to take when they have concerns or complaints.
"The first step we wanted to do with that was actually talk to the legal representative we have to find that out," she said. "What we were trying to come up with were specific action steps to get towards that larger question of how the community can be engaged."
"There are quite a number of things here that we would need legal advice on," said board chairwoman Margaret Atkinson. "Because depending on what you get on a piece of paper, they can sink pretty quickly into something else, which there's already a contract, and procedures that handle that."
The board went ahead and scheduled the Jan. 22 meeting as a first step toward bringing the public in on further discussion about the direction of the schools.
"It's our effort to try to prime the pump to have the general community feel more connected to the school board," said school board member Peter Yost.
Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at email@example.com; or 802-254-2311, ext. 279. You can follow Howard on Twitter @HowardReformer.