BRATTLEBORO -- Soon after last year's Representative Town Meeting, the Brattleboro School Board began to talk about ways to bring more community members into the discussions about the district's budget, policy and educational issues.
At Town Meeting the school board answered questions for more than two hours about the budget, and in the end the budget was approved by only a handful of votes.
After the meeting the board members said they wanted to schedule a series of public meetings to talk about the town's three elementary schools.
That conversation is going to start Wednesday, Jan. 22, at 6 p.m. at Academy School, when the school board holds the first of what it hopes will be a number of public discussions about the future of education in Brattleboro.
"At March Town Meeting it was clear that there were questions in the community about where we want to put our resources," said Brattleboro Town School Board member Jill Stahl Tyler. "We want to start a process to try to engage people in the broader questions about what we want our schools to look like in the 21st century."
Following the March Town Meeting the board held some discussion about starting a public dialogue, and the board scheduled a public discussion about those meetings in October.
But at the same time Academy School teacher Lauren Ashley filed a grievance against the district that she wanted held in public.
Ashley's initial hearing was held, and then when the board scheduled its special information session on community engagement, supporters and critics of Ashley's cause showed up.
The discussion that night ranged from workplace bullying to standardized testing to how to schedule the school day to ways to strengthen programs for gifted students.
After the meeting at the co-op, a sub-committee was formed to gather the comments from the meeting and organize them under broad categories and Stahl Tyler was a member of that sub-committee.
At least for the first meeting Wednesday night Stahl Tyler said the board wants to start the conversation as broadly as possible, asking parents, school staff and community members what is working at the schools, what is needed, and where the board should focus its limited financial resources.
She admitted that the board was casting its net widely, but she said the conversations might get more detailed as the meetings progress.
A few years ago, she said, the school board held similar public meetings to talk about the arts, and a new chorus program came directly out of those meetings.
Still, as broad as the conversation might range Wednesday night, Stahl Tyler said the board understands that just about any strategy or program is going to cost money, which is extremely tight these days.
"We know this is a caring community and if the budget was not a reality, no one would be questioning what we give our kids. This community wants to support its elementary schools but there is a point where we have to be aware of taxpayers and how much we are asking of them."
In preparation of Wednesday night's meeting the board has distributed a questionnaire to parents and some students which the board hopes to use as it move ahead with the community discussions.
"We are assuming that this won't be the only meeting to engage the community," said Stahl Tyler. "We didn't want to limit the conversation. We feel like it is too early to limit the conversation. That's how democracy works. It's not a clean process so we are going to hear from the public and see where it takes us."
Food and child care will be provided at Wednesday's meeting.
The school board is asking people to RSVP to plan for food.
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Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; or 802-254-2311, ext. 279. You can follow Howard on Twitter @HowardReformer