Leland & Gray hallway

An idea proposed by the Long Term Planning Committee would bring more students in the West River Education District to Leland & Gray Union Middle and High School. 

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{child_kicker}West River Education District{/child_kicker}

{child_flags:featured}Brakes pumped for now on campus shakeup

{child_byline}By Chris Mays, Brattleboro Reformer{/child_byline}

TOWNSHEND — After hearing from school staff and community members about not having enough input from their perspective, an idea to transform West River Education District campuses will not be pursued before the next budget is prepared.

A motion to draft a budget based on running district schools in their current configuration passed 9-2 at the School Board’s meeting last Monday. And there’s talk about making changes to the Long Term Planning Committee’s makeup to include more than just board members and coming up with ways to get more public engagement.

“Though I understand the need to make a well-informed decision, I think continuing to push the timeline forward and restarting this work every year is what’s causing the damage to our kids,” said board member Drew Hazelton, who voted against the measure and serves on the committee.

In August, the committee brought forward an idea for a single campus to host all district students in Townshend Elementary School and Leland & Gray Union Middle and High School. Students who now go to Jamaica Village School and NewBrook Elementary School would attend classes in Townshend, all students would have opportunities for hands-on “immersive learning” programming at the Jamaica campus, and pre-k would be available at the Jamaica and NewBrook schools.

Board and committee member Lindsay Bertram said each grade would have two classrooms, providing more opportunities for socialization for students and collaboration for teachers.

Originally, the idea involved hosting grades k-4 in Townshend Elementary, grades 5-8 in the middle school and grades 9-12 in the high school. But sewer capacity issues — the elementary school is only equipped to handle 150 people — brought up a new thought to designate the A level at L&G for grades 3-6.

Bertram said it appears the model could be “cost neutral” compared to current operations without including an initial investment related to building reconfigurations.

Committee members responded to some complaints outlined in letters submitted to the board. The possibility of providing access to committee meetings via teleconferencing software was discussed.

Board and committee member Dana West apologized for last-minute scheduling changes for committee meetings. He also suggested hiring someone to take more detailed minutes.

More time is needed before presenting a proposal for broad public input, Hazelton said.

Peter Broussard of Newfane, a senior at L&G, called for more student input and offered to sit in on meetings or find other students to attend when he can’t.

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“We need all the stakeholders here at the table,” said Heather Sperling, a teacher at NewBrook School, who suggested the committee create an advisory group to assist in the effort.

Board members who are not on the committee have been open to the idea at previous meetings. But last Monday, more criticism and skepticism came out.

Board member Ken McFadden said when the district originally merged, the idea was “we’re going to keep our individual cultures and the ways of doing things in these cultures because these are important to us, and now you’re taking these individual cultures and you’re ripping them apart.”

Board member Mike Foley said he keeps thinking about how the initial investment for the idea could be applied in different ways to aid with long-term viability.

Board member Howard Ires, the only board member to previously vote against moving forward with exploring the idea, said the Vermont Constitution says “a competent number of schools” should be maintained in each town. He expressed concern about making commutes much longer for students and families on the outer edges of the district.

Among those favoring continuation of the exploration is Patti Dickson of Jamaica, a regular committee meeting attendee.

“I just think it’s worth a shot; it’s worth the deep dive,” she said. “I think it has amazing possibilities.”

Karen Ameden, another regular committee meeting attendee, said the committee has been receptive to feedback.

L&G Principal Bob Thibault suggested looking more closely at the targeted long-term outcome of the project.

“I do believe these conversations have ignited some real thought and excitement from our community about the need for more opportunities and creative implementation of individualized learning, passion exploration and immersive learning in the curriculum,” Lindsay Guido-Williams, a parent in the district, told the Reformer. “This seems like a silver lining we should be tapping into right now and something I feel very excited by as a career development professional. I would love to see us shift some of the focus being absorbed by the push for the physical center towards these ideas, starting with a thorough needs assessment of these overarching career and life-path development possibilities.”

The committee “has done some excellent groundwork considering different ideas for the proposal and uncovering roadblocks that make the implementation of those ideas impossible or less favorable,” Guido-Williams said.

“The theme I am hearing from the public is not that they are scared of change, but that the pros don’t outweigh the cons in the ideas that are being proposed right now,” Guido-Williams said. “Personally, I feel very motivated to help problem solve and be more involved, and it seems I’m not alone. If we can channel the energy of these concerns being raised into more organized and productive engagement, I think a lot of good could come from it.”

Guido-Williams suggested getting an ombudsperson for the district to help with communication efforts, and supports decoupling the decision-making processes for the proposed immersive learning center and the school reconfigurations.

“As a parent looking in, it feels like the committee’s proposed creation of the center is the actual driver of their suggested plans for the reconfiguration, versus what is truly best for our students’, and teachers’, overall wellbeing,” Guido-Williams said. “There’s no doubt in my mind an immersive learning center would be a wonderful addition to any community, but not at the expense of making the right choices for where and how our students and teachers are spending their normal ‘everyday’ in our school system. If we are operating with a notion of making these life-changing decisions for our children and community based on what needs to happen in order to make the center happen, it feels overwhelmingly clear that our priorities are out of order. In my opinion, it’s difficult to feel supportive of anything being suggested until that oversight is rectified.”