Rockingham School Board chair resigns after schedule vote

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BELLOWS FALLS — The chairman of the Rockingham School Board resigned in protest Monday night after the board voted 3-2 to reopen schools on a five-day-a-week basis, and accused his former fellow board members of not protecting the district's children.

The vote rejected the recommendations from the Windham Northeast Supervisory Union Task Force, which had recommended that school be open under a "hybrid" model to better address the health concerns associated with the coronavirus — with half the student body divided into two "cohorts" according to their last name, and coming in to school for in-person instruction two days per week.

One group would go to school Monday and Tuesday, and the other Thursday and Friday, with no one in the school buildings on Wednesday.

Chairman Rick Holloway immediately resigned with sharply critical words for the three school

directors who rejected the task force's recommendations, and his ire was particularly directed at Rockingham School Board member Priscilla Lambert.

Holloway said he felt the majority of the school board was not working with the best interests of the students in mind, and he questioned whether the board followed state law by adding an "action item" at the last minute to the meeting's agenda.

Holloway said he felt sick from all the stress from the school board.

"I cannot in good faith continue on a board that a majority so willfully and completely disregards the recommendations of EVERY principal, administrator, nurse and all of the teachers I have heard from," he wrote in an email.

"During my time on the board I have done everything I could to stay open minded and objective. My initial introduction was when I was invited to be part of the advisory team for the Bellows Falls Middle School renovations. Although I voted against that project both times I took on the task with the integrity it deserved to make the outcome the best possible. I was also a board member when the decision was made to move the Saxtons River Elementary School 5th grade to Bellows Falls Middle School. At this time my son was in the 4th grade at SRES and was going to be the first class affected by this change. Although I had serious concerns about this for my own child I worked very hard to put those concerns aside and looked to what was the best for all students," he wrote.

"Last night a member of the Rockingham board pushed to have an agenda item for taking action added to the agenda regarding the proposal submitted. This proposal was and is intended to go to the WNESU board for review, discussion and adoption at a special meeting on August 5. At the will of the board and by a board vote I agreed to add the item," he added.

"There is now a question whether this was a valid vote and I know many people are pushing to have the vote rescinded per the information below," he said.

"The motion made and the ensuing 3-2 vote was to direct the Superintendent of schools to open Rockingham schools fully the second that schools are open," Holloway said.

"The fact is that three board members willingly and blatantly disregarded the recommendation of EVERY principal in the district, including the BFUHS principal, the school nurse, several teachers who chimed in and the near 50 member task force made up of teachers, nurses, principles, janitorial staff, board members and community members," he added.

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"In ironic fashion the board member who initiated last night's vote was on the task force," he added.

"I understand our numbers for Covid are low in our region and I wold hope that people would do their best to keep it that way," he said.

"I resent the board member who continues to say we "need to stop being scared," and "we need to stop saying what we can't do." A lot of work went into planning what we can do.

"Two board members, in my opinion, continue to operate with an air of arrogance, rudeness and disregard for the guidance of those hired to do so," he added.

Holloway on Tuesday said he submitted a letter of resignation to Superintendent Christopher Pratt Monday night.

Holloway at one point in the meeting yelled at Lambert, and was chastised by other board members for his behavior.

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Lambert, along with fellow directors Jason Terry and Jason Benson, voted in favor of all children being back in school five days a week. The Rockingham School Board oversees children at the Central Elementary School in Bellows Falls, Saxtons River Elementary School and the Bellows Falls Middle School.

Lambert, a retired teacher with 47 years experience, many of it at BFUHS, said in-person instruction was the best thing for the younger children, a point that has been made repeatedly in recent weeks by Gov. Phil Scott and Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine.

She said she believes two days versus five days of exposure in the school building wouldn't make any difference.

Lambert and the other directors said a different school plan might be adopted as needed for the middle school students, but that the younger kids need to have in-person instruction.

In an interview on Tuesday, Lambert said the incidence of COVID-19 in Vermont Is extremely low, and virtually non-existent in the towns of Rockingham and Westminster.

And she said the stress of dealing with all the problems associated with the closing of schools in March because of the coronavirus pandemic is intense.

She said she hoped Holloway, who has been on the board for about 10 years, would reconsider his resignation.

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Lambert said it wasn't in the best interest of students to be only in the classroom two days a week and be allowed to work on homework the other three days.

She noted that a survey sent out by Pratt's office showed parents were split 50-50 on the issue of reopening schools, and that the parents she had talked to were in favor of reopening the schools five days a week.

"There are a lot of issues that is stressful for all of us. It's nothing we signed up for," she said.

Despite the intense meeting, the Rockingham School Board may not have the last word: the Windham Northeast Supervisory Union Board meets Wednesday night and will vote on the overall policy regarding returning to school.

David Clark, chairman of the WNESU, said individual school boards still have autonomy, but that the supervisory union, which is made up of school directors from all the towns, had overall authority.

"As it stands, I support the superintendent's recommendations for reopening schools. I am well aware of the pedagogy of the importance of the student teacher contact, especially for younger learners," Clark said Tuesday. "Even though Vermont has a very low infection rate. we are not immune," Clark said. "And that can change very rapidly."

He said he expects the WNESU would vote to endorse the task force's recommendations.

Lily Hart, a teacher at Bellows Falls Union High School, and a spokeswoman for the Windham Northeast Education Association, the teachers' and support staff union, said the Rockingham vote was very upsetting since it was a rejection of careful and lengthy study by the task force.

"WNEA is hopeful that when the SU board meets tomorrow, they will vote to support the plan that has been meticulously developed by the Task Force. Disregarding their work undermines the efforts of nurses, administrators, maintenance staff, and teachers to keep students healthy and safe in accordance with CDC guidelines," Hart wrote in an email.

"We are dismayed that the Rockingham board voted as it did last night and concerned that going back to school in accordance with the outcome of that vote will put our students (and ourselves) at unnecessary risk because it will make it impossible to follow social distancing guidelines. We are committed to providing our students the best education possible in every circumstance and will continue to work to do so; our hope is that our work won't be unnecessarily burdened by a mandate that goes against health and safety best practices," she added.

The link to the WNESU Task Force's proposal: https://www.wnesu.org/news/what_s_new/w_n_e_s_u_proposed_reopening_plan

Contact Susan Smallheer at ssmallheer@reformer.com.


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