BENNINGTON >> The board of the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union on Wednesday held a lengthy debate on a policy change that would make school board members follow the same guidelines as other community members when visiting schools.
The changes to Policy #1020, which in the past has regulated visits to schools by parents, community members, and the media, was updated to include school board members. The SVSU board approved a warning of the policy change on Wednesday, but it still must be warned, and then later approved, by all SVSU member boards to become official. The changes add the words "school board members" to the title of the policy and three places within the body of the text.
If the new policy is approved, school board members would be treated exactly as other members of the public, and would be given no special treatment. As it reads now, "Persons who are not parents/guardians of school children may obtain permission to visit the school while it is in session from the principal or his or her designee. Requests to visit specific classrooms will be granted or denied after consultation with the teacher or teachers involved, and will be based on a consideration of the informational needs of the person making the request and the potential for disruption or invasion of the privacy of students."
Policy committee chairman and SVSU board member Leon Johnson said these changes were a result of discussion from people within the schools who are affected by visits, and described it as an effort to, "let building administrators know who is in their building." He pointed out that individual board members hold no power unless the full board votes to give them that authority. "You have no right to just walk through the school without being noticed. That's what this is saying," he said.
"We're not censoring any school board members," he went on, "We're saying that you need to let somebody know when you're in the building, and the nature of what you are going to do in the building." He pointed out that teachers and administrators are often reluctant to challenge board members, even if they are being disruptive to the operations of the school.
"Forget that they're board members or anything else," said Chairman Nelson Brownell, "Do you want people walking through your front doors and not following a policy where they have to check in before they go anywhere in your building? Who knows who will walk through your front door? I think board members should be treated the same way as everyone else, so they know who is in the building."
Bennington representative Ken Swierad argued that the word "permission" should not be in the policy, and that the school board member and administrator should work together as adults to find a good time for the school board member to visit. From the audience, Bennington alternate Gene Rowley argued that board members and community members should not be put in the same category. Brownell disagreed, saying, "I would make sure anyone going into the building first went through the proper channels to get into the building."
Pownal representative Cynthia Brownell said that Pownal, several years ago, had had a problem with a new board member. "He would constantly go into schools and throw his weight around. As many times as we told him, united we stand, divided you fall, obviously he didn't understand that. He intimidated the teachers, he went in at any time he wanted to. He started commenting, and trying to change what they were doing, and my phone rang off the hook. I had to sit him down, with the superintendent, and say, look, this is not your job. When you are alone, you are an individual, you are not a board member. I think this policy sets the tone for that."
"I don't have a problem with board members going into the schools," said Shaftsbury representative Fran Kinney. "In fact, I think they should. The problem I have is, some board members will go to teachers, and what ends up happening is it undermines the job of the principal and/or the superintendent, and that's what you have to stop. The principal in the high school is the boss. The superintendent is the boss of the principals. He evaluates them. The principals are to evaluate the teachers. There is a protocol, and I suggest we do that. I have a real problem when I hear from administrators that you've got board members in there undermining, it makes it real tough for the new principal over there. It's not fair to her. That's criminal as far as I'm concerned, and it ought to stop, and the people that are doing these things, if they continue to do them, should probably be fired. Because, enough. I've run enough businesses, and when I'm the boss, when I tell someone to do something, they do it or they don't work there anymore. That's the way it is in real life."
The Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union board meets the fourth Wednesday of every month at 7 p.m. in the Mount Anthony Union Middle School library. Full recordings of their meetings are available on Catamount Access Television, and on the station's YouTube page.
Derek Carson can be reached for comment at 802-447-7567, ext. 122.