BENNINGTON — Two policies that have generated controversy passed both the Mount Anthony Union and Pownal school boards on Wednesday, moving them one step closer to being finalized.
The first policy, which was up for adoption, was Policy #1020 "Visits to Schools," which speaks to the procedure that is to be followed when parents, community members, board members, and the press visit schools. The second, which was being warned and will be adopted by the boards of the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union in the future, is Policy #6400, "Optimum Class Size."
The Visits to Schools policy was amended to specifically include board members as community members. That section now states: "Visits by community members and school board members: 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."
"I thought signing in would be enough, but this sounds like an extra step," said board member Dave Fredrickson, "That's the way I'm reading it."
Board member Leon Johnson, who is also the chairman of the policy committee, said he did not read it that way, and that it simply gave the principal the discretion to refuse board and community members entry into the building or specific classrooms if there were extenuating circumstances, such as school events or testing going on.
In Pownal, board member Todd Steinhoff raised similar concerns. "Permission?" he said, "Is that the proper term? Do we need permission to visit the school, as elected officials? I understand professional courtesy. I would never just show up. If I called and said I wanted to come down, check things out, and (Principal Todd Phillips) said, 'Now's not a good time because there's testing,' and such, I understand that."
"I wasn't particularly fond of the word permission," said Chairwoman Cindy Brownell, "but I understand the meaning of what it represents. In the past, we had a couple of board members that would come in and they would antagonize the teachers. The principal, half the time, didn't even know that the board member was here. I got more phone calls about that... To me, it was wrong, because just because you're a board member doesn't give you special permission to come in. It's not your job to run the school, it's the principal's. It's the board's job to make sure the school is run properly, but not to run the school."
Superintendent Jim Culkeen sought to clarify the matter further, saying, "I agree that the word sounds strong to a board member, but it is exactly for what Cindy outlines, particularly like on a testing day, so the principal can have that discretion, and say, 'This isn't a good day.'"
The MAU board passed the policy, with Frederickson abstaining, and the Pownal board passed it unanimously.
On the Optimum Class Size policy, some MAU board members, including Frederickson and Ed Letourneau, expressed concern that no minimum number was given for class sizes. Instead, the policy was changed to read, "The Principal and Superintendent will establish appropriate class size numbers. If a course's enrollment falls above or below this minimum the quality standard, a review by the Superintendent or his/her designee will be conducted." There had been a minimum class size of 10 students at the high school level.
"I thought we were going to come up with a policy that specified an optimum class size," said Letourneau, "and gave numbers, and I don't see that."
Johnson explained that, while the principals and the superintendent will be keeping close track to ensure that classes are not running with too few students, new state laws that require personal learning plans, and alternate pathways to graduation, could necessitate classes with fewer than 10 students in certain cases. In those cases, the principal and superintendent will review the situation and make the decision on whether or not the class should run.
"We're all on new ground with flexible pathways, so we thought putting numbers there might be unrealistic until we know what we're doing, since the whole state is experimenting with this and we don't know how that's going to look," said Mount Anthony Union High School Dean of Students David Beriau, who serves on the policy committee. He pointed out that three students in a work-based learning internship at an area business could count as a class, despite not being in a classroom, and there would be no reason to prohibit that from taking place because of this policy. "That is my impression as to why we we're treading with caution, in terms of giving a number we'd be held to," he said.
The MAU and Pownal boards both voted to warn that policy.
Derek Carson can be reached for comment at 802-447-7567, ext. 122.