Q&A with the MAU candidates

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BENNINGTON — On Tuesday Nov. 7, as voters in Bennington, Pownal, Shaftsbury, and Woodford are voting on whether or not to create a unified pre-K through 12 school district throughout their communities, they will also cast their ballots for the people who would serve on that district's board.

All candidates will be voted on by all voters, due to the "hybrid at-large" model selected for the new board, which allows it to have representatives from each community without being strictly proportional. Meridy Capella, Chris Murphy, and Robert Plunkett of Bennington; Nelson Brownell of Pownal; and Mike Gahan of Woodford are running unopposed. Contested races are as follows: Jackie Kelly and Chaila Sekora of Bennington, Cindy Brownell and Tim Holbrook of Pownal, Jeff Leake and Ed Molloy of Shaftsbury, and Dave Durfee and Fran Kinney of Shaftsbury.

Throughout this week, the candidates performed brief interviews at Catamount Access Television. Each answered five questions written by the Banner. The following is a sampling of their answers. The full videos are available on CAT-TV's YouTube page, and will be broadcast prior to the vote. The candidates are presented here in alphabetical order. The Brownells, Molloy, and Plunkett did not respond to requests for interviews.

What about your background makes you a good choice to serve on the board?

Capella: "I am a long-time community member, I have two elementary school-aged children, I have one in fifth grade and one in third. I'm a business owner, property owner, and I love the community and intend to be here for a very long time."

Durfee: "I've been on the board, several boards actually, for the last five or six years: the Shaftsbury board, the MAU board, and the SVSU board. I've served in the clerk position, the vice-chair position on a couple of the boards, I chair the education committee, I've chaired the SU finance committee. So I think I've got the board experience, the committee experience, and understand how things tend to work."

Gahan: "I am already on the Woodford school board, I've been a member now for about two and a half years. I came on board because they had a vacant seat, and from there I went on the ballot when that expired. I'm in touch will all of the folks there, and my son J.T. is actually at Woodford school, so I'm really looking out for the school. The main reason that I live in Woodford is because of that school."

Holbrook: "I have been serving on the Mount Anthony school board for a number of years, I've been in education all my life, both in public and private schools, and I believe in the education system we have here in Bennington.

Kelly: "My background is totally educational. I've been an educator almost all my life, and I know school boards, I know teachers, and with my background I even know more about remedial students than most people do because I spent over 20 years teaching learning-disabled children and specializing in reading."

Kinney: "I ran for the board in 1988, and I've been on the Shaftsbury board (through) this year, I've served on the MAU board for about 25 years, I've served on the (Career Development Center) board for 10 or 12 years, I've been on the SVSU board since 1988, I've participated in teacher negotiations since 1988, I've participated in (education support personnel) negotiations, I've been chairman of the Shaftsbury board and vice-chairman of MAU and SVSU. I know how this whole system works."

Leake: "I worked as a paraeducator in the district for four years and one year in the middle school, teaching math. I got inside of the school there, and I also have a child in the school and I care about my child and I care about the other children, and I want the best education (for them) as possible."

Murphy: "I'm trying to get elected to the newly merged board to continue some of the work I began on the Bennington School District school board this year. Nearly one year into my first term ever serving on the school board, it's been rewarding, it's certainly been educational, and I hope to be able to continue in that vein on the newly merged board."

Sekora: "I've been on the school board now for about eight months, but prior to that I've been very involved in the school system since my children entered into elementary school six years ago. Both of my girls go to Molly Stark, and I've been very involved since they started there. I've wanted to move that forward and maybe be an influence and make some changes in our educational system and be able to provide quality education for all our students."

Do you think the proposed merger is a positive step forward for the school system?

Capella: "I do feel that the merger is going to be a positive step forward. I think it's going to give our staff the opportunity to move around within the district a bit more freely, it'll allow children to have school choice (within the district), it'll streamline education, and give us some added bonuses and incentives to have all the kids get the education they deserve."

Durfee: "The merger that has been proposed, I think, is the best of a set of not necessarily very good options... Locally, the committee that come up with the proposal did a good job given the alternative, which is essentially a forced merger where the state will very likely impose on us. (It takes) advantage of the restrictions on school closings and so-forth that have been worked into the agreement. In addition, the tax savings over the next four years, which people have tended to dismiss a little bit, those are real and I'd hate to be in the position in the spring explaining to a voter why their tax rate had gone up eight cents rather than staying flat."

Gahan: "I think it has its good points and its bad points, but then again, I think everything does. I'm interested to see how this all works out... My concern would be that I don't want to see the Woodford school close, and it is a small school. The way that the state has been talking, and from what I've been reading in the papers, it makes me a little nervous to hear what the state has been saying."

Holbrook: "It would depend how it all plays out. There are some things that concern me. For instance if Pownal or Shaftsbury wanted to put an addition on their building that would house a language lab, let's just say, that then would become part of their budget, which would be rolled into the budget of all the districts. The likelihood of it passing would be less, and it would give the residents of Pownal or Shaftsbury not the same opportunity that they have now to increase the opportunities available... On the other side of the coin I certainly think there are some advantages of consolidation of administration, particularly in central office.

Kelly: "I do. I think this proposed merger is a welcome factor in enabling us to focus on education and not focus just on meetings. Meetings take up most of our time, and we have a rare opportunity to focus on learning situations and how to improve our schools. (Now) we're more concerned with our budgets in each district, and I think by joining together we'll see a much improved school system and a much more focused school system."

Kinney: "I do not. I am not going to vote for this merger. I think if we have a chance to submit what we're doing now... All of the districts, we're about 85 percent consolidated anyway. I think instead of going the proposal we have, because once we go with it, that's it, there's no turning back, I think we should vote this thing down and go back to (submitting a report to the state justifying the current governance structure)."

Leake: "I think the proposed merger is a positive step for the school system. We're seeing a decline in students over the years, eventually this is going to become a bigger issue in class sizes. If you have the merger, it provides opportunities further down the road. I think the first couple years will be trying to get your feet wet and building on what we have to make it a better educational system."

Murphy: "I think the proposed merger is absolutely a positive step forward for the school system. We have this sense once seventh grade rolls around, we have this acknowledgement that these are all of our kids, regardless of which town they come from. But the way that the current governance is set up for our elementary schools, there is this real, false sense of the divide. Bennington from Woodford from Shaftsbury from Pownal. That illusion goes away in the seventh grade. So what this merger can do is fulfill that promise, with an acknowledgment that these are all our kids."

Sekora: "Yes, I do. I believe at this point it's going to not only bring us together as a community, not just be Bennington, Pownal, Shaftsbury, Woodford, but really give us the ability to gain efficiencies and really get down to business and cut through the red tape and bureaucracy of having all these individual boards, and being able to make decisions as a full community."

What is one aspect of our schools that you would like to see improved?

Capella: "I would like to see children have the opportunity to move around within the district a bit more freely. There's some talk of in the future potentially having different schools specialize in different areas, and I think that is something, unfortunately, my kids will never get to see because they'll be out of elementary by then, but hopefully other students will have the opportunity to take advantage of that and staff will be able to take advantage of moving around more freely."

Durfee: "One of my pet improvement ideas would be to start the school day later in the morning at the middle school and high school level. Mount Anthony High School starts before 8 o'clock. There's lots of data, lots of research, that shows that students do better when they're not asked to be in the classroom at that time of day. Obviously there would be scheduling challenges, conflicts with after-school activities, buses and bus routes. All of that would have to be taken into account. But this has been done in other parts of the state, including Brattleboro several years ago."

Gahan: "I think they've been making quite a few improvements as far as testing and how the kids are learning, bringing that aspect of it together I think they've been doing a really good job. As long as we keep trying to improve what's best for our kids, I think that's the best thing."

Holbrook: "I'd like to see the general literacy program closely examined. I'm a firm believer that the basis of all academic education starts with the ability to read and comprehend what you are reading. It's essential that those skills are imparted to the children at a young age. If you wait too long there are all sorts of situations that arise that make it increasingly difficult for that child to stay in the norm in terms of what the other students are doing. I would like to see us place a strong emphasis on developing literacy skills at a young age and the opportunity for those who haven't reached those skills to gain them very quickly if it becomes obvious that they don't have them."

Kelly: "I for one would like to see special education improved. At our May meeting last year, one of our constituents asked us about special education and how we were improving our schools. Nobody to date has looked at the test scores and desegregated the data so that we can see how regular students are improving and how special education students are improving. I would like to see desegregated data."

Kinney: "I'd like to see the curriculum improved, I'd like to see teacher time with students improved, and administrators spending more time in the schools themselves."

Leake: "I'd like to see some of those reading test scores come up, that's an area that needs to be worked on. A lot of it is going to be more increase in early intervention. You're seeing the numbers in the test scores as low, but if you can intervene early on and mediate, you should be able to bring a bunch of the kids up, if you look at a lot of evidence-based studies that are out there on early childhood reading."

Murphy: "As we saw recently with the test scores coming from the three BSD schools, there is huge room for improvement, both in a snapshot and also in growth over time. We have some fantastic strategies available to our schools. We have the PBIS, the sort of behavioral development that happens within schools, and the multi-tiered systems of support, which sort of meet students where they're at in terms of helping them to reach grade level proficiency. If we can embrace all of those with a full heart and with all of our energies, I think that that can carry us to where we want to be."

Sekora: "I think that any additional enrichment programs or opportunities to kind of expand outside of the educational norm and the core curriculum are just benefits, and I understand that for budgetary reasons we're not able to do that as schools, but that's one of the things I really hope the merger will allow us to do... and bring children from all of the districts together in different enrichment programs and educational programs for the arts, or music, or science, just to further their education and expand their knowledge."

What is one thing that the schools are doing well now that you would not like to see changed?

Capella: "I really like our teachers and our administrators. I think by and large we have really great teachers and administrators that are really invested in our kids. As a sitting school board member I really like to see them supported, I like them to know that they have an ear when they need help, and I would like to see that continue. I think the new format will allow for that.

Durfee: "We have a pretty reasonable teacher-to-student ratio in our local schools, and our average spending per student is pretty reasonable. You often hear that Vermont spends the most per student of any state in the country. That's true, but its not because of the way we're spending here in our corner of the state. So any efforts to control spending should be directed where they belong, and we here should not be expected to reduce teaching staff or other positions simply to make changes."

Gahan: I know during the study committees for Act 46 there were a lot of people worried about 'their school' as opposed to 'our school,' and that kind of thing, but I think that everybody did get together and improved talking. The teachers are just outstanding. My daughter, Hope, has been in several different schools, and the faculty around here is just incredible.

Holbrook: "I think that we have some very, very good teachers in particular, and I think that I'd like to see them have more influence on what the curriculum is and how things are handled. I think we have some exceptionally good teachers and I think that we should have full advantage of them."

Kelly: "One of the things I think our schools do well is that we have a wonderful superintendent and a wonderful staff at our head office... They seem to guide us in the right ways, so we're not just focusing on one element of education, we're looking at the whole picture. For instance, improving our heating system last year for the BSD, we're going to save a considerable amount of money, and I think if all the districts look at that type of system we will indeed save more money. I like it when more people get together to look at a problem, rather than just having five to seven people look at one problem."

Kinney: "In Shaftsbury we have a good group of teachers, we have after-school programs, I'd like to keep those. I'd like to see how we could do things differently, if there are subjects that could be combined, we don't need Act 46 for that, we've been doing it for years, so I'd like to see things like that stay."

Leake: "I think one thing our schools do well is, we have a great group of teachers, in all the schools. They are caring for the children. Some people will debate that, but if you have a chance to talk with the teachers, they're doing it because they enjoy the students. The teachers... engage the kids, they know the children, the principals know the children, and that's one thing I find as a positive influence. When I bring my kid to school the parents know the teachers, the kids are open with the teachers, I like that relationship the teachers have with the students."

Murphy: "What we have, and we see this regardless of whether its parents' input, whether its staff input, whether its community input, we have this hugely dedicated pool of teachers and educators within our school system. They will stick with us regardless of whether the merger happens or it doesn't, regardless of what governance looks like. We need to honor those folks, because they have just a relentless pace to their work, they have endless demands made of them professionally, so we need to honor them, and not just with our words but through our actions as well."

Sekora: "That real focus on the behavioral aspects and the tiered program, and being able to not only teach toward curriculum but be able to ensure that we're helping with the behavioral issues and any other emotional situations they have going on. I think we're doing a really good job of managing that and making great steps toward that. We have a long, long way to go, but I think we've come very far making sure we're pushing that agenda and focusing on those things as well, because those are the foundations."

If the merger, as it is currently proposed, does pass, what are some ways that you will work to ensure that your community still has a voice in how your schools are operated?

Capella: "Bennington is going to have a larger seat at the table, as everyone knows, and I think that will continue to be the theme throughout, getting more community members involved, getting them to come out and talk to us and let us know what they need, rather than us operating in a vacuum is going to be an asset in how I'd continue to work as a board member."

Durfee: "If the merger passes, Shaftsbury will still have two seats on the board, and the board members will all be people I know and have worked with in the past, and I don't anticipate, at least among that initial group, anybody doing anything that would single out a particular district, so I'm not too concerned about that. I think that there are opportunities for Shaftsbury and the other towns who will no longer have their own boards to still have a voice, and that could be in the form of some sort of volunteer group, a forum that met occasionally with the principal, the board members, and so forth."

Gahan: "I'd like to make sure everybody knows how to get in touch with me if anybody has an concerns, obviously. I like working with Sandy (Foster, Woodford Elementary principal) and Melissa (Chancey, teacher), and all the folks down there. I can't say enough about them, they really are awesome. If people keep in touch with me, I'll do what I can."

Holbrook: "I think that's going to depend a lot on how its settled and the parameters in which the board operates. It's difficult to say until we get those. But with the makeup of the board, I still have concerns that some of the outlying districts... may have a difficult time implementing programs that they feel are going to be beneficial to the kids.

Kelly: "That's a great question and I've thought about it long and hard. I believe that when we merge, whether I'm elected or not elected, I'd like to see sub-committees take on some of these special action problems. I know in my role on the CDC board we did the same thing: Even though we have a board we have several subcommittees, and these subcommittees look at the picture and they solve problems, then they bring that to the board. There's no reason we can't do that for all boards when they combine."

Kinney: "I don't think anybody knows what Act 46 is or how it's going to work, but I would at least try to make sure Shaftsbury especially has a voice at the table, because I think it's important. I've worked very, very hard over the years to save the town of Shaftsbury a lot of money, we've saved millions of dollars. And I see what's happening, with newer board members are coming on and coming into the future, everybody likes to spend money that they don't have. You can't do that to people."

Leake: "The way the merger is set-up is the bare-bones merger idea. The articles are the bones of the merger... Over the next couple of years you're going to see a lot of how the meat part of the merger is put together, and that's something that you have to look at."

Murphy: "This idea of local control has been bandied about, and the idea is that if the merger happens we're somehow surrendering local control. That's not true at all. These communities, our communities, elected people to serve on our school boards, and those people, who were chosen by the citizens, have created this plan for our community. To vote no on this merger says, 'Hey, Agency of Education, hey, State, come down and tell us what to do,' and that is the ultimate surrender of local control."

Sekora: "Definitely (by) ensuring that I'm hearing the constituents within my community and what is important to them and making sure that is part of my voice that I'm bringing to the board as a whole, and ensuring that that is factored into the decisions that we're making, and being that conduit for our community members to make sure that they feel that they still have a voice in the board."

Derek Carson can be reached at dcarson@benningtonbanner.com, at @DerekCarsonBB on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 122.

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