The weeks directly after Town Meeting Day are like spring cleaning for school districts, as they exit budget-crafting season and return to normal.
School officials, both elected and professional, usually look forward to that — rolling up their sleeves and getting to work on things that have been placed on a back burner, things like proficiency-based learning and facilities assessments.
First, however, people with their sleeves rolled up might want to wash their hands. They might not want to not touch their faces. They might even need to stay home.
“Town Meeting Day every year is a reset button, insofar as we have a clear framework for the year. … This year, it’s feeling like there’s some unanticipated occurrences,” Tracy Wrend, the Lamoille South school superintendent, said this week, with understatement. “The emergence of the coronavirus is going to take some significant focus, and it means some other work might slow down a bit in order to make room.”
A quick note: The original draft of this post-town meeting analysis was written last week, the day after the annual meetings, when it seemed that the major business to attend to was all the school business that hadn’t yet been attended to. What a difference a week makes.
Before concerns about a possible global pandemic started entering the minds of Green Mountain Staters, things had already been turbulent in Lamoille South.
It all started about a year and a half ago, when the Vermont State Board of Education signed off on a statewide plan that included the forced merger of several school districts throughout the state. That included the merger of Stowe, Morristown and Elmore into one district.
The merged Lamoille South district was born out of turbulence. There were efforts in the courts and in the Legislature to put the skids on the statewide education plan that mandated the merger. Both of those failed, and the new seven-person school board took over governance last July.
The district’s first nine months of existence have been marked with discontent.
There was a long-percolating wrongful termination suit filed against Wrend in 2015 that resulted in most of the case being tossed, but a jury in September awarded the plaintiff, former Peoples Academy teacher David Bain, $150,000.
The board circled the wagons, issuing a statement of support for the superintendent. That was closely followed by the resignation of two Stowe board members, at least one of whom cited the board’s handling of the lawsuit as the impetus.
Then, the board went right into budget season, even as members of the public clamored for the board to dive into meatier topics like the new grading system known as proficiency-based learning — this year’s seniors will be the first high schoolers to go through all four years under the system.
Then, the board had to go through Wrend’s regular evaluation to decide whether to renew her contract, and took the unorthodox step of opening the evaluation process to the general public, a sizable portion of which was gunning for Wrend’s exit.
Through it all, the board had to defend a school budget that led to steep property tax increases.
Somehow, through all of this, the board, the superintendent and the budget emerged unscathed. Wrend got a contract extension, despite the clamor for her head. And, yet, two of the seven board members voted against that.
The budget passed by just over 300 votes. And, yet, 45 percent of the electorate voted against it.
What’s a school district to do with such a divided public? For now, the message is very much: Don’t panic.
“There is still very much important work for board engagement and community feedback,” Wrend said. “I do expect that to be on board agendas this spring.”
March, as the saying goes, has entered like a lion. When the lamb makes an appearance is anyone’s guess.