Five hopefuls are battling for South Burlington school board seats, though only two will win. With seats vacated by Elizabeth Fitzgerald and Martin LaLonde, three candidates submitted their names for a two-year seat and two for a three-year seat.
Scott Bronson, Travia Childs and James P. Johnson are each aiming for a two-year seat on the school board, offering different values and goals. Fighting for the three-year seat are Rebecca Day and Stephanie Stec, both former educators.
Bronson is a self-described nonconformer aiming to represent taxpayers hurting under the strain of an ever-increasing school budget. Travia Childs is a parent, a college professor and a Navy veteran, who hopes to represent all voices. A tenacious advocate for every school budget for 50 plus years, James P. Johnson Jr. hopes to rebuild school programs and address racism in the district.
With her experience as a retired principal, Day hopes to give back to the community where her children attended school; and Stec, a cost-conscious former special educator, sees education as the community’s greatest asset.
Bronson, a life-long South Burlington resident whose mother taught in the school district for 22 years, hopes to usher in frank budget discussions if he is elected to the school board. A self-described anti-establishment candidate, Bronson’s biggest concerns focus on curbing school budget increases and finding creative ways to rethink education funding.
He considers school spending “unsustainable” as it is and hopes to foster a dialogue between the district and teachers’ unions to address financial issues. “We need to address these issues; we can’t keep kicking the can down the road,” said Bronson. He is a graduate of South Burlington High School and has worked locally in retail and restaurant management.
The $55 million school district budget for next fiscal year, approved by board members last month and headed to ballots this March, proposes an increase in spending from last year by just under 6 percent. Bronson worries how much this price tag will add to his annual taxes, which are still in motion based on the city’s continuing housing reappraisal.
“I want voters to know I’m not an insider, I really want to represent the taxpayers,” he said. As an outsider, Bronson believes he can add new perspective to the conversation and examine school spending from multiple angles. As a board member, he hopes to restructure district staff salaries and insurance.
He hasn’t thought much about racial injustice in the district, said Bronson, but he thinks that discrimination is not acceptable and that policies should be in place to prevent racism in schools.
How to do that? “If we listen to the kids, we can learn a lot about this,” he said.
Bronson has always wanted to run for school board, partly because he hates heading to the polls in March and having so few choices for school board candidates.
“I love South Burlington. I want to continue living here, but I’m not sure if I’ll be able to afford to live here if the taxes keep going up,” explained Bronson.
Although her students call her Dr. Childs, the parent hopes to add approachability to the school board. If elected, Childs would likely be the first Black woman elected to the South Burlington school board.
“Being a high school teacher and a woman of color in an environment where there are not a lot of us, it makes a difference,” said Childs. “I have been through a lot and that’s why it’s very important when students look around, that they know someone has their back.”
Childs juggles many roles in addition to her school board campaign: She is mom to high school senior Jeremiah, she teaches courses at the University of Vermont and she’s mentored at-risk youth as a high school teacher.
Childs is also preparing to retire from service in the Navy, where she managed a $3 million budget for temporarily disabled military personnel and managed accounting and budget transactions, in addition to other duties.
Working with at-risk youth and youth of color, she’s also hyper aware of how many kids feel separate from their own community. As a school board member, Childs promises to make space for everyone’s voice and to work to better include people who feel marginalized.
“I want to go into schools and see what’s going on, I want to talk to the students,” said Childs. “If you talk to them where they have freedom to respond, we might understand that the real issues are sometimes not what we think they are.”
As a parent, she said she’s highly invested on prioritizing students in the community. While the district was forced to cut some important programs and classes in last year’s budget, including Advanced Placement courses and a diversity and inclusion course, Childs believes she could help future budgets in order to bring those assets back.
“This is what I enjoy: looking for loopholes, comparing budgets, trying to figure out how to manage efficiently,” she said. But she also wants the best education for Jeremiah and the other high schoolers to prepare them for the world.
As a woman of color, she is running to ensure that the voices of the minority members in the South Burlington School District are encouraged and heard. Part of that means feeling represented on a powerful governing body like the school board.
“How can you tell someone of color how to feel or how to react if you’re not of color?” asked Childs. She wants voters and students to know she has their back.
James P. Johnson Jr.
James P. Johnson Jr., a retired teacher and insurance and car salesman, said he’s voted “yes” on every South Burlington school budget proposal for over 50 years. Now retired, Johnson hopes to give back to his community in an active way by lending his passion and perseverance to the school board.
He plans to “go to the mat,” working tirelessly to support South Burlington’s students, from preschool through high school, while also repairing school facilities, communicating budget intricacies with transparency, addressing racism across the district and supporting retirement for veteran educators as the district’s most pressing issues.
“For most of my career life, I’ve had to listen — two ears, one mouth means you listen much more than you talk,” said Johnson. Through his experience in financial planning, automotive consulting and teaching, he’s developed a clear process with a focus on listening that would help him as a school board member.
A strong advocate to pass last year’s school budgets, Johnson hopes to counteract what he called the “cut-cut movement” and to rebuild robust school programs. Part of passing the budget boils down to transparent communication with residents, he said, and humanizing the cold budget numbers.
“Behind each line item are students impacted daily by the cuts,” said Johnson.
Another of his priorities is to address racism in the South Burlington school district. If he had his way, Johnson said, he would give every adult African American $1 million in reparations and “an apology for 400 years of inhumane treatment.”
To uproot racism — a fact of life in Vermont, which he calls “overt, subtle and sometimes sub-rosa” — it must be exposed and discussed. In that vein, he strongly supports the student and teacher-led efforts to fly the Black Lives Matter flag at all district schools year-round.
A life-long educator who spent six years as an assistant principal, Rebecca Day said, “I absolutely love the school and community.”
Her child was a student in the district, too.
Day spent 20 years or her life in teaching and school administrative roles before switching gears to run her own business last year. Somewhat inspired by the COVID-19 pandemic, Day wrote a book and partnered with Castleton University to start an e-learning company — Health Solutions Associates LLC — providing online classes for educators in the area of self-care.
“I know what it takes to run a school,” said Day. “I’m also very cognizant of waste and the necessity of certain items within a school budget.”
She believed transparency is vital to budget proposals, asking, “What do those numbers mean and how do they affect student learning and taxpayers?”
The school district has more work ahead around educating the general public, Day said.
During her teaching career, Day also served as a high school equity officer where, she said, she worked with students on issues of harassment, hazing and bullying.
“The hope is you don’t get to that place, that you have preventative measures in schools,” she said. While she thinks that racism is a “hot topic,” Day believes the issue is not as urgent in South Burlington as it is in other school districts.
“I’m also a huge advocate for equity for all kids and access for programs for all kids,” she said.
Newly retired from a life as a special educator, Stephanie Stec said she can add a balanced perspective to the South Burlington school board.
With a fixed income living in a moderate area of South Burlington, Stec is conscious of the strain felt by taxpayers; but as a parent and former educator, she also firmly believes education is the community’s most valuable resource.
While she notes budgeting can be complex, she hopes to demystify the process for residents. “For taxpayers with a fixed or low income, every 50 or 20 dollars counts,” she said.
She also hopes to communicate how many budgetary constraints are out of board members hands, like healthcare costs or the common level of appraisal, two powerful influencers.
She felt the burden when her own children attended South Burlington schools. “It’s tough: we want to deliver high-quality education with ever shrinking resources,” she said.
Also important to Stec is continuing conversations around equity and racism, especially in a predominantly white state like Vermont.
“We need to be part of that national conversation preparing students and giving thoughtful opportunities,” she said. “We need to be the national front.”
Part of that means funding programs and services to better prepare students for future success, regardless of socio-economic background. Examining school curriculum and materials to ensure diverse representation would also aid in this effort, said Stec.
“Students of color have struggled and have experienced racially charged slurs and more,” said Stec. “It should be high on our list of things to be concerned about.”