The Champlain Valley School District board spent a good bit of time during a Feb. 2 meeting communicating — about communicating.
Discussion kicked off with commentary about how the school system’s website has been modified to draw attention to its efforts towards diversity, equity and inclusion.
Board chair Lynne Jaunich said the board had been “called out” for a lack of proactivity in communicating that it had even passed an equity policy.
“In the absence of communication it’s easy to believe that nothing’s happening, but there’s a lot happening,” Jaunich said.
In response to a letter from a group of Shelburne families working for equity, the school system has added links to its website about its equity policy, Jaunich said.
A copy of that letter has been requested from the school district, but has not been received as of press time.
Prompted by Jaunich asking the board for other equity strategies, member Barbra Marden said she thought it was important to set clear expectations and be transparent about what the board is doing.
For example, the community should be told what work the school system is doing to hire a director of diversity and inclusion, Marden said.
Rhiannon Kim started work in that role last July 1 and left it on July 7. She declined to say what changed her mind, but superintendent Elaine Pinkney said it was the salary.
Kim did say she had not been given a job description or clear goals for the position.
Jeff Martin, another board member, said he appreciated the “thoughtful and planful” approach to equity work, and said communicating an overview of what the board has done including passing an equity policy would be helpful.
The school board passed its equity policy in December and is now detailed on the district website.
The policy says, “The Champlain Valley School District is committed to the success of every student, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, family economics, class, geography, ability, language, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or initial proficiencies.”
According to this policy, all of the decision makers, faculty and staff are accountable for a district-wide commitment to equality and the school district “will incorporate principles of equity within all programs, policies, operations, practices and resource allocations.”
Inaccuracy in news?
Martin said during the meeting, “I’ve also been a little concerned about the accuracy of some of the articles that have been put out through The Citizen and through The Charlotte News.”
When contacted by email for details, Martin wrote, “I will consider talking with you, but first I need clarification regarding your intention. Do you plan to incorporate any of our discussion in a future article? Or are you only seeking, off the record, feedback from me regarding your writing because you are sincerely open to frank critique?”
By email Martin later said a Jan. 28 about the discussion of whether to keep the school resource position left the impression, even if it didn’t explicitly say, that the decision was the school board’s.
“That is not accurate. The only position the board has direct responsibility over is for hiring, supervising and terminating, if necessary, the superintendent,” Martin wrote.
“Once funding is appropriated for any other position in the district (including the SRO) it is up to administration to decide whether they are going to sustain that position over time, or not,” he wrote.
Martin, nor other district representatives, shared this feeling prior to the public meeting.
This newspaper made a Freedom of Information Act request for all communications between the Champlain Valley School District administration and school board mentioning the Shelburne News, The Citizen and The Charlotte News between Dec. 1 and Feb. 4.
Among messages sent was an email in which Jaunich suggested the district run an article in the same editions of those newspapers that it was running advertisement flyers explaining the budget.
She said the article could explain the budget in more detail.
Director of Digital Learning and Communication Bonnie Birdsall responded she had sent an article with this information, but this newspaper ran it in the Community Update section instead of running it as an article.
Which, she wrote, was also what The Citizen and Shelburne News had done with another article she sent about the search for a new superintendent.
“New management, new priorities,” Birdsall wrote.
“Editing press releases, rather than running in full, is standard journalistic practice, and nothing new. Management of Shelburne News and The Citizen has undergone no recent changes,” said managing editor Jessie Forand.
Another email thread about mistakes in an article in Shelburne News and The Citizen said that in the Jan. 14 edition the three zeros were dropped from the end of the $85,285,000 budget proposed for the upcoming fiscal year.
This newspaper was not contacted for correction or clarification. That was not mentioned in the Feb. 2 meeting.
Also, the school district got $3 million from the initial Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act — commonly referred to as the CARES Act — allocation and hopes to get $2 million from the most recent allocation, instead of $2 million then and $3 million in the next allocation, contrary to initial reporting.
School board vs. administration
Martin said it is important for communications about the board’s equity work to be as accurate as possible.
Elyse Martin-Smith, a student member of the school board, and Martin’s daughter, said she thought equity actions should be taken in younger grades, not just at Champlain Valley Union High School.
Marden speculated about whether there is a way to track equity and to focus that effort.
Board member Kelly Bowen said the school board and administration need to decide what the responsibilities of each are in communicating the school district’s message.
Before the schools were unified as the Champlain Valley School District, there wasn’t a director of communications, but there was a communications committee. As chair of that committee, Bowen said she made a motion to dissolve it in 2018.
Since then, Bowen said the board has deferred communications to the administration.
“We have agendas. We have minutes. We have very wordy and, frankly, boring, no-one’s-going-to-read-them documents,” Bowen said. “But we really don’t have consumable data or even consumable fun pieces to read.”
Jaunich said how the board collaborates with the central office on communication is a bigger conversation for the future.