Board asks superintendent to design school plan
DOVER- At the River Valleys Unified School District board’s meeting Monday, April 23, the board asked superintendent Bill Anton to formulate a plan for how many of the larger logistics of the newly-formed school district will work. At a future date, Anton will bring his recommendations for how these aspects of the new district, which comprises Dover and Wardsboro, might be handled, at which point the board will choose to adopt his suggestions or will work to find different approaches.
The meeting’s work kicked off with a review of three things: the overall top responses to a question on a recent survey; each board member’s top three responses to another survey question; and 10-point lists from each school’s principal about the schools’ cultures.
The first question on the survey, which went out to the Dover and Wardsboro communities in March, asked “What factors are the most important to you for the River Valleys USD to consider in preparing to start on July 1, 2019?” The question was multiple choice. The top three selected by respondents were: expanding educational opportunities; honoring the culture of each community; and finding cost savings through shared services.
An open-ended question on the survey asked respondents to identify their vision for a successful transition for the new district. The board singled out their favorite responses at the request of chair Rich Werner. The top chosen responses were:
1. “One where neither school is pulled down by this merger and cooperation, trust, and unity developed between teachers, students, parents, and administrators of each town.”
2. “Equality, equity, more opportunities”
3. “Taxpayers see the value the district’s quality brings to the two towns, parents feel fortunate for students to be in the district, students are proud to be a part of the district and entering middle and secondary schools prepared to lead, administrators and teachers feel they have enough support and time to maintain high quality educational programs throughout the district.”
The question of honoring each school’s culture, as prioritized by the responses from question one, gave the board pause at its last meeting, and Werner asked the schools’ principals to define what the schools saw as elements that identify their culture. They did so in 10-point lists. After reviewing the lists, which each included items like school traditions and celebrations, high-quality staffing, teachers, administrators, diversity of programs, and a positive learning environment, board members remarked at how similar they were.
“We were all really worried about honoring culture,” said Werner. “And one thing I think we can say is that they’re just about identical, with some different acronyms and mascots.”
With that revelation in hand, Werner asked the board whether, given an apparent accord on what cultural items to honor, and given the board’s consensus on its preferred responses to the survey, it was time to charge the superintendent with creating his recommendations for the district.
“I broke down the five big items we’ve been having discussions about,” said Werner. “(I’d like to) see, if we were to take (these lists of) honoring culture and give that to our superintendent with our top three responses on what a good merger looks like, plus these five topics, is it enough to give to our administrator to design a school for us?”
The “five big items,” were the physical use of buildings in the district; the curriculum; programming such as music, arts, and foreign language; pre-K; and transportation. A sixth item, defining what choice parents will have in terms of which district school their children attend, was added toward the end of the discussion.
The board gave Anton recommendations for each item. Under physical use of buildings, they specified that there should be one building in each town. For the curriculum, the board said it would like Anton’s input about retaining the IB program in Dover and the NIC program in Wardsboro. For pre-K, Dover currently runs 3- and 4-year-old programs, while Wardsboro only offers pre-K for 4-year-olds. Anton will bring back a recommendation on whether those structures should shift in the new district. For transportation, Anton will evaluate how to handle transportation to, and possibly between, the schools, as well as how to manage transportation for secondary students. For building choice, the board asked Anton to use town lines as an initial parameter for which building students will attend.
Anton reiterated that the board would have the final say on everything. “You guys are giving me guidance,” said Anton. “I’m going to do some work, and then I will give you some information. You still have to approve it.”
Anton warned that achieving all three of the top responses to the survey’s first question — expanding educational opportunities; honoring the culture of each community; and finding cost savings through shared services — may prove difficult, particularly finding cost savings.
“To accomplish all of those things and to do everything you just asked me to do will not lower costs for anybody,” said Anton. “What we talked about here is doing more, not less. If that’s what you’re shooting for, I can give you guys a (proposed) system. But I will be amazed if that’s going to save you money.”
“It’s like ‘Alice in Wonderland,’” said Werner. “Triple everything we do and then cut my taxes in half.” Nevertheless, Werner said, he feels fortunate to be in the process with Anton as superintendent, and in towns that are generally supportive of their schools and the budgets they request. “Imagine being in a town where they voted your budget down five of the last seven years trying to do this? We’re a very fortunate group,” said Werner.