VUES board candidates state their cases

VERGENNES — Vergennes Union Elementary School board candidates Cheryl Brinkman and Susan Ferland were also given the opportunity to speak at Feb. 23 candidates’ forum hosted by American Legion Post 14.
Brinkman, a two-term incumbent and board chairwoman, and Ferland, a former elementary school teacher who is challenging Brinkman but has not previously held public office, did not have the chance to respond to five prepared questions, as did the five council candidates, but had the four-minute opportunity to introduce themselves, say why they were seeking election, and offer their thoughts on rising school spending at the same time enrollment is declining.
They also responded to two audience questions, to which their responses were limited to 30 seconds.
The forum was filmed and may be seen by Vergennes viewers with cable television. The full forum may also be viewed online at vermontcam.org. Those interested may select “Vergennes meetings” from a menu on the right hand of the home screen, and then choose the candidate forum from the list.
BRINKMAN: “I have thoroughly enjoyed my six years as a VUES director and feel I am just hitting my stride. Being an effective school board director takes a lot of time.”
Brinkman noted she was on the committee that negotiated a district-wide teachers’ contract two years ago, and is on the same committee negotiating a new deal now: “It would be counter-productive to introduce a new individual into this delicate process.”
Brinkman said she is also now working with the district superintendent to form a search committee for the first new VUES principal in more than a decade: “This will be the most defining change that our elementary school has seen in 13 years, and there’s much anxiety in the school environment around this issue. I would like to make this transition as smooth an experience as possible.”
On finance: “I really consider that the art of being a good school board director as trying to promote the best education we can, but also being fiscally responsible …
“Our approach is instead of cutting programs and riffing teachers, we’re taking advantage of the opportunity when a teacher does retire. When a teacher retires, our goal is to reconfigure our class size … That just seems to be the most seamless and painless way with the reduced enrollment.”
Brinkman said the recently completed roofing and insulation project has cut VUES energy costs: “That has helped us out immensely, and that’s one of the reasons we have a very modest 0.5 percent increase in our school budget this year.”
FERLAND: Ferland said she has lived in Vergennes for 20 years, and both her son and daughter attended VUES in the past. After teaching preschool in Chittenden County, Ferland said she taught elementary school for 16 years in Addison County, mostly at Addison Central School. She said that background would help her get up to speed quickly on the VUES board:
“I have a good understanding of early childhood, and the importance of education. In that work as a teacher, I worked with school boards. At the Addison school I worked with, we hired two principals, and yes, that is a huge event in an elementary school. A principal can certainly set the tone for the education, and working between all the staff, whether it’s positive or negative.”
On finances and enrollment: “I worked in a small school and our enrollments were all over the place … As a staff we were constantly looking at enrollments and trying to figure out, ‘What can we do to maximize the education dollars that we have available? Can we write any grants? Can we restructure our educational program to better meet the needs of our kids?’ …
“And we did a lot of creative things as teachers. We had a principal who was very proactive and helped us set up different programs so that we could deal with declining enrollment. And sometimes it meant, yes, that a teacher might have to teach a multi-age classroom … Sometimes because of the fiscal responsibility it was what you had to do.”
Ferland had one issue she said she would like to take to the board: “One thing I do have a beef on is our most needy students are often stuck with the least experienced (teachers), and that’s one thing I won’t ignore.”
QUESTION ONE: “If the consolidation of schools has already been addressed and voted on, why does the same subject keep coming up for further deliberation and another vote?”
BRINKMAN: “I haven’t heard the word unification spoken since it was voted down last year … But I believe why it might come back around again is because … most of the people on the school board still think it is a very good idea to consolidate our schools … It’s still a good idea, but it’s not going to come forward.”
FERLAND: “I can’t answer whether it’s going to come forward again. I haven’t heard it talked about in the community or in the newspaper. I would say, however, if unification were to be looked at again, it needs to be reframed, and that we need to look at more avenues than we focused on before.”
QUESTION TWO: “Was there anything else you would like to add?”
FERLAND: “I think it’s one of the most important things that has not been explored with Vergennes is just something called ‘place-based education,’ when you learn about the place you live in. We have so much history here, and I would love to see our kids learn about our history.”
BRINKMAN: “I’ve invested a lot of time and commitment into the last six years, and I feel like I’m really on the brink of getting some really wonderful things done for our elementary school — including the outdoor classroom, speaking of having a wonderful place for our schoolkids to go out and learn in the environment.”

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