Monkton Central School regroups after half of teaching staff departs

MONKTON — Though 10 staff members will not be returning to the Monkton Central School next fall, Superintendent David Adams said the Addison Northeast Supervisory Union is well on its way to meeting the school’s staffing needs for the upcoming academic year.
Two positions, a kindergarten classroom position and a technology position, will not be filled. Several other vacancies have been filled, Adams said in a Wednesday interview with the Independent. The school district hoped to hire a person for one classroom position by the end of last week, leaving Monkton Central with only one full-time and one part-time position to fill.
“It’s quite manageable,” Adams said, of their summer hiring duties.
Monkton Central is experiencing declining enrollment. Projected enrollment this fall is expected to be 139, compared to 159 at the start of the recently concluded academic year, 166 during 2011-2012 and 177 the 2010-2011 school year, according to ANeSU data and communications specialist Karen Wheeler.
The 10 Monkton Central School teachers are leaving for varied reasons, Adams said, pointing out that a story in last Monday’s Independent inaccurately characterized nine of those teachers’ departures as “resignations.” Math specialist Zandra Cousino (who worked 35 years at the school) and music teacher Sandy Dahl (a 39-year veteran) have retired; speech and language pathologist Ashley Kossick, physical education teacher Brian Godfrey, fifth-grade and technology teacher Kevin Grace, and special educator Val Calzini are accepting other jobs; special educator Chris Duca and fifth- and sixth-grade teacher Lauren Fereshetian are relocating; fourth-grade teacher Laura Sturtevant has resigned; and kindergarten teacher Lydia Davidson’s position was not renewed.
Adams said the turnover rate “is unusual and it does make an impact, but it’s somewhat situational.”
Sturtevant, the teacher who resigned, said in an interview last week that her decision had been based on difficulties in the school climate, which she felt had crossed the line into harassment.
“Yes, (those teachers) may be relocating or moving on to a new job, but why were they looking?” said Sturtevant, who had taught at Monkton Central for 11 years.
The volume of departures along with recently released results of the Teaching, Empowering, Leading and Learning (TELL) Vermont survey — an anonymous statewide poll of school-based educators to assess teaching conditions at the school, district and state level that indicated a deep level of teacher dissatisfaction in the area of “Institutional Practices and Support” at Monkton Central — led to impassioned parent-led discussions at a special school board meeting on May 16 (where school climate was the only agenda item) and at the board’s June 13 meeting, where some parents characterized the school as “in crisis.”
“(The administration) can say ‘disgruntled employees’ but I think the numbers speak for themselves,” Sturtevant said. “When half the staff leaves it’s the atmosphere, or the administration.”
She noted that Monkton Central School had seen very little turnover during her first years at the school, but in recent years changes in school practices and personnel had changed the climate drastically, and she believed many of her colleagues were choosing to leave as a direct or indirect result of that.
“The negativity is like a fog or a mist hanging over the school,” she said. “I had a 10-year-old look at me and say, ‘I know why you’re leaving’ … it’s traumatic.”
Longtime music teacher Sandy Dahl, who retired this year after teaching for 39 years at Monkton Central and Bristol Elementary, said that her decision to go into retirement was twofold.
“I felt the children deserved someone more newly trained, familiar with new practices,” Dahl said. “And I was a little frustrated I couldn’t do my job to the best of my ability, to meet each child’s need,” she added, referring to the changes in the music program that reduced instructional music courses.
Dahl attributed the changes in the school climate to broader situations, including Monkton’s transition to the Common Core standards, changes in personnel, tight budgets and increased family needs due to the recession.
“The changes are coming faster,” Dahl said. “Everyone is under a great deal of pressure. It always comes down to the financial needs of people.”
Though school board members and the superintendent declined to discuss the TELL Vermont survey at their June board meeting, saying that they had not yet had time to read it, Adams said on Wednesday that he welcomed it as a conversation-starter.
Adams said that moving forward, the focus would be on encouraging and facilitating a productive dialogue between parents, teachers, the principal and the district staff. He acknowledged that there had been a significant breakdown in communication at several levels.
“It’s an unfortunate situation because now feelings are hurt,” he said. “We want to focus now on restoring good relationships among parents, teachers and administrators … Whether it is real or perceived, there is a situation that needs to be addressed.”
The strategy?
“To listen, and talk it through, and engage people in conversations, to restore the wonderful things that happen at MCS,” Adams said.

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