Education Op/Ed

Letter to the editor: Problems in schools not just the result of COVID

In a recent editorial (“Challenging times for schools”; April 14), Angelo Lynn too simply dismisses the challenges in our schools, saying “the pandemic has upset the apple cart” and that it is “no one’s fault.” Christine Wadsworth, in a letter to the editor in that same issue of the paper, “ACSD struggles tied to decisions by leadership” uses stronger, more appropriate terms, blaming district-wide troubles on “awful, and avoidable, management decisions.” It is a shame that Lynn preemptively undercuts her letter in his own editorial, questioning if her letter “is close to its mark” and seeming to blame the messenger a bit for not working “together to solve problems without first casting blame.”

I’ll speak to the situation at ACSD and MUMS, since my spouse teaches there, my daughter is in the 6th grade, and I lead an extracurricular club there. I do not exaggerate when I say that MUMS is in crisis; many faculty have left, or will not return; students are departing for other schools, and many classes are taught for extended times by substitute teachers. Until the superintendent and board publicly acknowledge that moving the 6th grade without adequate staffing, planning, or support was a monumental mistake, the problems will not be rectified. This is a case where identifying mistakes, and apportioning blame, are appropriate and necessary if we are to correct them. The pandemic did not cause the problems, but it did make them show up in sharp relief.

There has been a leadership vacuum at MUMS for several years, with turnover, staff shuffling, and little heed paid to the warnings raised by teachers about the 6th-grade move. The only MUMS administrator with more than just this year’s experience at MUMS is leaving, and none of them were present when MUMS was a highly regarded middle school, praised throughout the district. Now, the district’s commitment to the middle school model itself seems questionable. 

The schedule, staffing, and administration seem to have reverted to a junior high model. I too, am hopeful, and wish Michaela Wisell success next year at MUMS, as she brings something very valuable to the table: relationships with many of the students from her time at Mary Hogan. But too many veteran teachers will not be there next year. Just like the Addison Independent published an article on student service positions that need to be filled in MAUSD, we need to know what the staffing situation looks like in ACSD, and MUMS in particular. Exit interviews with departing staff should be held to determine the real causes behind departures, conducted by someone outside the traditional teacher/supervisor chain. Additionally, a more in-depth look at the finances of the IB program, and its impact on staffing, is long overdue. There are a number of former classroom teachers who have been moved into IB coaching roles with little actual student contact. There were 6th-grade teachers who were let go or reassigned at the end of the 2021 school year. How might they have helped if they had been moved to MUMS with the students instead?

Lastly, the approval of staff bonuses reported in the Apr. 28 edition “ACSD approves staff bonuses” and “MAUSD to pay out extra cash” are described as retention bonuses in both districts. One troubling detail, however, is that these bonuses will also be paid to new hires. Let that sink in a moment. The language of the retention bonus describes employees who have “persevered through …the past two-plus years of coronavirus conditions” but if they retire or otherwise do not return next year, their replacement will get that bonus after absolutely no service to the district during the pandemic: “one single payment in June 2023 (for new employees).” 

Turning retention bonuses into hiring bonuses is a slap in the face to the faculty and staff who have been the glue that held our schools, and our community, together during this global pandemic. Those bonuses should be reclassified as hazard duty pay for all staff who served during the pandemic. 

A MUHS science teacher, Kourtney Penatzer, spoke during public comment at the April 11 ACSD board meeting. She had asked for, and been denied, an appearance during executive session, so instead she read a prepared statement. I’m glad she did, because now her story is out in public. She was forced to re-interview for her position because of the late date on which she was hired last year, and despite satisfactory evaluations from supervisors and students, she was let go in favor of a new applicant. This is absolutely appalling treatment for someone who sacrificed to be here, and sacrificed throughout this past school year. And her replacement will get a $1,000 bonus next June. Watch her public comment; it’s available online at Middlebury Community Television. And read Christina Wadsworth’s letter, as it has tangible steps to help remedy some of these problems.

Kurt Broderson

Middlebury

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