Huizenga responds to criticism from community

Editor’s Note: This is the second of a two-part series from a Cabinet exclusive sit-down with Milford School District Superintendent Jessica Huizenga.

In the second part of a conversation with Milford School district superintendent Dr. Jessica L. Huizenga and school board chair Ron Carvell, Dr. Huizenga responded to complaints that have been expressed in the Milford community and the Milford school board debate Facebook page about the first conversation in this series which appeared in the Sept. 12 edition of the Milford Cabinet.

One of the topics from last week’s conversation, was Huizenga wanting clarification of the 99% vote of no confidence, which has been plagued the superintendent’s office and has been rumbling throughout meetings and discussions for months.

In a statement at the Sept. 16 school board meeting, educator and MTA vice president Suzanne Schedin shared her comments with the board.

“In May, our groups, MTA and MESSA, came together due to numerous issues outlined in our VONC letter. The union members were asked to come to an important meeting,” she said at the I front of the school board and the audience.

“In the article in The Cabinet last week, Dr. Huizenga said “Ninety-nine percent of the unions did not vote no confidence. Ninety-nine percent of people who went to an afterschool meeting voted no confidence. It needs to be clear. That 99% of a small group of staff members voted made that vote. There are 432 members of this district, and 99% did not go to that meeting. It is continuously put out in every article. It’s simply not true.”

“I want to clarify the numbers again,” Schedin said. “We did clarify the number of voting members in June, but I will go over it again. There are 432 total staff. That includes the central office, admin, non-affiliated, professional and classified staff. In May, we had 206 teachers of which 170 were members of MTA. These members and the 53 members of MESSA were invited to a meeting. Of the 144 people who attended, 99% of the members voted no confidence. During our vote, we had over 30 texts, calls and emails who voted. We did not include their votes because they were not present for the meeting due to other commitments. The unions voted overwhelmingly in a no confidence vote. Instead of listening and considering the voice of the membership, the board’s chair and the superintendent have changed the narrative to say that it’s just a couple of ‘rabble rouser’s and troublemakers’.”

“For comparison,” Schedin continued at the board meeting, “the town of Milford has 11,501 registered voters. In March, 2,129 people came out to vote. The town listened and followed the decisions of those voters which represent 18.5% of the town’s voters.”

Further comments by the community have largely targeted the suggestion that this new school year has run smoothly, as stated by Huizenga.

“We have a process in the Milford School District for people to share their concerns,” she stated. “It starts with the teacher, then the building principals, and then to the superintendent.”

Huizenga said she has only received “normal start of school concerns, and very few.”

“Each and every one we are addressing. On the other hand, I’ve heard more positive things from many community members, and from principals. I have been in the buildings, talked with staff, and they are doing a fantastic job, as they do every day,” Huizenga said.

She urged people who have concerns to bring them forward through the proper channels.

“We will address them as we are able to,” she added. “At the end of the day, our primary focus are the kids… and providing them the best education we can. That’s what we are here to do and will continue to do.”

Steve Erdody, of Milford, also spoke at the Sept. 16 school board meeting.

“I had three kids go through the district,” he said to the Cabinet. “My wife teaches in the district, my brother teaches in the district, my mother-in-law teaches in the district.”

Erdody likened the beginning of the school year to that of the infamous conveyor belt scene on “I Love Lucy.”

“Lucy and Ethel were on the assembly line and they couldn’t keep up,” he said. “They how people are describing the beginning of school. People are just feeling overwhelmed. With that many people that I’m involved with in the district, no one has said to me, ‘things are going great.'”

He went on to say, “We said we’d give the superintendent a shot. But the way she has done things…I was at the board meeting last night, and I’ve never seen people like some on the board, who want more control. It’s a power thing. I can’t believe it.”

As for new initiatives and schedule changes, Erdody said, “Two or three new initiatives a year is common. This year there are dozens of drastic changes. Not smooth.”

Huizenga stated there are a lot of people in the community who are excited about the changes and, “know they’re good for kids.”

Carvell stressed that the superintendent is always accessible and there are right ways to handle complaints and frustrations.

“People have 100% access to the superintendent’s office,” he said. “They can come in here if they have issues, and the policy should drive them to the building. The superintendent is not at the board meetings [in that forum] as an avenue to talk to her. She is there reporting to the board.”

Carvell said the board will get back to business and urged people who have concerns to come in to see the principal.

“We want them to work their way through that so that we can focus on what’s going on,” he added.

The question remains: How will the board handle the number of citizens who address the board at every meeting with comments and complaints? Particularly, when they’re lengthy statements?

“We’re going to follow some policies,” said Carvell. “Policies have been drafted for the group. We have a new member on now, (Richard Wood). He’ll have an opportunity to review those and we heard some comments from him.”

(In actuality, Wood was not sworn in at the Sept. 16 meeting, but rather sworn in earlier – unbeknownst to many.)

Carvell concurred that public comments, while welcome, monopolize the board meetings’ purpose.

“I’ll take the fall for some of that,” he said. “I am the chairman. I should have better control of those meetings. We’ve operated on the board very openly with a back and forth. There’s a dialogue all the time. History gets us a little bit. We’ve always been able to get through agendas really quickly.”

He went on to say that if a citizen voiced a concern at the podium, the board has allowed them to speak, regardless of how long they speak.

“We want people to come to the board meetings,” he said. “They’re informed about what’s really going on with the superintendent in her report. That is an opportunity to hear all the things that are happening in all of our schools. Plus, for the board, that affords some checks and balances. The board is not in the schools every day. That is why we have tasked the superintendent with running the school district.”

In the end- and in the beginning which is appropriate here – Huizenga reiterated that it is all about the kids.

“I love children,” she said. “I love educating them. I think it’s the most powerful tool that we can give them, to set them off for success for the rest of their lives. And I have said this a million times, and I’ll say it again, we have all the makings here in Milford to be the best in the state.”

It’s going to take hard work, Huizenga stated, “It’s also going to take confronting some of the facts like our student outcomes. We need and can do better with certain shifts and practice. Not only for teachers and students, but for families as well.

Huizenga talked about many families have experienced trauma in their lives, as well as many families that may be struggling emotionally and financially.

“We’re now positioned to provide wrap-around services,” she said. “We haven’t been able to before. To really engage them and have community partnership in ways that we really haven’t been able systematically do before.”

Carvell said the previous board gave Huizenga instructions and asked what they could do better.

“You’re in the interim position,” he said. “Take a look at us. Are we not supporting? The board sets the goals but based on recommendations by the teams and the groups. That’s really the function. And once we set those goals to support the superintendent, and what she needs for resources, then the budget it always a challenge.”

Carvell stressed that Milford wants good contracts for its unions and teachers and wants to be viewed as an attractive school district and that they have, “great values.”

“Stagnant and seeing declines,” he said. “Someone has to make a decision to do something. We can’t ride that train. Every year we lose that many more students of success. We’re not providing that. Is it risky? One hundred percent risky. But we have enough data this time than previous times to take the risk.”