Ruffled Feathers at Milford School Board

This weeks Milford School board meeting, started quietly and ended with a thud.

Things were initially smooth, as state representative Joelle Martin presented the board with some good news – to the tune of nearly $2 million over the biennium to Milford schools; plus, the town of Milford will receive some $350K in targeted municipal aid/property tax relief.

“The thought and the goal for the majority of this is to make a long-term investment in schools,” she said.

Before charting the waters, board Chairman Ron Carvell had made a point of stating the night’s meeting would not be for “complaints on personnel,” urging people to use the proper channels within their child’s school. He was direct and concise.

“Concerns of school operations should always start by policy, with the teacher and principal of the school,” he said. “And then superintendent’s office. Staff concerns and complaints should follow a grievance process that we have in place. The reason for this is to keep the board impartial on matters that are operations of the school.”

Those remarks quickly fell on deaf ears. And to be fair, many comments made by the audience were certainly valid in theory, but as the crowd grew less and less contented by Carvell, and some of the board’s responses, the audience grew weary – and restless, resulting in a tact that could be argued, ultimately diminished their effectiveness and original intended purpose of each query.

Noticeably absent at the meeting was Superintendent Jessica Huizenga, who was taking part in a symposium called “The Futures Fest 2019,” at the Futures Institute, a non-partisan organization dedicated tackling issues pertaining to the evolving role that artificial intelligence plays in today’s educational system. (She made the trek to Scottsdale, Arizona at her own expense, it should be noted.)

During initial public comments, various questions were asked of the board, including one posed by Carla Budreau, who asked when did the board contact all staff to inform them of a policy revision; Carvell tried to steer the question more to the arena of a public comment, rather than start a Q&A, but that derailed.

“I don’t know the dates,” said Carvell. He asked that her remarks be that of a comment, again, rather than a question.

“But under 21:70,” she read, “‘the board should make an effort in advance to contact groups or individuals likely to be effected by policy proposal changes.’ If we didn’t do that, we shouldn’t be asking for cooperation or respect from others, when we’re not doing the policies ourselves.”

Budreau asked if there could be a discussion, suggesting that all three sides of the school district have to work together (parents, admin, board).

“If one chooses not to follow,” she continued, “there are going to be continuous problems.”

Board member Holleigh Ciardelli-Tlapa asked Carvell if she could respond. Carvell politely stated that the board again, was going to make every attempt to stay on agenda.

Suzanne Schedin lightened the mood, asking why the podium was now in the middle of the room, facing the board, with her back facing the audience, instead of partly facing the board members, and facing the audience.

“Does it feel polite?” she asked the audience.

“I know this is for public comments. I found a partially paraphrased comment of mine, reported in the recent edition of the Milford Cabinet,” she said. “I would like to see a better reflection of comments, as opposed to simply saying, ‘she didn’t agree.'”

Schedin asked where the minutes were, referring to the Sept. 16 school board meeting.

Jamie Morgan also spoke, wishing to inquire about an email she received from Ron Carvell and the investigation of former board member Jenni Siegrist, though Siegrist’s name wasn’t mentioned in Morgan’s comments.

“Mr. Carvell said in his email said that the board had seized the investigation,” she said, in a reference to Siegrist’s resignation from the board. “I was told that the board had considered options in a non-public session and that those minutes were sealed.”

Flustered, Morgan presented a 138-page document on the right to know law, RS 91:A.

“I think you should read it,” she said.

Time options were also discussed with regard to contract negotiations with teachers, which in the past has been during school hours.

Newly appointed board member Rick Wood motioned, however, that meetings should not be during school hours but rather after school, during non-school hours, as to not take away from students’ education.

“Non-school hours,” said Carvell. “That’s kind of vague.”

“Not during regular school days,” said Wood. “When we have students in the classrooms, the focus should be on students and their education. Negotiations can happy any time.”

Educator Brenda Walker, a chief negotiator for MESSA, tried to speak of her 12-years’ experience but was stopped, as Carvell tried to clarify, “you’re not here to interject. The board has an action item.”

“Point of order,” said Wood.

Tlapa said that it would be important to hear from people who will be there negotiations- namely teachers.

Board member Mike Hannon then offered, “I’m in favor of keeping it the way we’ve done for the last 12 years. It seems like it’s been successful. I don’t think that this point in time that it’s necessary to change it.”

“I agree,” said Tlapa, to a round of applause.

Back to motions, which resulted in three nays, namely those of Wood, Carvell and vice chairman Kevin Drew. Hannon and Tlapa voted unsuccessfully in favor. The crowd jeered.

And as they went on, there were more raves. And more boos.

“That’s ridiculous,” said one person in the audience.

It’s difficult to swivel back and forth between the parliamentary procedures of these meetings, and their bottom-line, intention and sole purpose. It is visibly frustrating for Carvell and the board; it’s equally exasperating for the attendees in the audience.

The school board meetings have become a public grievance session, as some have citizens have expressed in emails and phone calls to The Cabinet. Where the line should be drawn remains in question.

By that same token, some behavior by certain board members at times struck discord with the audience.

One particularly awkward moment of the evening involved Drew and Wood. The subject was that of have a board member, represent the board twice a year, during MTA meetings.

Wood motioned to have Drew represent the board, before there was a discussion. Tlapa expressed her interest in the position, having sent each board member an email discussing just that.

“Kevin didn’t send an email,” she said. “And excuse me, Mr. Chairman, but every time he [Wood] tries to make a motion before we have chance to adequately discuss it, it skews the table because it’s always going to be you three against the other two.”

There was more clapping and awkward laughter, followed by questions as to what the process was procedure.

Tlapa then asked when Drew had expressed interest in the position, to which he replied, “I had not.”

“I did,” she said.

Wood argued as to why Drew would be “a great addition,” and that is when the meeting went down the avoidable rabbit hole. (It would soon be revealed by Wood himself, that he had called Drew earlier that evening, at 6PM, to pitch the idea of him being the person for the job.)

Fundamentally, the rest of the night became bogged down in semantics. Procedure. Policy.

Carvell did his best to wrangle the meeting from getting away from him, whether it be from other board members or audience members. It did not work.

It’s worth saying that there were accusations of bullying, towards Carvell, from the audience. But at some point, it’s worth arguing as to who is bullying who.

The meetings have lost their luster, the intended purpose muddied in rhetoric, passive aggressive comments and disruption – from many people on both sides of the table.

Death stares from the board members to the audience have to go. But the citizens who are “Milford Strong,” need to be more resilient and less antagonistic. Not everyone. But some.

Ultimately, it was Milford resident David Wilson, who offered the best advice of the night: “There’s not community without unity.”