A majority of the Milton School Board candidates contended in a community-hosted town hall forum last Friday night in the high school auditorium.
Sponsored by the Milton Inclusion and Diversity Initiative and the Milton Education and Support Association, the event brought unopposed incumbent Michael Joseph and newcomers Emily Hecker, Jeremy Metcalf (unopposed) and Rick Dooley to center stage.
Neither Hecker’s nor Dooley’s opponents — current school board chairwoman Lori Donna and incumbent Greg Burbo, respectively —attended.
Questions from community members, parents, students and teachers were submitted beforehand and filtered by MIDI founder Katrina Battle and moderator Sean Morrissey, both Milton High School alums. Inquiries from the 20 or so community members present were saved until the end of the two-hour event, which streamed live on MIDI’s Facebook page.
Candidates began with opening comments, explaining who they are, what they bring to the table and why they want to represent Milton.
When candidates were asked their top three priorities, the ongoing superintendent search notched No. 1 for all. Joseph also said he wants to see an implementation plan for Dr. Anthony Muhammad’s culture audit findings and to define key performance indicators for all three Milton schools.
Metcalf followed suit, saying Muhammad’s study and special education need the spotlight. Hecker focused on fostering optimism and expanding the pre-K program — the latter which her opponent has opposed.
In his turn, Dooley took aim at Donna’s comments in last week’s Indy Q&A regarding transparency, in which she said the board can’t disclose confidential information just because people demand it.
Dooley said Miltonians don’t want this; instead, they want board members to explain the reasons behind their decisions. He vowed to bring this to Milton.
Candidates also highlighted what they see as the district’s positive attributes and the biggest challenge they’d face if elected.
Dooley noted he’s bound to make people angry at times, and Hecker concurred, saying she’s already told her seventh-grader that some people might make negative comments about her. Metcalf anticipated a learning curve as a new member.
Next, candidates discussed how they’d find compromise between Milton’s competing needs.
Metcalf recognized there would be constant compromise between the five board members. Dooley said compromise is lacking from today’s political environment, and he’s ready to look at issues from different perspectives.
Joseph said understanding the district’s overarching vision and goal is essential. In agreement, Hecker said because the end goal is students’ wellbeing, this will lead trustees to compromise among teachers, students and others.
Next up, candidates pondered their plans to understand students’ daily lives.
Starting off, Dooley said his pet peeve is when trustees are distant from the schools they oversee. Hecker volunteers in classrooms and is open to invitations. Metcalf noted he’d be accessible and have informal conversations with constituents. Joseph offered to go in a classroom as a community observer and not a board member.
Discussion soon moved to how candidates will hold themselves and fellow members accountable.
Metcalf said he always assesses his performance, but the community will be the overall judge. Paralleling his commitment to transparency, Dooley said he’d have no trouble explaining his position at meetings.
Joseph said he’s responsible for his own actions, and he plans to continue being transparent and ensure his views are clearly understood.
Hecker followed, saying transparency is key, and as few conversations as possible should happen behind closed doors. It’s important to realize the board isn’t making decisions with a personal agenda, she said.
From the audience, middle school science teacher Rob DeCicco asked what qualities the new superintendent should embody and what role the screening committee plays. Milton parent April Christenson asked what indicators will show the superintendent is effective.
MHS senior Emily Pallas, who will be voting for the first time this election, wondered how the prospective trustees would engage student input and if they’d support raising a Black Lives Matter flag at MHS, similar to Montpelier and Burlington high schools.
To answer her first question, candidates agreed holding a similar forum after the election and during school hours could ignite discussion.
On the latter question, Joseph said he’s behind the BLM movement but is unsure if its flag should fly because it might set a precedent for other organizations. He recommended the BLM flag be placed next to the school’s rainbow flag, supporting gay rights, but said he could be swayed.
Metcalf said he understands what BLM stands for and recognizes schools are a hub for fostering difficult conversations, but he didn’t take a formal stance.
More firmly, Hecker said she would “whole heartedly” convince the board to fly the flag. Doing so, she said, would send a message to black students that they are seen, embraced and celebrated. Dooley concurred.
Before heading into closing comments, Vermont faith community leader Roy V. Hill II recommended three books related to race and diversity. He then asked candidates how they’d “grab the bull by the horn” and help children see their role in earth’s “one human family.”
Joseph said he will “[seek] to understand before being understood.” Metcalf said he will recognize his white male privilege and encourage kids to participate in the global community.
Through reading and her experience living abroad, Hecker said she has wide-ranging knowledge about diverse backgrounds. Dooley, a Milton native, said Milton and northern Vermont struggle because of their lacking diversity, but the power of education is strong.
Battle said the event mostly accomplished what MIDI and MESA set out provide — a forum where candidates think in the moment and give earnest responses.
However, Battle and many community members expressed disappointment that not all board candidates attended.
MIDI contributor Veronica Valz invited the trustees at a school board meeting in early February. Then, trustees pushed Valz for specifics, such as who the moderator would be, how the questions would be chosen and if MIDI was also holding a forum for selectboard candidates.
Before last Friday’s forum began, Battle told attendees she wanted to make MIDI’s decisions clear, in the spirit of transparency. The group didn’t have the capacity to hold more than one forum, Battle noted, and pinpointed the school board as the most crucial election because of its “strained” relationships with the community.
Battle also said MIDI moderated the event itself rather than use a moderator from the media, which has been done in previous forums hosted by Lake Champlain Access Television, to keep the conversation Milton-centric.
“[The forum] did the job we wanted it to do, which was to help start repairing those breeches, help rebuilding those bridges and helping the community get some more trust and some more faith in the leadership that’s gonna be moving us forward,” Battle said.