Five Burlington school board candidates will be on the ballot on March 7. However, only the North District is a contested race.
Incumbent Mark Barlow will be facing off against challenger Helen Hossley.
Barlow, a graduate of Burlington schools, has served on the board for two years. He is concerned about funding and wants to work on legislative advocacy if re-elected.
In 2014, the state deemed payment in lieu of taxes, or PILOT funds, a violation of Acts 66 and 68. PILOT funds are payments from tax exempt property owners. Barlow worked with Rep. Kurt Wright to introduce legislation that would amend this restriction. The bill was unsuccessful and never made it out of the House Education Committee.
Barlow also has concerns about state education funding that he would like to address.
“We want to bring recognition that we do have some unique challenges in Burlington and Winooski as well,” he said. “These should be properly represented in the equalized pupil formula.”
During his first term, Barlow has helped develop a strategic plan to align budget spending, and been a part of two clean audits. He hopes to be a part of the discussion about the future of the high school building.
A point of dispute between the union and board entering fiscal year 2018 contract talks, was the board’s request to hold public negotiation sessions. Barlow supports the concept, and believes it would help increase transparency.
“The board has nothing it wouldn’t want the public to know in those proposals we make,” he said.
Barlow attended Hunt Middle School, and graduated from Burlington High School in 1980. His own children currently attend the two schools.
Hossley’s advocacy for community schools first began when she moved across the street to C.P. Smith Elementary School 20 years ago. Discouraged by the school’s neglected playground, she spearheaded efforts to raise $110,000 to put in a new structure, in just eight months. Hossley served as the PTO president while her daughters attended the elementary school.
She decided to run after concerns over financial transparency and a lack of funding.
“I believe the board has lost sight of its fundamental vision, which is to serve and meet the needs of all students,” Hossley said.
She was discouraged by how teacher contract negotiations played out this fall, when the board imposed working conditions.
“You don’t carry out negotiations in a newspaper, you sit at the table and talk to each other like humans,” Hossley said.
She believes that her opponent has not been an assertive backer of city schools.
“Personally I think Mark is a nice guy,” Hossley said. “He just hasn’t been an advocate and speaking out for our schools.”
Hossley has been a close watchdog of the board over the past year, filing multiple public records requests. Both of her daughters attended city schools, recently graduating from Burlington High School. If elected, she plans to frequently seek out teacher recommendations on issues.
“I’m always inspired by the work the teachers do, day in and day out, to make our schools the best they can be,” she said.
Ryan McLaren has stepped up to run for the seat vacated by Brian Cina. McLaren previously served on the Essex School Board shortly after graduating from college. He was interested in public service, and took the opportunity when a spot opened up.
“I found the work really rewarding,” he said.
The outreach staffer for Congressman Peter Welch (D-Vt.) decided to run after being encouraged by community members. He also coaches the BHS boys lacrosse team.
“There’s a lot going on nationally and globally right now, and I think one of the best ways to get involved is locally,” McLaren said.
He plans to support both the budget and bond ballot items, and would like to improve student engagement with the board.
McLaren followed the contract negotiations this fall. He said without information from executive sessions, he doesn’t know if he would have voted to impose. He hopes to have a role in facilitating trust between the two parties in future negotiations, beginning this spring.
McLaren believes the relationship between the community and board needs to improve. He plans to focus on building a fair and equitable school system once elected.
“I think there’s an incredible opportunity that doesn’t exist elsewhere in Vermont,” McLaren said. “We are lucky to have so much diversity and such a unique community.”
Cina, a social worker, is leaving the board after serving two terms. In his first five months in office, the superintendent left, the budget failed to pass and he was responsible for making cuts.
He served as the chair of the superintendent search committee, and cited facilitating the hiring of Yaw Obeng as one of his major accomplishments. Cina ran for a second term hoping to ensure stability.
“It has been extremely hard and difficult,” he said. “I came on in the middle of a crisis.”
During his time on the board, Cina has served on the diversity and equity, finance and negotiations committees. He was elected to the state legislature last year. Originally planning to keep both roles, Cina decided it would be best to focus on his new position.
He said his experience on the board has been challenging and rewarding.
“Everything we do makes someone mad,” he said. “You can never make everyone happy.”
This fall, Cina was the sole board member to vote against imposing working conditions. He said that his decision created a difficult relationship with fellow members.
“Despite the many challenges and struggles, it was worth it, because I felt I had the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of children,” Cina said.
He hopes to return and volunteer at city schools when the state legislature is not in session.
Jeff Wick is running for the seat currently held by Miriam Stoll. He first became involved in the district when the elimination of middle school algebra was announced. Since then, the attorney has been an advocate for advanced math opportunities. He runs math clubs at Champlain Elementary and Edmunds Middle School, and has three children in the public school system.
“I’m going to bring whatever tools I have to the table to increase the quality of financial reporting and the transparency of the board,” Wick said.
He described himself as a close watcher of board actions and finances, and is concerned with the recent cuts to teaching positions.
“There just aren’t enough teachers and we need to address that,” Wick said. “We have to figure out how we can deliver a quality education at a reasonable price.”
He has been digging into public budget documents over the past few months looking for areas to save money. As a board member, he plans to continue that work.
Wick supports the proposed budget, but is worried that the funds allotted for salary increases won’t be enough. Contract negotiations between the board and the teachers’ union are still underway.
He is disappointed with the board’s approach to contract talks this fall.
“I think the board took too hard a line in teacher contract negotiations, did not timely respond to union information requests, and attempted to abandon some longstanding and key terms in the teacher’s contract, such as the salary grid and tuition reimbursement provisions,” Wick said, adding that he would have voted against the imposition.
Stoll has decided not to seek re-election after serving two terms on the board. She feels that it is time for new energy.
“Being on the school board is challenging, it’s time consuming, and it’s also incredibly satisfying to be taking part in positive change for our community,” she said.
During Stoll’s four years on the board, she was involved in hiring a new superintendent, developing facilities and strategic plans and creating financial stability.
“The board has really come to a point where the district has stabilized and we’re ready to move forward in an expansive way,” she said.
Stoll feels that she has improved communications and building connections with the community.
“The challenge of a school board member is to hear from and interact with all facets of the community,” she said.
The South End resident wishes that she would have spoken out more when mean things were said in emotionally draining times. She hopes the board will try to work more with the city council and mayor, a partnership she developed.
Stoll believes the capital plan is important for the district’s future.
“I really hope we can make can make sure our school facilities are good for years to come,” she said.
Incumbent Kathy Olwell is running unopposed to keep her East District seat. She ran in August against Tom Deranthal, for the spot vacated by Kyle Dodson. Dodson stepped down to focus on his new job as President and CEO of the Greater Burlington YMCA.
She was sworn in at an October meeting, the week the board imposed a contract. She abstained from the vote.
“It was a tough way to start,” she said.
Olwell worked for 24 years at a youth center, and then at the Hunt Middle School afterschool program. She is now retired, with grown children who attended Burlington public schools.
“What prompted me [to run] was seeing all the cuts and knowing that this was not good for Burlington kids,” she said.
Olwell previously served on the board between 1995-1997. She would like to look at alternative education funding models that do not use property taxes, and is concerned about recent cuts to programs and services.
“I watched what goes on in the public schools in cities around the country and it scares me,” Olwell said.
She did not vote to approve the fiscal year 2018 budget, but plans to support it on Town Meeting Day. Olwell would like to increase mental health support, reinstate kindergarten paraeducators and add guidance counselors and social workers.
“I hope we really pull together and make these schools really wonderful educational institutions,” she said. “This is something we need to come together and do as a community.”
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