MANCHESTER >> Two seats on the Manchester School District's board of directors are up for grabs during this year's town meeting elections, and both offer voters choices between two candidates.
One is for a 3-year term currently held by the board's chairman, Brian Vogel. He is being challenged by Jim Lind. The other is for a 2-year seat currently held by Mary Beth O'Donnell, who is not running for re-election. Joe Hoffman, a former member of the school board and a former chairman, and Patrick Monroe, a former member of the town's planning commission, are competing for that post.
Vogel, 48, a wealth manager with Manchester Capital Management, a financial services firm based in Manchester Village, has been on the school board for the past five years and is finishing his first year as the chairman.
"There is change coming, mostly because of Act 46, and I really want to have a hand in shaping that, because I think it's monumental," he said, speaking of the legislation passed last year which directed school districts to explore ways to consolidate into larger and more centralized entities. "We're looking at two paths; consolidating school boards, or going independent. Either way the school district is going to change dramatically."
One of Vogel's main concerns with Act 46 and consolidating with neighboring school districts is that local control of the decision-making process on the new larger board likely to emerge when a merger study committee develops a plan that meets state approval will be diluted from what exists at present. A larger board, covering multiple towns and school districts, is unlikely to be as careful at scrutinizing costs and maintaining an academic program as one accountable only to the voters of a specific town, he said.
"If people are upset, they are less likely to go to Dorset or Londonderry for a meeting; now they can go straight to MEMS," he said.
Given his concerns about maintaining a robust level of local control, he is eager to see what a special committee set up by the school board to explore other possible alternatives, including restructuring the district as an independent one, might turn up. That committee has started meeting and their report is anticipated later this year, he said.
Vogel was one of two directors who voted against the school budget adopted last month which voters will be asked to approve at town meeting, and he did so primarily because he objected to the amount of money that had to be allocated to pay a spending cap penalty mandated under Act 46. Manchester's school directors were unable to keep their educational spending per pupil and the total amount of their budget under a threshold set by the state, and incurred a penalty fee of about $462,000 for that. A revision was made by legislators late in January which softened the penalties and the spending cap, but not enough to avoid an uptick in the school tax rate completely.
One of the factors driving the school district's budget issues is a decline in total district enrollment. That number is expected to continue to decline, and Vogel thinks the district needs to get a better handle on that.
"We need to do a better job at talking to parents who are pulling their kids and ask why they are leaving," he said. "We haven't done that, traditionally."
The big picture of school budgets that cost more for taxpayers while educating fewer numbers of students is unsustainable, he added.
"We're spending more to offer the same program to fewer kids, and that needs to change," he said. "We need to re-think how we're educating the kids and change the processes, and in order to do that we have to shake up the school a little bit."
Vogel also noted that during the five years he has been on the board, the district has seen a steady turnover of leadership at the top. There have been three principals, including the current officeholder, Thomas Quinn, who started last September, and two vice principals. School Superintendent Daniel French has also announced his plans to depart at the end of the academic year.
If re-elected, Vogel said this would be his final 3-year term.
"I've had three kids go through MEMS and one still there, so I'm very well aware of the educational side of it and wanting to take care of the kids," he said. "I'm also a taxpayer in town so I try to be sensitive in terms of the budget and what we're doing to tax rates."
Jim "Coach" Lind, 72, is a retired teacher and business owner making his first run for the Manchester School Board. He previously served for four years on the Londonderry school board before it was merged into the present Mountain Towns RED, or regional education district, with Weston, Peru and Landgrove.
He was a teacher in New Jersey for 27 years before moving to Londonderry and opening a bed-and-breakfast lodging business there, and soon took an active interest in the former Londonderry Chamber of Commerce, and became its executive director before changes to the health insurance laws under the Affordable Care Act eliminated the organization's ability to offer attractively priced health insurance policies to their members, prompting it to fold into the Manchester and the Mountains Regional Chamber of Commerce. In recent years he moved to Manchester and has helped coach football with the Equinox football club and also for the past two years with the Burr and Burton Academy football team, which captured a state championship last fall.
"I bring to the board a perspective from both sides — being a board member and also an educator," Lind said.
Lind said that the school district consolidation measures encouraged under Act 46 were understandable given the statewide trends of slumping school enrollments and rising costs.
"I think there's a need for consolidation, but I don't know about a private school, because when you do that, you give up, as a town, all control of the school," he said. "You need to have good teachers and good programs for all of the kids. I thought that was something I could help out with."
Enrollment trends come in waves, and sometimes are due to factors outside of the school's direct control, pointing to housing costs and their affordability as one example. He said he has heard generally positive feedback about MEMS, and that overall, education as offered in Vermont far surpasses what he saw going on in New Jersey. Smaller class sizes in Vermont compared to New Jersey had a role in that, he said.
Education is a responsibility each generation has to find a way to afford and maintain, he said.
"Somebody paid for you and I when we were in school," he said. "I think it's passed down."
Hoffman, 55, is a police officer with the Rutland County Sheriff's Department and the school resource officer at Mill River High School in Wallingford. He previously served on the Manchester School Board from 2002-10, including two years as the board's chairman. He decided to throw his hat in the ring for the 2-year seat being vacated by Mary Beth O'Donnell after being approached by several residents who encouraged him to get back on the school board, he said.
The current school board's 3-2 split over the budget proposal they adopted in January was troubling, he said, recalling that during his earlier tenure, school directors would in the end unite behind a budget and reach a unanimous agreement on it.
"Back in the day, we really worked hard on the budget and we pretty much agreed when it went to the voters, it was a budget we could all live with," he said. "Why were the (present) board members so at odds so as to not make it unanimous?"
He said he sensed morale at the school was less than what it should be, and he thought that was an area he could help with. He also thought there needs to be an effort made to determine why MEMS is losing students to other schools.
"You want to make MEMS such a good educational experience that people want to come there," he said. "Once that happens, the school will promote itself."
The teaching faculty has the qualifications and abilities to elevate standards and test scores, and if there are barriers to that, he wants to find out what those are, he said.
"Educating kids well shouldn't have to mean raising taxes," he said. "Let the teachers teach well and hold the kids to standards."
On Act 46, he said he considered the new statute a step in the right direction.
"The hard part is that people love local control, and in some cases that's great," he said. "But in the big picture, it's coming down from the top, so it's hard not to follow the guidelines, so it's something you've got to do ... and it's got to be done."
Monroe, 75, is a retired businessman who served on Manchester's Planning Commission for seven years, and while a resident of Sunderland, served for a year as that town's zoning administrator. Recently, he has been a member of GNAT-TV's board of directors for eight years, including four as the chairman. The broad trends characterizing education in Vermont — fewer students who were costing more to educate — prompted him to jump into the race for the open school board seat created by O'Donnell's upcoming departure.
"You can't criticize things unless you're willing to step up to the plate," he said. "I don't want to sit around."
Vermont spends more per-pupil in education expenditures than any other state in the country, he said, and has one of the lowest student-teacher ratios. That, coupled with the fact that it's a rural state without being burdened by some of the socio-economic challenges faced by larger, more urban areas, should mean the test scores turned in by the state's students were off the charts, but they aren't, he said.
"I think we should do better," he said.
The enrollment decline at MEMS was a red flag that needed to be better understood, he added.
"There's something not right when you lose 15 percent of your 'customers' but your costs go up," he said.
Teacher's salary and benefits packages need to be re-examined and brought more in line with what the typical working person is earning, adding that he was a big fan of merit-based pay, or compensation tied to educational outcomes and meeting certain benchmarks.
He is also a fan of Act 46, noting that school consolidation has ample precedent in Vermont. Locally, when MEMS was first built, it meant that several smaller neighborhood schools were closed and those students enrolled at the larger central school. School consolidation is one of those ideas that is popular in the abstract, until it means applying it in a specific district or area.
"Everyone says that's a great idea, but not here," he said, recalling a proposal floated several years ago to study merging the Dorset and Manchester schools, making one an elementary school and the other a middle school.
But when there are as many students in Vermont as there are in Boston, Mass. — which has one school superintendent compared with Vermont's 61 — then efficiencies and cost savings shouldn't be that hard to find. The idea of an independent school district is also intriguing and worth a look, he added.
Manchester's school district portion of town meeting will take place at the MEMS gymnasium on Monday, Feb. 29, starting at 7 p.m. Voting on the school budget and the directors for the school board will take place the following day, Tuesday, March 1, from 8 a.m. - 7 p.m., at Town Hall.