Saunders Warns of State Intervention If Struggling School District Doesn't Shape Up | Education | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Saunders Warns of State Intervention If Struggling School District Doesn't Shape Up


Published May 29, 2024 at 4:58 p.m.

Zoie Saunders at the Statehouse in April - FILE: ALISON NOVAK ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • File: Alison Novak ©️ Seven Days
  • Zoie Saunders at the Statehouse in April
The Windham Southwest Supervisory Union is facing several crises.

The district's special education director resigned abruptly last month. The business manager did the same more recently. Legal counsel advised the school board to put the superintendent on leave, which it did on April 15, the Brattleboro Reformer reported.

Meanwhile, the district began an internal investigation after teachers realized that funds automatically taken out of their paychecks hadn’t been deposited into their retirement accounts. (It was later attributed to an administrative error.)

The deteriorating situation prompted the district's acting superintendent, Kevin Dirth, to invite Agency of Education staff to visit in late April to see the problems firsthand — and help correct them. Several weeks after the agency's visit, interim Education Secretary Zoie Saunders wrote a letter to the school board chair outlining concerns with the district's operations. She pledged support and technical assistance to remedy any ongoing problems.

Saunders also offered a warning: If the district didn't get it together, the Agency of Education had the authority to pursue "non-voluntary intervention" — including ordering the closure of a struggling school. The district would then be required to pay tuition for students to attend a different public or independent school.

The recipient of the letter, school board chair Erika Bailey, told Seven Days that she didn't feel threatened by the message. Instead, she appreciated the show of support during a trying time. Dirth, the acting superintendent, said the same.

But Saunders’ letter raised the alarm for Winooski School District superintendent Wilmer Chavarria. In a May 26 memo to his school board members, he warned that the law Saunders cites in her Windham Southwest communication could be used against other “vulnerable districts in Vermont, especially those in rural areas or with high poverty,” including Winooski.
Winooski could be particularly at risk, Chavarria said, because it has been classified by the state for two years as a school in need of comprehensive supports, a designation based on metrics such as test scores and graduation rates. Because of its large number of students from other countries who are learning English, the data do not reflect the quality of education the school district provides, Chavarria explained in an interview this week.

Chavarria said he raised concerns last fall about the statute, which is a part of Vermont’s Education Quality Standards, with former interim secretary of education Heather Bouchey. Chavarria said Bouchey assured him a Vermont education secretary would be unlikely to use it to justify school closures or similarly drastic actions.

Chavarria said he’s alarmed that Saunders would bring up the fact that she has the power to use the law so early in her tenure.

Asked about Saunders' letter, an Agency of Education spokesperson said on Wednesday that its interactions with Windham Southwest had been collaborative and supportive.

"We take seriously our role to provide leadership, support and oversight to Vermont’s education system," the spokesperson said in a statement. "In our oversight role, it was the AOE’s duty to make the [supervisory union] leadership aware of the potential consequences if issues that put safe student learning at risk continued unaddressed."

The agency declined to comment on Chavarria's memo.
Gov. Phil Scott named Saunders interim secretary in April immediately after the Vermont Senate rejected her appointment to the position. A former school administrator in Florida, Saunders was tasked with coming up with a plan to close or consolidate schools at her last job, which she held for less than four months. Since Saunders left, the superintendent for Broward County Public Schools resigned unexpectedly and the plan, dubbed "Redefining Our Schools," has floundered.

Saunders' experience in Broward County, as well as her past role as a for-profit charter school company strategist, has alarmed some Vermonters who worry that the Agency of Education, with Saunders at the helm, could pursue school closures or consolidations.

In an April 17 letter to legislators opposing Saunders' confirmation, Vermont School Boards Association president Flor Diaz Smith wrote that Saunders' background raised "significant questions about her ability to effectively advocate for and lead Vermont's public education system." The letter said education leaders were "anxious that the appointee will come to Vermont and further privatize our education system." Other professional educational organizations raised similar concerns.
In Windham Southwest, though, school leaders say they don't see any nefarious or ulterior motives with the agency's involvement.

Dirth, who previously served as superintendent of Maple Run Unified School District in St. Albans, was named acting superintendent of the district last month after the school board voted to put superintendent Barbara Anne Komons-Montroll on paid administrative leave. He said he invited Agency of Education staff to conduct a site visit, which occurred on April 29, to get a better sense of the issues facing the supervisory union.

Saunders penned the letter to Bailey, the board chair, on May 15. In it, Saunders said the agency was “appreciative of the board’s willingness to allow the AOE to step in and help assess needs in the areas of concern” and noted that continuing the partnership voluntarily would “lead to the best outcome for the supervisory union, its staff and its students.”

But Saunders also cautioned that, under Vermont statute, she was allowed to “pursue non-voluntary intervention” if the district continued to struggle. She cited the potential of adjusting “supervisory union boundaries or responsibilities of the superintendency; permitting the Secretary to assume administrative control of an individual school, school district, or supervisory union … ordering the closure of an individual school or schools and a requirement that the school district pay tuition to another public school or an approved independent school; or an order of merger of two or more school districts to consolidate their governance structures.”

The letter notes that the agency wasn't recommending those measures and would only pursue them in "the extreme case" that the district doesn't improve.

Dirth said that since the visit, agency staff has been very helpful in working with him to address issues related to staffing and finances. He did not interpret Saunders' letter as negative or threatening.

"Whether [Saunders] put a paragraph in [the letter] that states a statute already in existence is immaterial to me as long as [the agency is] helping us," Dirth said. "What you’ll see in two-thirds or three-fourths of that letter is positivity, a show of support [and] a willingness to work collaboratively with us."

Bailey also said she'd been encouraged by her interactions with Saunders and her staff so far and is not concerned that the agency would take any of the extreme measures Saunders outlined in her letter.

"It didn’t ever seem to me that it would come to that," Bailey said, “as long as we work to correct issues we’ve been having."

Read the full letter below:

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