NORTH CLARENDON — The Mill River Unified Union School District Board has named a new representative from Clarendon, but an approaching special election will ultimately decide who fills the seat.
At Wednesday’s regular meeting, the board appointed Clarendon resident Andrea Hawkins, one of two candidates who had submitted themselves for consideration for the seat that became vacant last month after George Ambrose stepped down after Town Meeting Day.
Clarendon has four seats on the 11-member board, which also represents the towns of Wallingford, Shrewsbury and Tinmouth.
The vacancy became a matter of contention in recent weeks when the Clarendon Select Board argued it should be able to choose Ambrose’s replacement independent of the School Board.
Under current state statute, a unified union school district has 30 days to publicize and fill a vacancy in consultation with the local Select Board. That individual will fill the vacancy until an election is held at either an annual or special meeting.
At one time, select boards in Vermont could appoint individuals to school boards in consultation with the school board. That arrangement flipped in 2005 when a new law stated the final say resided with the school boards.
In 2017 in the wake of Act 46 mergers, the law was rewritten to include unified union school districts.
A sunset provision in the law requires the Legislature renew the language every two years, which it did last session as part of the appropriations bill (Act 154).
At its regular meeting March 22, the Select Board approved a motion to warn a special election on May 18 in Clarendon to fill the seat. The board agreed to send an official letter to the School Board requesting they halt the appointment process and leave the position open until the election.
The School Board, however, moved forward with the process. Chairwoman Adrienne Raymond stated at Wednesday’s meeting that it had a legal responsibility to fill the seat within 30 days of its being vacated.
On Tuesday evening, the School Board heard from two candidates: Andrea Hawkins and Carol Geery.
Hawkins, a graduate of the Mill River school system, said she was motivated to run for the board because she wanted to be more involved in her child’s education rather than “sitting back on the sidelines.”
Hawkins said her work experience as a welfare auditor for the state has given her a strong understanding of working with budgets and interacting with the state and federal government.
As a board member, she said she wanted to advocate for a return to basics in education, noting that too much work is done on computers — even prior to moving toward remote instruction in consequence of the pandemic.
“I was raised when there was no cellphone where could say, ‘Hey, Google, what’s the answer to this?’ You sat in the library and studied,” she said. “I just feel like they need to have a little bit more what was back in the old days.”
Geery, a speech language pathologist and special educator who worked for the district for 30 years before retiring, said she has been interested in joining the board for some time.
She said she has experience as former planning commission chairwoman in finding consensus with parties who are at odds with each other.
“The first rule is to make the solution bigger than the problem,” she said. “The second is … you have to just ask people, ‘What do you want?’”
In contrast to Hawkins, Geery said educating children during the pandemic has demonstrated that “technology needs to be integrated into everything we do.”
“That’s been an important aspect of getting kids involved in and participating in their education,” she said.
At its Wednesday evening meeting, the board appointed Hawkins by a vote of 5-4 after discussing how best to proceed given the upcoming special election.
Newly elected board member and Clarendon representative Matthew Gouchberg suggested the board disregard its legal obligation and not make the appointment.
“I don’t think the State Police are going to show up and haul us away in shackles for not filling the seat,” he said.
Bruce Moreton, another newly elected member who represents Wallingford, echoed Gouchberg.
“I would prefer we break the law,” he said, expressing his belief that the Legislature is going to change the law by the end of the current session.
Bjorn Behrendt, a board member from Wallingford, argued that such an action would be unwise.
“This board has been under so much scrutiny for living in a gray area, I don’t think we have the option to break the law. I don’t think that is something we should even entertain, talk about or anything,” he said. “We do have an obligation to do this as per the law.”
Raymond eventually called the vote, which initially tied with Moreton, Gouchberg, Behrendt and Doug Earle voting for Hawkins, with Maria French, Asha Carroll, Samantha Green and Liz Filskov voting for Geery.
Board member Len Doucette, a representative from Clarendon, initially abstained from voting, expressing his concern that his decision might sway voters.
Raymond, as chairwoman, was allowed to cast the tie-breaking vote, however, she asked Doucette if he’d reconsider abstaining.
“I’d rather have a Clarendon person make this vote than me,” she said.
Doucette acceded, voting for Hawkins.
Clarendon voters will now get choose between Hawkins and Geery on May 18.