Editor’s note: This is part one of a two-part story profiling Mill River School Board candidates.
Several newcomers and one incumbent are making bids for the Mill River Unified Union School District School Board in the towns of Clarendon, Shrewsbury and Tinmouth this Town Meeting Day.
In Clarendon, Matthew Gouchberg is challenging incumbent John McKenna for a three-year seat.
A local business owner and father of five children with four currently in the district, Gouchberg said he is running because he wants to be more involved in his children’s education.
He said his prior board experience will serve him well if elected. Gouchberg is currently a member of the Killington Pico Area Association board of directors and has served on the boards of the Sherburne Volunteer Fire Department and Kiwanis Club of Marble Valley.
“I’ve got some experience in working over budgets and trying to keep organizations level,” he said, adding that he thinks he would bring some different points of view to the School Board.
If elected, Gouchberg said he would like to address pandemic-related issues such as the middle and high school’s hybrid learning schedule, which he disapproves of. On the current schedule, students in grades 7-12 are in class two days a week and remote the other three.
While he said he understands the need to be safe, he added “children are struggling.”
“What can we do to make more resources available to try to increase the test scores and make sure that the children aren’t falling behind?” he asked.
Looking at the proposed budget for the district, which is essentially flat, he said he doesn’t see anything that is “overly concerning,” but wants to know more about how CARES Act money is being used.
Gouchberg cited the controversy over efforts to display the Black Lives Matter and LGBT Pride flags at Mill River Union High School as the impetus for his run.
“I thought that I would be a level-headed person that could maybe help stabilize things a little bit,” he said, stating that, “there’s two sides to every argument.”
He said “all students should feel welcome” at district schools, but also said the board spent too much time on the issue and could have been more transparent.
Gouchberg said he does, however, believe the flag display policy the board ultimately adopted is “appropriate” as long as it doesn’t show any favoritism.
Incumbent McKenna has served on Clarendon school boards for eight years, predating the merger that formed the current district.
A facilities supervisor at The Vermont Country Store with two sons attending the high school, McKenna has coached baseball and soccer and been involved in the community, serving on the town planning commission and recreation committee.
He said he’s running again because he feels he can make a contribution.
On the board, McKenna has chaired the Buildings and Grounds Committee where he has leveraged his professional experience.
He said in recent years, the district has managed to get almost $5.5 million of work done to various buildings at net cost of about $2.5 million through energy-efficiency savings.
“I think there’s still a lot of good that we can do and … I want to be part of doing it,” he said.
McKenna also cited his near decade of school board experience as an asset, giving him an understanding of how things work and what challenges the district faces.
He said he was pleased with the current budget, noting a decrease in tax rates in two district towns and a less than 1% increase in the other two.
“I think we’ve done a really great job of keeping our costs down to make sure that we are considering the needs of the taxpayers,” he said. “At the same time, it’s a really good budget that supports our staff, our teachers and, most importantly, our students.”
Regarding the flag issue, McKenna said he was in favor of flying both the BLM and Pride flags, stating the importance of supporting all students.
“In many cases, we need to try and make sure that certain historically marginalized groups of people understand that the schools are a welcoming environment for them,” he said, calling the policy adopted by the board “responsible.”
With board member Andrew Richards-Peelle not seeking reelection, the town of Shrewsbury has one three-year seat up for grabs.
Small-business owner Fillmore said having a grandchild attending school in the district has given him a vested interest in the long-term success of Mill River schools.
Calling himself an “autodidact” who reads and researches constantly, Fillmore said he “believes in a careful, thoughtful and fact-based approach to everything, with particular effort to respect all perspectives.”
He said the flag issue was his primary motivation to run for the board, explaining through his research, he discovered what he characterized as “very serious misdeeds coming from the board,” including, what he alleges were abuses of open meeting law.
If elected, Fillmore said bringing more transparency to the board will be his top priority.
In addition, he said he “would also restore focus on education,” stating, “social justice issues merit discussion, but they definitely distract us from what should be the center of our attention.”
Looking at the proposed budget, Fillmore said he applauded the board’s efforts to keep it level funded.
Returning to the flag issue, he said it has kept the board from focusing on more pressing matters.
“Since the flag issue came to light back in June … the only three primary topics of discussion that have surfaced in the board are flags, COVID and the budget. There’s been almost no discussion of any core educational issues, policies or problems,” he said.
Fillmore, who described himself as a nonpartisan who does not subscribe to either party, said he supports flying only the U.S. and Vermont state flags on municipal flagpoles. He stated that those flags “represent all of us,” and added that including more flags opens up a “Pandora’s box” and “an endless series of what-about-me-ism.”
“We live in a diverse culture, and we all have situations that we’ve experienced and endured that we wish we hadn’t,” he said. “But flags are definitely not going to fix that — discussion will, empathy will.”
Green, along with her partner who graduated from Mill River, decided to settle in Shrewsbury because they wanted their future children to have the same small-town, small-school experience they had growing up.
Green, who works in admissions at Farm and Wilderness Summer Camp in Plymouth, said she is running for the board because she wants to give back to the community.
When Green was growing up, her mother and grandmother were educators.
“Education is one of those things which has been my heart and soul,” she said.
She said her collaborative spirit and willingness to listen to all sides will make her a good board member, adding that she will make sure she is listening to, and speaking for, Shrewsbury residents.
“I’m a big optimist. I think win-win is always achievable in some way,” she said.
If elected, she cited recovery from the pandemic as a priority — in particular, helping students address social, emotional and economic needs.
Green said she supports the proposed budget, noting that the board managed to keep it balanced while minimizing impacts.
On the flag issue, Green said she agreed with the policy the board adopted, stressing the importance of its focus on student proposals.
“I think that it is unfortunate it had to feel divisive,” she said, adding she is a fan of healthy debate and wants to make sure the board continues to listen to and raise up student voices.
In Tinmouth, two first-time candidates are vying for a one-year seat previously held by Amy Martone, who is stepping down from the board with one year of her term remaining.
Like Green, Asha Carroll and her partner sought out small-town life with the hope of starting a family. She said she’s running for the board to ensure the district is creating a “sustainable system of support” that her future family, as well as other families, will benefit from.
Carroll noted the division felt throughout the district over the past year as another motivator.
“It was important to me that we have somebody who is going to stand for unity — a true community advocate, who would stand up for policies that position our students for the best outcomes possible, regardless of circumstance,” she said.
Carroll works as a small business owner and communications professional, but prior to moving to Tinmouth she was an educator and curriculum writer in New York City-area schools — experience she said will serve her well on the board.
She said she supports the budget, acknowledging that it is a challenging year for everyone. She added that she advocated for finding creative ways the community can support students outside of financial support.
Carroll said schools are up against a variety of challenges right now, including the pandemic, which has only magnified those other challenges. She stated she wants to make sure “no child falls between the cracks” due to pandemic.
She stressed the particular importance of providing post-pandemic support to students at transitional grade levels such as those entering high school and seniors embarking on their post-secondary careers.
Carroll also acknowledged some children are struggling with a lack of activities due to COVID, highlighting those who rely on sports and extracurriculars for their social-emotional health.
“If elected, I really want to work together with leadership to ensure that we can have additional support for students (and) … find creative solutions so our students can still continue to engage socially,” she said.
Speaking to the flag issue, Carroll said she supported the board’s decision and the policy it has put forth.
She argued that the issue extends beyond a conversation about flags, noting a bigger conversation about diversity and inclusion.
“I want to help bring our community back together. I want to help find the strength in our differences so that we can put our students’ needs first,” she said.
Arne Majorell declined to be interviewed.