Seven candidates are vying for three seats on the Rutland City Board of School Commissioners this Town Meeting Day.
Incumbents Matthew Olewnik and Charlene Seward are joined by challengers Kam Johnston, Marisa Kiefaber, Tricia O’Connor, Stephanie Stoodley and Anna Tadio. Commissioner Joanne Pencak chose not to seek re-election.
Johnston, who previously served one term on the board before losing a bid for re-election last year, said he is running again because he wants to finish the job he started. In particular, he wants to keep working to reorganize the pension board, calling for the creation of a dedicated professional to helm the body composed of members of the School Board and Board of Aldermen.
Johnston said he believes his experience dealing with the public as a former computer trainer, as well as his inquisitive nature and lack of ego make him a good commissioner.
“I think the best thing that I bring to the School Board is just as an individual that doesn’t really want to express themselves in a way that brings attention to themselves,” he said. “I would rather be the workhorse rather than the show horse.”
In addition to the pension board, Johnston called for the creation of an inspector general position to improve transparency.
Along those lines, he is advocating to require commissioners conduct all board business on district email accounts.
He said he would also like to see the board’s designated liaison to aldermen deliver regular reports in order to improve communication between the boards.
Regarding the push among some residents to vote down the school budget in protest to the Raider name change, Johnston said he hopes people reconsider, calling it “heavy-handed politics.” He said passing the budget provides for stability, which is especially important during the pandemic.
“If people are going to vote against the budget, it shouldn’t be a symbolic vote. It should actually be based upon a factual determination that there are sections of the budget that should be revamped,” he said.
Johnston said the board’s process to change the Raider name and arrowhead logo could have been more robust, and should have been examined in more depth at the committee level.
“They are not fully engaging in a way that really makes people feel that they’re involved,” he said, noting he is likely the only candidate who is still “persuadable” on the matter.
A fifth-grade teacher at Rutland Town School, Kiefaber said she believes her experience as an educator and a young professional living in Rutland will make her an asset to the board.
After graduating from Rutland High School in 2010, Kiefaber got a degree from the University of Vermont before heading West to work in outdoor education in Colorado and Montana and, ultimately, returning to Vermont.
She said she chose to run for the board because she wants to continue to support the progress that city schools are making “to foster confidence and inclusive and respectful learning environments for all students.”
Kiefaber characterized the current atmosphere on the board as “a little volatile,” but said she believes she can help improve morale and bring the focus back on students.
“I think that I am, generally, a level-headed person who can use facts and information to help inform my decisions,” she said.
Kiefaber said she supported the proposed budget. She also noted that because of the way Vermont’s education spending structure works, the city is a net beneficiary; 75% of funding comes from state and federal sources, which means Rutlanders pay 25 cents for each dollar of education spending by the district. She argued that deeper cuts would be more harmful to schools than the benefit taxpayers would receive.
Kiefaber, who was part of the group that initially brought the Raider name change proposal to the board, said she remains committed to seeing the transition though, if elected. However, she stated it’s not the only reason she’s running.
She acknowledged how divisive the issue has become, and said she thinks the process could have been improved.
Kiefaber called the board’s decision not to seek guidance from Abenaki leaders a “big mistake.”
“I think that they missed an opportunity to work with local Abenaki leaders to help make this change and help foster a sense of education moving forward,” she said.
Over the years, Abenaki leadership has been consistent in its opposition to the use of Native American mascots. At its November meeting, the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs, a body composed of representatives from the state’s Native American tribes, moved to begin drafting a statement in response to the Rutland’s Raider debate, stating that the commission “is not in favor of mascots, logos or symbols that evoke Native American names, history or material culture.”
If elected, Kiefaber would join her father, Kevin Kiefaber, as a commissioner — making them the second father-daughter pair on the board. (Hurley and Brittany Cavacas are the other.)
Kiefaber said she would be mindful of potential conflicts of interest and recuse herself as necessary.
“We have our own opinions and our own thoughts and our own ways of doing things,” she said. “As we’ve seen (the Cavacases) do, they can act like individuals on the school board, and I plan to do similar.”
An occupational therapist with two children attending city schools, O’Connor previously has worked in the district as a substitute teacher and volunteer.
Moved to run by the Raider name change, O’Connor described herself as a “motivated and passionate” person who wants to work to find ways to get kids to take more accountability and develop strategies to help them make better choices.
“I felt like this was a time for me to step up and really represent my community as a taxpayer,” she said.
If elected, she said she would like work to produce more fiscally responsible budgets.
She said she also wants to address declining enrollment, stating that a number of families left the district in recent years due to behavioral issues at Rutland Middle School.
Since 2000, student enrollment has dropped an average of 2.5% to 3% annually — a rate that is in line with the rest of the state, according to information provided by district officials.
O’Connor also expressed a desire to address deferred maintenance, noting that being proactive will save money in the long run.
Turning to the proposed budget, she said she does not feel she can support it.
“I feel like right now, our priorities are not where they should be,” she said. “We’re in the middle of a pandemic and we have people focused on prioritizing making modifications to a logo.”
She added that she “absolutely” does not believe students will be affected if the budget fails.
On the Raider issue, O’Connor called for a “collaborative discussion” as a community but, ultimately, thinks it’s something that should have been put on the back burner until after the pandemic.
She stated that she has spoken to Native Americans — some of whom live in the Rutland community — who support keeping the Raider name and logo.
When asked whether she had spoken to Abenaki leadership about the issue, she said she had not.
“It’s a very subjective subject. What is considered offensive to one may not be to another, and so you could talk to a multitude of people and get multiple opinions,” she said.
When asked about previous statements Abenaki leaders have made in opposition to the use of such mascots and imagery, she referred to them as “hearsay.”
“Like I said, my job if I’m on the school board, is to serve my immediate community and the students,” she said.
Olewnik, who has been on the board for seven years, said being a commissioner is his way of giving back to the community.
A teacher at West Rutland High School, he said his experience in the classroom gives him an understanding of the educational landscape.
Olewnik lost his bid for re-election last year, but was appointed to serve the remainder of Commissioner Dick Courcelle’s term, when Courcelle stepped down from the board last spring.
If re-elected, he said he would continue to support strategic planning to make sure the district was on the right track for addressing financial and infrastructural needs.
Olewnik also stressed the importance of advancing educational equity beyond simply naming a new mascot or flying the Black Lives Matter flag. He said that while he supports both efforts, they are ultimately gestures that don’t concretely address underlying student problems such as trauma, mental health and behavioral issues.
Olewnik called the proposed budget “responsible,” and discouraged voters from rejecting it.
“I would hope that the adults in this community are not going to punish the kids of this community based on a decision that they disagree with over the mascot,” he said, adding that as a receiving district in the state funding system, deep cuts to the budget won’t translate to a big savings.
On the Raider issue, Olewnik disagreed that the timing was bad, stating that he didn’t think it distracted from dealing with a pandemic.
As a board member, he said he didn’t feel there was a need to hear testimony from Abenaki leaders because their position on the issue has been clear.
“The point that is being missed is that … you’re making a group of people a mascot. That’s what is alienating to Native American people,” he said.
Seward is seeking a second term on the board because she said she feels the board needs leadership, knowledge and stability — qualities she believes she can provide.
An owner of a local CPA firm with a child attending RHS, Seward said her financial expertise is an asset. During her last term, she said she brought those skills to bear on the pension and finance committees.
Her seat on the finance committee meant she was also privy to the budget process.
“The budget that’s presented was scaled down as far as we could go without cutting any academic programs,” she said.
While she acknowledged people were upset about the Raider issue, and were using their vote to send a message, she suggested they, instead, vote for candidates who will represent their interests.
“I’d hate for programs to suffer or teachers to lose their positions,” she said.
From the beginning of the Raider debate, Seward said she has advocated for compromise: Keep the Raider name; retire the arrowhead.
While she said she can see both sides, she said she feels the board never got enough information to make an informed decision. Though she feels that, ultimately, the matter should have been put to a citywide vote.
Seward said that while she can appreciate arguments made by Abenaki leaders — and would welcome the opportunity for the board to hear from them — she also has had heard arguments against the erasure of history.
“We really haven’t had open dialogue about it … amongst the board to have a real discussion about all sides,” she said, adding that the issue was pushed along too quickly.
While the Raider issue was the catalyst for Stoodley’s bid for the board, she said she’s not a single-issue candidate. In recent years, she said she’s observed a lack of communication and clarity from the board and believes it has tied the hands of administrators. She characterized the past few years at RMS as “rough,” arguing that better leadership at the top could have improved the situation.
A manager of a local cleaning service and former business owner, the mother of two current RHS students touted her experience managing finances and being a parent as assets.
If elected, she said getting students back on track academically and social-emotionally in the wake of the pandemic would be a priority.
She said she also wants to work to have more continuity and uniformity between schools in the district.
Stoodley said she had not taken a close look at the proposed budget, but did acknowledge that there is no money allocated to the Raider name change, which she called a “positive.” She noted that some people may not understand that.
She declined to reveal how she planned yo vote on it, saying she prefers to keep her voting decisions private.
Stoodley has been a staunch defender of keeping the Raider name, and has objected to how the process played out in the community.
“I believe wholeheartedly if it was done with transparency and respect from the very beginning it wouldn’t have divided the community the way it did,” she said, adding that vitriol she has witnessed on both sides of the debate has set a bad example.
Like Seward, she said she believes a compromise could have been reached.
But while she respects the other side of the debate, she disagrees that the name and symbol are problematic.
“At this point in time, I don’t believe you can make an argument for the word ‘Raider’ and the arrowhead symbol as being racist,” she said.
Stoodley acknowledged objections voiced by Abenaki leaders, but said she does not believe that the name and symbol’s original contextual ties to Native American imagery exist today.
“While I respect the Abenakis and the Native Americans … some may feel one way, and some may feel the other way,” she said.
Stoodley does, however, support changing curriculum to include more education about Native American culture and history, as well as adopting land acknowledgments at school events — two objectives the Change the Mascot Committee also has advocated for.
Recently moving back from Portland, Oregon, Tadio said she always planned on returning to the Green Mountain State.
Now, with a law degree in hand, the 2009 RHS graduate said she is ready to make sure Rutland City students “have access to the best education possible.”
If elected, she said she wants to ensure students have access to higher education and trade programs so they are well equipped to enter the workforce — especially in a post-pandemic world.
Tadio said she also wants students to get adequate nutrition and exercise in schools.
“High school is a time when we’re setting students up for the habits that they’re going to carry throughout their whole lives,” she said.
Tadio said she supports the proposed budget. Like other candidates, she noted that the city is a net beneficiary for education spending, adding that the board has made budget cuts to reflect declining student population.
She also advocated for the implementation of the UVM weighting study recommendations, which are projected to bring more funding to the district and lower tax rates.
On the Raider issue, Tadio said it’s “important to make sure that everyone feels comfortable in our schools and in our community.”
However, she added that all sides should be heard so that everyone feels like they have a voice, and stressed the importance of the board making decisions in an open and transparent manner.
“If the mascot is offensive to people, then that’s dividing our community, and I really want us to be united and proud of our school and mascot,” she said.
Ultimately, Tadio said she stands by the board’s decision and said she thinks the focus should be on uniting students and making sure they feel supported.