Engagement or Evasion? New Milford School Board Debates Value of Public Outreach

The New Milford School Board recently convened to tackle a variety of pressing topics, including community involvement in district matters, mental health, and the impact of staffing cuts on teacher morale.

The topic of community involvement elicited a spectrum of opinions among board members. Several voiced concern over the inactive public relations committee and questioned their ability to bring community values and goals into district decisions. Cheryll Calderon, a board member, voiced concerns about their capacity to represent community interests accurately.

Several board members put forth proposals to enhance public communication, suggesting tools like surveys, public forums, and community-involved strategic planning sessions. A “workshop” format was proposed where community members could present concerns without necessarily engaging in a two-way dialogue with the board.

Despite these suggestions, some board members expressed skepticism about direct engagement between the board and the public. They cited numerous opportunities for community members to engage with the administration, such as back-to-school nights, PTO meetings, and superintendent sessions, arguing that the board should operate collectively and individual members shouldn’t address public concerns.

One member contended, “I don’t think we have a communication problem. I think we have the perception of a communication problem.”

In response, the public relations committee was charged with identifying the exact problem with public engagement, whether it’s a lack of feedback, lack of attendance at meetings, or lack of information. However, there was no commitment to implementing the committee’s future suggestions.

Separately, the board’s dialogue on mental health was driven by a growing national crisis, emphasized by board member Joseph Loonam, who cited alarming CDC data. He suggested establishing a specific district goal for mental health and formulating a comprehensive action plan. The broader board discussion focused on incorporating mental health support into existing district plans, conducting rigorous assessments of current practices and staffing, and ensuring continuous evaluation of mental health programs to meet students’ needs effectively.

The issue of staffing cuts, prompted by budgetary constraints, also took center stage in discussions about teacher morale. The board acknowledged the cuts had led to a perceived devaluation of tenure and a rising trend of “free agency” among teachers. The pandemic’s effects were also highlighted, with teachers facing criticism for not returning to in-person teaching quickly enough after being lauded as heroes. Addressing the morale among teachers was a priority that one board member felt personally responsible for.

Lastly, board member Stephanie Kauffunger introduced the ongoing process of facility maintenance and the potential need for a referendum. She outlined a possible 2025 timeline for the referendum, emphasizing the importance of an updated facility audit, community engagement, and submitting proposals to the Department of Education for approval.

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