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by Jessica Brophy
The two candidates receiving the most votes in a race for two open three-year seats on the CSD school board will be picked from two nominated candidates and one write-in candidate. Incumbent Virginia Olsen was elected last year for a one-year term; she is a local business owner and parent of a high school student. New England Institute for Teacher Education dean and Stonington Methodist Church pastor Stephen York ran as a write-in candidate last year, and took out papers this year. Write-in candidate and CEO of corporate coaching company Dynamic Perspective, Karen Atwell has spent summers here since the late 1960s, and moved to the Island full-time in 2010.
Karen Atwell (three-year term, write-in)
With experience working with “executive teams” in corporations and nonprofits, Karen Atwell has experience leading conversations among different groups working toward a common goal. “I don’t bring agendas to the table,” she said. “I want to work together in an open manner.
Atwell has “enjoyed the Island and its people” since 1967 as a summer resident. In 2010, she moved to the Island full time with her daughter, who is in the school system. Last year she started a Latin club in the school, and hopes to start a debate team soon. She said several people have asked her to run, but she took a long time deciding to throw her hat in the ring as she is a relatively new year-round resident. “I am close with a lot of long-time residents and natives,” she said. “I have the passion and understanding to preserve what we have here, and prepare kids for a future whether they stay here or move away.”
Atwell says she’s not sure there’s anything “necessarily wrong” with the structure of the administration, but she does think it is important to fully define the roles of school board members, teachers and administrators. “There needs to be clarity around that,” she said.
In terms of the teacher contract negotiations, Atwell feels there’s a lot of value to seniority, and to performance. “I don’t think it’s fair to tie teacher performance to students, since they change every year and there’s a range of abilities,” said Atwell. “But I don’t think that people get to keep their job just because they’ve been there for 10 years.”
Atwell sees declining enrollment with rising costs as a big challenge. “We have decided we want to educate our children here,” said Atwell. “We’re forced to make tough choices. Our children deserve as well-rounded an education as they would receive off-Island—otherwise we’re telling them we’re sacrificing their education to keep them here.” Atwell does not support putting whole grades in one classroom with 25 or 30 kids.
Her top priority as a school board member is to “gain clarity and trust within the school board itself, and building clarity and trust between the school board and administration.” Another priority is to move teacher contract negotiations forward. “We can’t expect the teachers to continue operating without a contract,” said Atwell, who studied labor relations in school.
Virginia Olsen (three-year term)
As a graduate of the Island school system, a local business owner, a parent of a school-aged child and as someone who has served on several boards, Virginia Olsen believes she has what it takes to be an effective school board member.
“Over the last year I’ve learned a lot,” said Olsen in a recent interview. “It’s been a steep learning curve.” She said she has no axe to grind, and no particular issues to champion, except for helping children succeed.
When asked why she wanted to continue as a school board member, she said she felt it was her civic duty. “If you want to see change, it’s important to be a part of it.”
Olsen said it’s important to consider different options in terms of how the CSD should structure its administration and whether to stay in Union 76. “Planning for our future is important to a small community,” said Olsen.
In terms of the current stalemate in teacher contract negotiations over more closely tying reductions in force to teacher performance, Olsen agrees with the position of the current school board. “I know teachers have been working hard and I appreciate what they do, but when you’re put in the situation where cuts have to be made, you need to keep the teachers that are the best fits for students and the classes available,” she said.
Fiscal responsibility is a part of the school board member’s job, said Olsen, acknowledging that enrollment has decreased and budgets increased over the past decade. Thinking out of the box is key, as is planning long-term, she said. She sees the current work of the strategic planning committee as central in that long-term work.
Open communication between the school board, students and community is very important to Olsen. “We want it to feel like the community has a place in our school and our school board meetings,” she said. The other major goal she has is for students to be successful in “whatever they choose—college or the work force.”
Stephen York (three-year term)
Previous service on a school board in Massachusetts and extensive experience in teacher education and teaching at the high school as a special ed and life skills teacher give Stephen York what he feels is a deep understanding of the role of a school board member.
As dean of the New England Institute for Teacher Education, York said he regularly evaluates teachers who teach for the institute, while managing a budget that assures financial stability, success and quality. York’s experience as a clergyman on the Island has shown him some of the family, social and economic issues here. York wants to be a school board member because volunteerism is important to him. “I received a very fine public education, and this is my way to give back,” he said. He also said he has the skills, temperament and passion for successful education required of school board members.
York is “unequivocally opposed” to the CSD leaving Union 76. He believes the cost-sharing formula in place for the central office and union administrative costs is equitable. York also said he has “not heard a proposal to date” that he can support in terms of an alternative administrative structure—such as having teacher-principals or a principal-superintendent.
In terms of the teacher contract negotiations stalemate, York thinks the school board should have stuck with the interest-based, “win-win” philosophy they have used over the past decade. Currently, when a reduction in force is required, the teacher contract requires the board to consider teacher performance and teacher seniority 50-50. “It is my understanding that the teacher’s union is offering 60-40 performance-seniority,” said York. “I think that is fair and acceptable.”
York said declining enrollment and rising costs is not the complete story on the Island. “It’s simplistic to think this is all about population demographics,” said York. He said there are parents with children who are seriously considering leaving the Island because they are unhappy with the education they received here themselves, and there are people who send their students to other schools or who homeschool. “There are serious concerns about the quality of education,” he continued. Listening to and addressing those concerns should be a priority of the school board, York said.
“If elected, my first priority is to make sure the school board itself is functioning effectively,” said York. “There’s no room for hidden agendas and I have none. I say what I mean, and mean what I say, and expect the same from my fellow board members. I look forward to working with each of them for the betterment of our schools and community.”