Wide-Ranging Debate in Hartford

  • During the public discussion portion of Hartford's school meeting in White River Junction, Vt., on March 29, 2014, Sue Buckholz, of West Hartford, Vt., speaks about the quality of education her children received in the Hartford School District after she moved to the town from Norwich. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen)

    During the public discussion portion of Hartford's school meeting in White River Junction, Vt., on March 29, 2014, Sue Buckholz, of West Hartford, Vt., speaks about the quality of education her children received in the Hartford School District after she moved to the town from Norwich. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Hartford selectboard chair Alex DeFelice answers a question during the public discussion portion of Hartford's town and school meetings held in White River Junction, Vt., on March 29, 2014. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen)

    Hartford selectboard chair Alex DeFelice answers a question during the public discussion portion of Hartford's town and school meetings held in White River Junction, Vt., on March 29, 2014. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Hartford school board member Paul Keane speaks about his dislike of standardized testing during the public discussion portion of Hartford's school meeting in White River Junction, Vt., on March 29, 2014. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen)

    Hartford school board member Paul Keane speaks about his dislike of standardized testing during the public discussion portion of Hartford's school meeting in White River Junction, Vt., on March 29, 2014. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Purchase photo reprints »

  • During the public discussion portion of Hartford's school meeting in White River Junction, Vt., on March 29, 2014, Sue Buckholz, of West Hartford, Vt., speaks about the quality of education her children received in the Hartford School District after she moved to the town from Norwich. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen)
  • Hartford selectboard chair Alex DeFelice answers a question during the public discussion portion of Hartford's town and school meetings held in White River Junction, Vt., on March 29, 2014. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen)
  • Hartford school board member Paul Keane speaks about his dislike of standardized testing during the public discussion portion of Hartford's school meeting in White River Junction, Vt., on March 29, 2014. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen)

Hartford — After cruising through the basic warning articles for both the town and the school district at the annual floor meeting on Saturday, residents engaged in a lively, wide-ranging conversation about the town’s schools, touching on everything from the role of standardized testing in education to the connections between the school district and the health of the local economy, as well as the perception of the school district’s quality and how that squares — or doesn’t — with reality.

“This has been a very, very interesting discussion because it’s sort of wandered all over the pasture, from one point to another,” School Board member Peter Merrill said in the middle of the discussion, under other business, which lasted more than an hour.

The discussion was initiated when resident Bruce Riddle, who is also chairman of the Planning Commission, suggested that Hartford students’ scores in the New England Common Assessment Program tests were “scary,” questioning Superintendent Tom DeBalsi about how he planned to improve them and the School Board about how they would hold DeBalsi accountable.

DeBalsi, along with several board members, said he was “very concerned” about the low NECAP scores, which showed only 28 percent of 11th-graders meeting or exceeding the standards in math this year, according to information from the Vermont Department of Education. The high school is auditing its math curriculum, among other measures, he said, even as it prepares for the Common Core, a set of English language arts and math standards set at the federal level meant to better prepare U.S. students to compete on an international stage.

However, Riddle’s question set off a lively debate about standardized testing, led by newly elected School Board member Paul Keane, who spoke against NECAP, Common Core and the SATs, which he called “elitist bunk.”

“There are a lot of late bloomers that take tests and don’t do well, and I want to stand up for them. I don’t want them to be part of someone’s analysis that forces us to beat the kids over the head until they do well on tests,” Keane said, to applause.

Resident Sue Buckholz echoed those sentiments, saying good students are not necessarily good test-takers and cautioning against a “cookie cutter” approach.

But Riddle responded to Keane that “you can’t make good policy without good data,” a reasoning backed by School Board member Lori Dickerson.

“If we are going to spend $32 million on a school budget, I think we need to know that our children our learning,” she said, while acknowledging that the “metric system is imperfect.”

Former Selectman F. X. Flinn stood up to discuss what he called a “heartbreaking” reputation of Hartford schools in some corners of the region, including Quechee, where he lives. He and several others said they hear people telling families to move out of the district to places like Hanover before their children hit middle-school age. “I think we need to know just how bad the word of mouth is about the Hartford schools over in Quechee,” he said. A bad outside perception, he said, can have a negative effect on property values and increase the tax burden on the rest of the town.

Selectman Dick Grassi, who defeated Flinn in his re-election bid this year, called some of the comments “extremely disturbing,” saying the middle school’s poor reputation was baseless and being “perpetuated” and “exaggerated,” which received applause.

DeBalsi defended the middle school, calling it a “wonderful” school full of hard-working teachers and students. He said he believes some of the bad reputation stems from the shock of leaving small elementary schools and integrating into the larger middle school.

Buckholz said she moved to Hartford from Norwich years ago, and within two months, her high school-age son was able to see through what she considered elitism in the Hanover school system.

“I don’t know how that school system has that reputation that they do,” she said. Her son, she said, was better served by the Hartford schools.

Still, Linda Labriola, of Quechee, and other residents, including Susanne Abetti, of White River Junction, said that even if the schools are quality and the reputation is untrue, the reputation should be addressed and bettered. Abetti said the schools need a “charm offensive.”

“If the perception is that they are not as good as they truly are, then we need to work on that perception,” she said.

There was some — but not much — discussion of the bond projects in the works on both the town and school side. Shirley Reid, of Wilder, questioned officials about the status of several projects and Labriola questioned how much each project has “exceeded (its) bond.”

Town Manager Hunter Rieseberg said he was not prepared to give firm numbers, and Selectboard Chairman Alex DeFelice said, “we won’t really know the total of what we’re over” until each project is completed.

Flinn suggested that a $600,000 shortfall for renovations to the Wendell A. Barwood Arena were “paid for in a way that was not transparent, in my opinion,” because the board gathered funds from several areas of the budget, including rainy day funds, instead of bonding for the money.

DeFelice said the board “felt like we could do it within” the 2013-14 and 2014-15 budgets.

As for the status of several projects, Rieseberg estimated that the Maxfield property on Route 5, where new playing fields are being constructed, is about 70 percent complete and on track to be finished by August. He said the interior is complete in the West Hartford Library, and the remaining work, including exterior painting, shelving and landscaping, should be finished by July.

Renovations to the Barwood Arena hockey rink should begin within the next couple of weeks, he said, and could be finished by Thanksgiving.

The Town Office building is still in the design phase, although certain elements are out to bid. The pump house project “(hasn’t) gotten off the ground,” he said.

At one point, School Board officials had hoped to use Saturday’s meeting to solve the question of how to spend about $1.5 million remaining under a joint recreation bond approved in 2013.

Those funds are not enough to cover the remainder of the project as originally proposed, including a track and turf field and fieldhouse, because costs have run high.

Voters at Town Meeting rejected a proposed supplemental bond for $3 million to meet the shortfall, and School Board members later learned that they could not revisit the bond Saturday because there was not enough time to properly warn it.

School Board Chairman Kevin Christie told attendees that a student liaison to the board and DeBalsi were creating a survey “to talk to the whole community … so that we have a good idea as to where people stand around our next steps with the project.”

The school district originally had $3.25 million available — $900,000 for middle school improvements, $1.55 million to build a field house and $800,000 for the track and turf field — but costs increased after construction required more extensive site work than expected and middle school renovations cost more than estimated.

Flinn introduced several amendments to increase pay for public officials. They included increasing the town moderator’s pay from $100 a year to $100 a meeting; doubling Board of Civil Authority members’ per diem pay to $50; doubling listers’ hourly rate to $20; increasing Selectboard and School Board member pay to $50 a meeting, up from $35 and $40, respectively; and doubling once-yearly fees to the Selectboard chairman and vice chairman to $300 and $150, respectively.

The amendments and the amended article were passed unanimously by voice vote, save for abstentions from Selectboard and School Board members related to their own pay, and at least one nay vote from the School Board related to that increase. Board members said during the meeting they had been unaware of Flinn’s plans to make the amendments.

Flinn noted that several of the positions had not had pay increases in years, and said he proposed the increases both to “recognize the level of effort” required of the positions and to attract residents to service.

Selectman Chuck Wooster also made a pitch for several open seats on town commissions, including the conservation, design review, energy, historic preservation and planning commissions.

Maggie Cassidy can be reached at mcassidy@vnews.com or 603-727-3220.