By Katy Savage
There will be turnover on the contentious Rutland City School Board as four aren’t running for re-election on Town Meeting Day, March 1.
Ten people are running for four open seats. Hurley Cavacas, Jr., Ann Dages, Dena Goldberg and Erin Shimp aren’t seeking re-election, and 10 newcomers seek their seats.
The 11-person board has reached several friction points in the past two years with the Rutland Raiders mascot, which changed to the Ravens in 2020, then back to the Raiders this year. Board members have called each other derogatory names in meetings and have sent each other threats on social media.
Some believe the Raiders name and the arrowhead logo, depicting Indigenous culture, is problematic and creates an exclusive school environment.
Candidates Bob Pearo Jr., Karen Bossi, Cynthia Laskevich and Heather Hauke have teamed up with a united desire to focus on the children.
Bob Pearo, Jr
“I’m sick and tired of everyone being uncivil,” said Pearo Jr., 49. “All of the people are done with it — the entire community is done with it.”
Those four candidates have children or grandchildren in the district. They expressed bullying and school safety concerns as primary reasons for their campaigns.
“My issue is a disconnect between the parents and the administration,” said Pearo Jr., who is the owner of Green Mountain Awning, Inc. “We’re really sick of watching dysfunction while watching kids suffer.”
Heather Hauke, 37, said the dysfunction on the board over the mascot debate has been “a little bit alarming.”
“I feel like the city and board has voted and I’d like to focus on other issues,” she said. “I’m hoping personally to move forward.”
Hauke, who has four kids in the school system, said she’s been an active volunteer for various functions.
“I’m very involved,” Hauke said. “I just want to see these kids succeed and have the best year, especially since so much has been taken away from them.”
Hauke was concerned about school violence and bullying.
“The schools themselves are becoming a scary place for children — it’s not fair to the teachers to have this chaos in the classrooms,” she said.
Karen Bossi, 64, retired last August as a paralegal supervisor for the state. Before that, Bossi was a police dispatcher in Rutland for 20 years while Bossi’s husband Anthony Bossi was the Rutland City police chief and served on the department for 30 years until he retired in 2018.
Bossi has grandchildren in the school district and said she’s concerned about teachers in the school district not getting enough support. Bossi said she plans to visit the schools monthly. She supports the Raiders mascot, but like other candidates, she wants to move on from the mascot debate.
“Many people have said they’re tired of this,” she said.
Bossi has served on previous boards. She was the first woman elected to the Rutland Town Select Board in the late 1990s and was elected to the Board of Alderman shortly after moving to Rutland City in 1998.
Marisa Kiefaber, 30, a fifth grade teacher at Rutland Town School, grew up in Rutland and graduated from Rutland High School.
After leaving Rutland to attend college, Kiefaber returned to become a Spanish teacher at Proctor Elementary School. She liked it so much she got her teacher’s license and became a classroom teacher instead.
“I know what it’s like to be in a school, day in and day out,” she said. “I feel like my voice can help on the School Board.”
Kiefaber is the daughter of current School Board member Kevin Kiefaber, whose term is up in 2023.
The elder Kiefaber made the motion in 2020 to stop using the Raider name and imagery. It was defeated 6-4 in October 2020. The name change was eventually successful, before it was changed back again recently. She said she thinks the mascot will continue to be an issue on the School Board. “I am in favor of a change that makes Rutland City school a really inclusive place for all students,” she said.
Kiefaber said she wants to improve communication on the School Board. “There’s been a lot of times in the past year or two where communication shuts down and becomes not acceptable adult behavior anymore,” she said. “I think things could be going more smoothly and I’d like to be part of that change.”
Marybeth Lennox-Levins grew up in Syracuse, New York and moved to the area to teach at the former Green Mountain College about 13 years ago.
Lennox-Levins, 49, is now an associate professor of sports management at Castleton University. Lennox-Levins developed the master of science in athletic leadership program at Castleton and now serves as its program director. She also teaches in the sport management bachelor of science program.
Lennox-Levins was previously a college soccer coach at SUNY Binghamton University, where she attended college. Her 10-year-old daughter now goes to Christ the King School.
“I was encouraged to run (for School Board) by a couple folks and I thought it was the right time,” she said.
Lennox-Levins said she’s aware of the divisive School Board and prides herself on collaboration. “This community is clearly divided by (the mascot),” she said. “I hope that we can begin a different type of era where we can work together. You can’t change hearts and minds with a bulldozer. I do think any of these topics just need both sides to maybe see if they can find some commonality and common ground.”
Dave Searles, 70, recently retired as a landlord and now is running for School Board.
Searles moved to Rutland from New York state around 2001. He said he moved out of New York largely because of the public school system’s lack of attention to his daughter, who was in special education.
Searles has sued school systems in both New York and Vermont. He sued the Vermont Board of Education and Town of Rutland school district after he said they failed to pay tuition reimbursment after he enrolled his daughter in the Rutland Learning Center in 2002.
“I think that schools get a little too lax on separating children from regular education classes because it’s easier to do it that way,” he said.
Searles said he’s not afraid to go to court and he said he always represents himself as opposed to hiring a lawyer.
“I had a lot of fun,” he said. “I have a natural proclivity to argumentation. Controversy doesn’t bother me at all. The thing to do is to try not to get too involved in it.”
Searles was also arrested in February 2007 after he got into an argument with his neighbor in Rutland.
Searles’ neighbor Brian Ketcham told police at the time that Searles hit him with a shovel and used the shovel to hit a car belonging to his mother’s ex-husband. Searles denied the argument and was acquitted in court in 2008.
“Luckily, I do pretty good in court,” Searles said.
Kam Johnston, who puts his name on the ballot for every election, is running for both Board of Alderman and School Board this year.
“I think I could serve in either capacity,” he said.
Johnston, 58, grew up in Ludlow and moved to Virginia for a period before moving back to Rutland to become a caregiver for his parents. Johnston was successfully elected to the School Board in 2018 for one term.
Johnston said he puts his name on the ballot to encourage competition and debate. He pointed to concerns about the number of candidates who are related to each other or already have clout in the city.
“It becomes name recognition,” he said.
Newcomer Sara Doenges, 45, said she’s watched School Board meetings and seen the tension regarding the mascot issue.
“I feel like we were trying to go in a healthy direction and the waters got muddy,” Doenges said.
Doenges said she thinks the Raiders mascot and logo should be retired, but wants to focus on teachers and students for now.
“I think this subject needs to go to rest now,” she said.
Doenges’ family moved to Rutland in 1996. Doenges’ husband Mike Doenges serves on the Board of Alderman. They have two children in Rutland High School.
“Watching them go through high school during Covid, it was a whole family event,” she said. “I want to give back to the teachers who worked so hard.”
Courtney Collins, Cynthia Laskevich
Candidate Courtney Collins, who is engaged to Aldermen member Matt Whitcomb, didn’t return requests for comment, nor did newcomer Cynthia Laskevich.