On October 6, 2021

WCSD board divided on renaming objectives

Policy Committee Chair Lou Piconi resigned after Monday meeting

By Curt Peterson

The idea of renaming educational facilities or programs that have been named for individuals in recognition of their past service to students of the Windsor Central School District (WCSD), for someone who makes a large financial donation to the district has become, in parent Jason Drebitko’s words, a “lightning rod.”

Contention over this policy at the board’s meeting Monday, Oct. 4, is the suspected reason Policy Committee Chair Lou Piconi (Woodstock) unexpectedly resigned from the board via an email Monday night to the Woodstock contingency and a few others.

“My resignation is as of Jan. 1 so a transition can take place. It’s time to put my energy into a few new areas,” Piconi told the Mountain Times Tuesday morning, Oct. 5.

“I saw Lou’s resignation this morning,” Superintendent Sherry Sousa wrote to the Mountain Times early Tuesday. “He shared his commitment to public service through his long history as a board member at WCSU and other school districts. Representing our community with diverse opinions and ideals can be challenging, and I have seen the efforts he has put forth to actively negotiate that world,” she wrote. “He will be missed on our voluntary board.”

Residual tension was evident as soon as board member Jim Haff (Killington) moved to discuss any changes to the policy in preparation for a third reading at the next full board meeting in November. Gwen Hagenbarth (Killington) immediately raised two issues that epitomize public unease about the proposed policy: The idea that money can trump historic service to the district when deciding to rename a facility, Hagenbarth said, caused her concern. She also suggested the fundraising working group shouldn’t be part of the naming decision-making process.

Anna Sessa (Reading) asked policy committee chair Piconi if separating fundraising policy from the naming policy was ever considered by the committee, and, if so, what the reasoning was for not separating them.

Piconi said the committee did consider the idea, but they had put so much work into the policy already, they just wanted to “get something done” for the board to consider.

“We felt the policy was defendable as it was,” he said.

Haff cited the rigorous process for the original naming of five facilities already honoring local individuals. “We wouldn’t be talking about this without the prospect of raising money for a new Middle School/High School building,” Haff said, belying the committee’s insistence there is no current intention of renaming anything.

Sam DiNatale (Woodstock), who serves on the policy committee, said there was no discussion of renaming any specific parts of campuses in exchange for money during the eight months the committee worked on the naming policy. She thinks the board is getting too deep in the details of policy wording and losing perspective.

Todd Ulman (Woodstock), a newcomer from Connecticut, expressed what some of the policy’s detractors find the most frightening. “If some guy wants to give the district $50 million and wants a building renamed for him, I say, of course — do it! I would be all for it,” he said.

Later in the meeting, Maura Tynes subtly referred to Ulman’s remark as a demonstration of what she calls the division between the “from aways” and the “from heres,” implying a lack of understanding among late-comers regarding the personal connections and history in Vermont’s small communities.

Keri Bristow (Woodstock) expressed concern about renaming as well, suggesting a higher percentage of the board favoring a specific renaming would be a good idea. In the currently proposed policy, 60% in favor is required.

Throughout discussions of the naming policy, policy committee members have referred to possible wealthy donors who are willing to give large amounts of money — if a building is named after them, as “generous.” Opponents question that definition.

Ben Ford (Woodstock), whose reference in March to five already-named facilities on the Woodstock campus as examples of those that could be renamed, accepted responsibility for the discomfort his remark has inspired in the community. He suggested any means the board used to raise significant funds for the proposed new buildings would benefit students and lower their cost to taxpayers relative to the borrowing costs involved with a large bond issue.

Ford’s reference to local taxes inspired Haff to reiterate a question he says he has been asking “for three years” with no definitive answer. He said that he believes Act 68 was instituted precisely to prevent school districts from raising funds to offset reported per-student costs, to avoid otherwise-justified penalties for overspending.

“Act 68 was meant to prevent wealthier towns from doing just what we’re contemplating,” Haff said. “I don’t think raising donations for the new school would have that effect at all. It might even raise taxes.”

Board chair Bryce Sammel thought Haff’s remarks were off-topic and asked him to stick to the naming policy.

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