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Milford BOE backs Huizenga

MILFORD – Dozens of teachers and paraprofessionals, some wearing black T-shirts saying “Milford Strong,” showed up at the recent School Board meeting to protest the Board’s continuing support for the district’s superintendent.

That was May 30, but in early May, 150 members of the teacher and support staff union voted 99% as having no-confidence in Superintendent Jessica Huizenga, calling her a poor leader whose tenure has led to low morale.

After the occasionally raucous meeting May 30, the board this week issued a two-page letter signed by all five members, calling the educators’ allegations “baseless.”

Huizenga “has violated no district policies or state or federal laws,” the Board said, and she is “implementing an education plan developed by the school board with input from the community, including the faculty” and “we expect her to continue to make Milford a better school system than it already is.”

The board’s statement was in response to one signed by officials from the three school employee unions saying the superintendent’s attitude toward the schools is negative and she ignores the opinions of teachers.

“Dr. Huizenga has made clear to this community repeatedly that she believes the school district we have invested many years in is FAILING,” the unions’ letter read, and indicated important decisions are made without the support of educators.

“The times that she does seek our counsel, she ignores it,” the union leaders wrote, and the resulting decisions “go against the opinions of those who know the community best.” As a result, there is “extremely low morale, frustration, increased stress, and confusion,” they allege.

The statement was signed jointly by Cheryl Erdody, Milford Teachers Association president; Suzanne Schedin, vice president; Brenda Walker, president of the Milford Educational Support Staff Association and Doug Haggett, president, Milford Educational Personnel Association, the custodians’ union.

Asked by The Cabinet to comment about the teachers’ complaints, Huizenga emailed the following:

“I am doing the job that I have been directed to do by the Milford School Board, which has involved a number of changes, that are needed and in the best interest of students. In doing so, I have sought and received significant input from staff and the community. I believe I have the full support of the school board and will continue to serve them and everyone in Milford, to the best of my ability.”

In turn, the School Board released its letter Monday night, stating confidence and continuing support for Huizenga, who was hired last September after three months as interim superintendent following the retirement of Robert Marquis. Her hiring was without the usual vetting by parents, teachers and other community members. Board Chairman Ron Carvell said the Board was impressed with her and wanted to skip a time-consuming and expensive search process.

In its statement, the Board wrote that under the superintendent’s leadership it successfully negotiated two contracts, nearly completed work on school buildings, revamped the budgeting process, finalized a strategic plan, launched an SAU Twitter feed, trained administrators in new evaluation practices, and organized the first drug sweep of the high school.

After the May 30 meeting, teachers said they were “highly disappointed” that the Board declined to meet with the unions again and “never attempted to mediate or discuss their concerns.”

During that meeting, teachers also said they were concerned school officials had two police officers and an attorney there. Board member Holleigh Tlapa said she was shocked to find the officers in the lecture hall because the night before the meeting the Board had discussed whether to have a police presence and decided against it. The audience applauded her loudly and also applauded teacher Steve Vetak who said, “I am appalled this school board is so afraid of public comments.”

Parent Carla Beaudreau said the entire Board should “conduct exit interviews and get to the bottom of things,” and a grandparent accused the Board of being “insolent, arrogant and uncaring,” and praised aides, whom she said helped her autistic grandson make great progress.

Former Budget Committee Chairman Rick Wood faulted educators for asking questions that were “all over the map,” in what he called an attempt to make school officials look bad.

Susan Smith, a parent, said it’s an “unfortunate reality” that the changes – more certified teachers, more professional development, more advanced placement and honors courses and more challenges for special education students – are long overdue.

Kevin St. Onge, a Milford High graduate and an attorney who has worked in labor law, said the teachers should file grievances instead of complaining to the Board during its business meetings.

“You have many grievances that should be filed,” he said and advised the Board to be extremely transparent. He also told Huizenga that she came to Milford as the result of a “flawed process.”

“That’s not your fault,” he said. “Most of us understand that, and the community understood that, and the last election elected two new board members.”

Carvell had set ground rules for speakers, saying they could not air complaints about individuals and at one point tried to adjourn the meeting.

In their statement, teachers were highly critical of Huizenga, saying she doesn’t motivate or inspire staff because of her “constantly shifting focus and initiatives, causing staff morale at all levels of this district to be at their lowest point in recent memory.”

Before she came to Milford, Huizenga was the turnaround receiver for the Southbridge Massachusetts School District, appointed by the state to take charge of the chronically underperforming district. After serving one year, she went on paid administrative leave in June 2017 and resigned a month later because, she said, of the lengthy commute.

Carvell wrote in an email, “We have tasked her with some significant changes for our community, and we can appreciate that there are concerns about that, but we believe these changes will help improve our educational system and we believe those changes have been developed with significant public input. The superintendent is simply doing her job to help us with the policy changes that we have made after ample discussion at our public meetings.”