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Milford School District superintendent addresses community’s concerns

Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part series from a Telegraph exclusive sit-down with Milford School District Superintendent Jessica Huizenga. The second part will publish in next Monday’s edition of The Telegraph.

MILFORD – If you’re a Milford parent or educator, or just an informed resident, you probably already know about some of the turmoil involving the Milford School District and Superintendent Jessica Huizenga.

The superintendent, along with Milford School Board Chair Ron Carvell, have expressed their disappointment and frustration about what they maintain are factual inaccuracies and misinformation.

Hoping to expand transparency, Huizenga and Carvell recently spoke to The Cabinet about fairness and positivity versus unfair criticism.

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“I think it’s a combination of things,” Huizenga said regarding some of the ongoing issues in the district. “The way I was appointed is a big problem. People think I was thrusted upon them. They were promised certain things. They were promised a process. I was brought in as an interim. And very quickly after that, the board decided to go ahead and make a permanent decision, without putting together a committee, without bringing in other candidates, without giving the choice to other community members and the union and different constituents and stakeholders to have a say in it. They feel like they were promised that.”

“I will tell you this,” Carvell said. “And I’ve said it. I was one of the ones who voted to move forward. Unanimously, the board decided to not go through that process. But we did do interviews to bring her on. We did know the field. We did do some vetting. And to be clear, we had two public meetings before we went into a full-time contract that no one spoke on.”

Carvell is quick to add that he takes ownership of “bringing her on.”

“I will own that and so will the five other members of the current board,” he said. “Because it was not just flipping a switch. In our initial search for an interim, it was hard to find anyone and we found one way in Massachusetts. We did a long search. There are other districts struggling. And we’ve done the searches before, and we didn’t get what we were looking for, but spent the money. The board, under its own authority, had the decision to do it. Was it a bad decision? I think what I would say here is, I wish we had time to do it a little bit differently, but we did not. And we had to make a choice.”

Carvell said he was named chair of the school board and as such, has to make decisions that are not easy or popular.

“I’m put in this seat to make decisions as my own vote, but every board member had their say when we did this and it was a unanimous decision to bring her on and know this is where we were going to go,” he said. “We knew we were going to feel this. We knew we were going to have to work and collaborate. We knew we were going to have these issues. I think that’s the board’s fault. It’s not the superintendent’s fault. The board made that decision collectively and the board made that decision unanimously. And the board owns that. Just like they’ve owned every decision in the past. But we’re here now. And we’ve got to go to the next step in education.”

Huizenga nodded her head “no” as the expression, “fair shake,” was raised.

“Absolutely, I feel like I’m not getting a fair shake. I struggle with that every day. I have never worked so hard in a position. I sat with hundreds of community members, teachers, business owners, the Rotary, the Chamber of Commerce. I spoke at the Rotary. And I’ve interviewed so many different people as part of my entry plan, and I said this in my podcast, ‘What do you think the strengths of Milford are? What are the areas that we need to improve? What’s going to make us best in class?’ I took all of that information and I put forward an educational program that literally almost gave every single person everything that they wanted.

But what I have to own in this, as the board owns my appointment, why I have to own is the pace at which we moved, and it was fast. It was very, very fast.”

Huizenga said another issue was the light that was shined on the district data, that illuminated the “good, the bad, or the ugly.”

“I did that,” she said. “And I think people were taken aback by that. And there were some missteps, even throughout the budget process. For example, this was the first time as a district that we ever put out such a detailed and transparent budget, but we put out all the wages with everyone’s name attached. We had a situation where we weren’t able to get to all the members of the faculty particularly in the paraprofessional association, letting them know that there were going to be cuts to the budget being put out publicly. I have to own that. So that misstep got a lot of people very upset.”

And along the way, Huizenga expressed she’s tried her best to be communicative, but it wasn’t enough, and she said, “To get people to really understand the enormous moving parts, they were shifting and reallocating and moving things to different places so that I could give people, social workers, put in reading specialists, lower class sizes, put new programs in place for special education that we needed desperately because kids weren’t being properly serviced, so that was a lot.”

She also touted putting a new English and language arts program, as well as new professional development opportunities for staff members.

“The new mechatronics program at the high school, the new externship program at the high school, in what system do you see that much ‘new’ in a matter of 10 months? It doesn’t happen,” she said. “Most wards would never deal with the political heat and people told me, ‘If you do this, you’re going to have a significant outcry.’ This runs deep into the community. These people live in the community. They work in the community. And I had to wrestle with – is that what’s best for kids? I want to be really clear. My only agenda here in Milford is kids first. And yes, we have to rally as adults around what’s best for kids. We may not always agree with that. But we can do it in a respectful way and in a way that’s not disagreeable or contentious.”

Huizenga shared a story about going to Heron Pond’s opening day ceremony, where every grade level – second through fifth-graders – had to share with the entire community, and all 595 kids and the faculty, their hopes and dreams for the new school year.

“And common themes of the kids were ‘fill each other’s buckets,’ ‘be kind,’ ‘show kindness to everyone,’ ‘have a growth mindset,’ ‘be a helping hand,’ all of these things, and I was sitting there, thinking we could learn so much from children,” she said. “It made me feel so proud. And then it also made me feel that we have a lot to learn.”

Huizenga is poised for a successful school year, but many ask why there is such a fixation on defeatism.

“What are we fighting about?” she asked. “As Ron pointed out, even in the board meeting, Ms. Walker said, ‘We’ve been asking for this for years.’ All of the things that I’ve put in place – I have the transcripts from meeting with the teachers. They said ‘We need these things. We need more professional development. We need more supports at the school level. We know that morale has been down. We didn’t have a contract.’ I got two contracts ratified last year, in addition to all of this. No superintendent has done this in this district.”

“We got a strategic plan made. We had 80 people community-wide, higher education, students, parents, faculty, administrators, all part of building this. And 10 years ago, was the last time they had a strategic plan – they had 28 people,” she continued. “So, when people say, ‘Oh, she’s not inclusive,’ or ‘She doesn’t garner feedback,’ there’s no evidence that proves that I haven’t. I built a budget based on the feedback of the teachers and the community.”

There has been a shift in Huizenga’s approval among members of the community, based largely on a few short weeks of school.

“One hundred percent,” she said “Yes, because it is a community-developed plan. Last year, I also did a community-wide survey. And in it, I said, ‘Which parts of the plan from 2010 do you feel have been implemented?’ And less than 50% of what was in this plan had actually been implemented. That was nine, 10 years ago. This new plan can’t be a shelf-warmer. It can’t be something that collects dust. We have to move forward on it. It’s exciting what the possibilities are. Not just for some kids, but for all kids. That’s the goal – more inclusion. More choice and voice in their education.”

As for what the board wanted, Carvell talked about the “100-day plan.”

“When we brought her in, that plan was to get the superintendent’s office out of the silo,” he said. “The superintendent’s office has been in a silo for years. We went from a part-time superintendent, to another superintendent who was just wasn’t moving the district. We do a lot on history, ‘what we’ve always done,’ or ‘we’ve always done this,’ and there’s this decline. So, we said, we need a change. The board made that decision – good, bad or indifferent to the superintendent or fair or not fair, we did make that decision and we did dump it on her to go.”

“But also, in her 100-day plan, it was to try to do as much as you can with bringing all these people in,” Carvell continued. “Let’s all understand and work better together. And I think we see it. I do get a lot of comments. In emails and conversations, ‘the bus stop didn’t go the right way, students not getting their schedules.’ Not this year. People have said, ‘things went so smoothly. What am I missing?’ As a person in this community and a board member, that’s a question and you’ve heard it at the meetings.”

“This has been a smooth start,” Huizenga said. “With all the new staff, new programs, new schedules at Jacques, at Heron Pond, at the middle school, which was completely restructured, new curriculum. We have had the smoothest start. So how are we able to do that is something is terribly amiss?”

Sometimes, both Huizenga and Carvell shared, it is difficult to hear the good above all the commotion.

“Last spring, it was like Armageddon was coming,” she said. “Milford schools were going to crumble. Milford schools are stronger today. We’re going in the right direction. I’d just like a little benefit of the doubt. Give me a chance.”

“Our buildings will fall down before the system falls down. That’s our next concern,” Carvell said.

With an arc toward positivity, there are still some in the community who haven’t gotten past Huizenga’s swift entrance.

“It’s discouraging because that comes across so much louder than so many of the good things,” she said. “There’s so much more to come. The strategic plan has barely been implemented and we’ve already done so much towards it. To even lay the groundwork – most districts don’t enter with a strategic plan in the same position that we are. We had to do a massive staffing restructuring because if we didn’t, we couldn’t fulfill this plan. This plan requires certain systems, structures, staffing and unless we have those things in place, it would have been impossible for us to say this is going to do anything other than what the 2010 plan did.”

“And from a board perspective on that, the superintendent has been put in a position that she has accountability to what we have done,” Carvell said. “We’ve given her the tools, the budget. The board has worked at it, and she’s got to implement that. The board supports her putting these decisions in and restructuring and doing that because that’s the end game of the goal. The strategic plan and a better education system.”

Carvell added that Huizenga, “Has a challenge from the board. I’ve been on the board a long time, and there has not been a good evaluation process of anything, and there will be with the superintendent because the structure has to work as a group. We have to have this system work smoothly and effectively because then we can put more attention to what’s in that classroom.”

Huizenga circled back to one misconception that has left her exasperated.

“Ninety-nine percent of the unions did not vote no confidence,” she said. “Ninety-nine percent of people who went to an afterschool meeting voted no confidence. It needs to be clear. That 99% of a small group of staff members voted made that vote. There are 432 members of this district, and 99% did not go to that meeting. It is continuously put out in every article. It’s simply not true.”

“And even the person who made the comment at the board meeting, the 99%, they came up after the meeting and said it was 99% of people who attended a meeting,” Huizenga said. “That was also clarified the board minutes. It’s perspective, right? Then the entire community and the entire state of New Hampshire thinks that the Milford public schools have no confidence in their superintendent. I think there are a lot of people excited about the changes and they know they’re good for kids. It’s also very scary and very hard to come out and say ‘no, I agree with this,’ when you’ve got such a loud contingency of people who are going to slam you for maybe moving in different direction than we have moved in the past.”