Oversight or micromanagement on TRSU board?

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2018 Telegraph Publishing LLC

While some members of the Two Rivers Supervisory Union board at its Sept. 6 meeting questioned several purchases and initiatives recommended by Superintendent Meg Powden and her staff, board chair Marilyn Mahusky expressed concern that the board was micromanaging and needs to look at its role in governance.

Board member Dan Buckley questions the acceptance of a new software program by teachers. Photos by Shawn Cunningham

The largest sticking point was Ogment, a curriculum management program that Curriculum Director Michael Eppolito has advocated. The company that developed the software is offering it free for the first year with the following five years costing $8,000 each. The SU central office had proposed to pay a large portion of the contract out of a state grant for transition expenses related to its Act 46 mergers. The disposition of those funds has become a bone of contention over who owns the funds: The supervisory union or one or both of the two school districts.

Powden told the board that there is a memorandum of understanding ready to be signed and that the Integrated Field Review of the schools had suggested that the SU needs to work on its curriculum.  Powden called Ogment a “more fluid tool” that could update curriculum easily.

Board member Dan Buckley was concerned that the software would not be something that the faculty and staff would want to use and board chair Mahusky asked if it was teacher-tested and had been rolled out for people to look at.

“No,” said Powden, “Michael (Eppolito) hasn’t had a chance to do that.”

Buckley asked that if the schools did not like the program, could they get out of the six-year contract.

“No,” replied Powden.

Referring to loose-leaf notebooks of curriculum that Eppolito has said “sit on the shelf,” board member Fred Marin asked if there is a real need for the software and does it satisfy that need saying that the information could “sit in the cloud just as it sits on the shelf.”

Board member Joe Fromberger suggested that the cost be put into the budget, but warned that if the budget is not approved, the obligation would still exist and Powden would need to be prepared to cut elsewhere to pay for the software.

Asking if the SU could negotiate a shorter contract, Buckley said he would be much more supportive of Ogment if teachers were supporting it rather than “having it shoved down their throats.”

Board chair Marilyn Mahusky, center, thought Buckley’s comment was inappropriate.

Mahusky objected to Buckley’s statement as inappropriate.

“The things that work best are the ones that people on the ground floor get behind,” said Buckley, citing 40 years in the software business, “the ones that don’t work are the ones that come down from on high. Then a couple of years after, there’s a new program.”

“I would counsel delay,” said Fromberger. “Expose the staff to it … if I hear that the teachers like it, that it makes their life easier, I would be behind it.”

“We need to have a conversation on the role of the board,” said Mahusky. “We’ve spent a half hour or 40 minutes talking about $40,000 over six years. Our job is to do policy, to put together the budget.” Mahusky said that the board hires the experts to make these decisions.

“That doesn’t mean we blindly accept any spending item that comes along,” said Buckley.

Board retreat and transition funds

Another initiative that was among the list that the SU proposed to pay for with the transition grant is a board retreat. Among the things the retreat is aimed at producing is a new vision statement for the supervisory union.

At last month’s meeting, the idea was discussed with Sue Ceglarski of the Vermont School Boards Association, who deferred to Sue Holson who works with boards on such events. The board tried to call Holson during the meeting but was unable to reach her.

In lieu of Holson’s presentation, Mahusky told the board that the VSBA could provide services at various levels from a high end, “soup to nuts” service costing $7,500 down to facilitating a retreat at $150 per hour.

Fromberger questioned the need, noting that the current vision statement is on every agenda and he hasn’t looked at it in a long time. “It’s not the guiding document it was supposed to be,” said Fromberger, “do we need to spend $7,500 to put this together just to have it ignored.”

Mahusky told the meeting that the CAES board had done a retreat and used the vision that came out of that as a guide for working on the budget. She noted that Mill River has done the vision work and is doing exciting things.

“Our schools are poised to move forward and we need to support them,” said Mahusky.

Chester-Andover Elementary Principal Katherine Fogg and Green Mountain Principal Lauren Fierman were supportive of the vision process, with Fogg saying that revisiting it every five years gives the community a chance to feel a part of the school. Fierman said that best practices for planning have narrowed the window to three years, but while a vision may be reviewed, it need not be changed. What is important is that a vision be “inspirational but also measurable,” said Fierman.

The board will make an appointment to speak with Holson by phone during its Thursday, Oct. 4 meeting.

The fate of the transition grant remained up in the air as Fromberger continued to assert that the full $150,000 grant belongs to the Green Mountain district and asked for a legal opinion on this position. Also on hold are the SU’s job descriptions, which were sent back to the central office for a number of corrections.

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