GM ‘better board’ training heavy on limitations Board association recommends 'hands off' posture toward administration

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2019 Telegraph Publishing LLC

The main event at last night’s Green Mountain Unified School District Board meeting was a training session for the board on being a board. Board chair Marilyn Mahusky told the meeting that she and Superintendent Meg Powden felt there was value in “bringing somebody in to help us be a better board.”

Susan Holson, VSBA’s Director of Education begins the training session. Photos by Shawn Cunningham

Susan Holson of the Vermont School Boards Association said she would introduce “best practices” for what boards should and shouldn’t do. While her authoritative presentation gave some the impression of being mandatory, on Tuesday, Holson told The Telegraph that these governance practices are generic and that each district is unique with its own history, legacy and results.

“Sometimes there’s value in tradition,” said Holson, “and sometimes maybe there’s a better way. We should encourage the board to discuss these things and come to a point that makes sense to them.”

On Monday night, Holson began by telling the board that the questions that they asked about the overnight senior trip to Boston (how many are going, how many chaperones, how will they handle students who can’t afford the $50 deposit, etc.) were “things you really don’t need to know.”

While the school board has always approved overnight trips in the past, Holson said that this was the purview of the administration and not the board and noted that the board has three jobs – assuring high quality education, getting a good return for the taxpayer’s investment and seeing that the system operates efficiently, effectively and ethically – all while taking a “hands off” approach to the actual workings of the school.

Holson made the analogy that school board members are like grandparents who want the best for their grandchildren (students, faculty and staff etc.) but must not interfere with the parents (the superintendent and administration) in raising them.

In the VSBA’s estimation, the board’s only point of contact would be Powden and that even the principals’ reports that have been given at board meetings should be “channeled through Meg,” for her to report. This would make meetings “a lot crisper,” said Holson.

Referring to the recent struggle over hiring an assistant principal for Chester-Andover Elementary, Holson said that the board needs to have enough trust in the administration to do what it recommends. In matters of managing faculty, staff, students and facilities, the superintendent is the CEO and mostly acts without board consultation.

While the board must pass on professional hires, Holson notes that this is financial oversight while the superintendent is responsible for providing an acceptable candidate. Mahusky asked about the role of a selection committee in the hiring of a principal.

Holson told the board that whether a committee is used – or not – and the composition of such a committee is up to the superintendent. Holson went on to say that it was “overreach” for the board to even ask how many candidates had applied for the position.

In an interview with The Telegraph on Tuesday, Holson said she was not with VSBA when the governance practices were written, but that typically there is a lot of collaboration with the Vermont Superintendents’ Association, Vermont Principals’ Association and the Vermont Special Education Association all of which are in the same building in Montpelier. In Holson’s tenure, such collaboration has included meetings and circulation of drafts to those other non-governmental organizations.

Board member Jeff Hance pushes back on the board’s role being ‘hands off’ when serious problems come to light.

In the VSBA’s governance scheme, the board is responsible for adopting a vision, goals and policies, providing resources and evaluating superintendent and district results.

“You should know nothing about curriculum,” said Holson. “You should know if the curriculum that your experts have chosen is satisfying the needs to get your students where they want to be … you’re going to get reports from your superintendent explaining how your children are progressing but it doesn’t mean you need to know how they are  learning math.”

Holson’s remarks did not go without pushback from board members, most notably Jeff Hance who, at the Jan. 17 meeting had asserted that teachers at CAES were under a “gag order” to keep them from talking to board members.

“As a grandpa,” said Hance, continuing Holson’s analogy, “I’m not going to sit there with an unfit parent and push the grandkid away who comes to me crying, saying no, no, you deal with your mom and dad.  I’m going to step in. Custody gets awarded to grandparents because of unfit parents.”

Holson replied, “If it’s real mistreatment, you direct them to the union rep. If they’re hungry and they want a snack and it’s too close to dinner time and you want to get involved, don’t.”

On a humorous note, Holson used a clip from The Music Man to show how the fractious small town school board in the musical is brought together in harmony as a barbershop quartet by Professor Harold Hill, the conman who sells band instruments promising to teach a town’s children to play. The running joke in the plot is that every time the board comes to demand Hill’s credentials he gets them to sing while he escapes. For Holson, when the board learns to sing together, they complement each other.

“The guy teaching them is a conman so that’s where the analogy ends,” said Holson

BRHS students aggressively recruited by other schools

‘We missed the boat,’ says board member Kate Lamphere regarding the recruitment of Black River Students

The board discussed the aggressive efforts of private and public schools to entice Black River High School students to enroll with them while GM is still planning for a school fair that will be held in Ludlow in May. The board heard that Mount St. Joseph has sent postcards not just to students in Ludlow and Mount Holly but also in Chester offering free 4th quarter tuition this year.

While some members of the board talked about forming a committee to work on the approach to Black River students, others spoke up for action. “We’ve already missed the boat,” said board member Kate Lamphere, “we can’t take time we don’t have.”

Board member Mike Studin notes there are parents within the district who are considering sending their children to other high schools.

Black River High School in Ludlow will close in June of 2020 as part of the Act 46 merger of Ludlow and Mount Holly. Students from those towns will have the choice of which high school they wish to attend and the Ludlow Mount Holly district will pay their tuition. Schools that recruit a larger number of those students will have more money to work with in the future.

Board member Mike Studin said that in addition to recruiting students there should be some attention to retaining the kids in the district now.  Studin noted that he has heard from a number of parents who are considering pulling their children out and sending them elsewhere for high school.

The board asked the administration to get moving on recruitment as soon as possible.

Police presence at meetings

In the wake of the recent lock down, Green Mountain High School officials have worked with security authorities and decided that in the future the only point of entry to the school for board meetings will be “the door by the flagpole,” and that there will be police presence at future meetings out of concern that a disgruntled person might bring a gun to the meeting.

Mahusky said she was uncomfortable with the prospect that people might be turned away from a public meeting. No cost for the police presence was discussed.

 

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  1. Ralph Pace says:

    The real pity about the remarks concerning what school board members should and should not do is very simple – the concept of local control (i.e., a school board can really do something) is a fabricated myth. Politicians run on it yet, when they reach Montpelier, heartily ensure that the state (along with the federal government) control the fiscal and curriculum of local schools is maintained and expanded. While some school boards do micro-manage, they often do it in response to administrative efforts to minimize their already small role in providing an education to our children.

  2. Stuart Lindberg says:

    The people’s elected representatives are elected to ask any question they want to ask. They are there to defend the interests of children, parents and taxpayers. They are not there to bend over and kiss the hind ends of these overpaid, tyrannical bureaucrats. We used to live in a free society where accountability was valued. What the hell is wrong with people? This is America, not the Soviet Union.

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