GMUSD board replaces Mahusky as chair

By Shawn Cunningham
© Telegraph Publishing, LLC

In a surprise move last Thursday night, March 21, the Green Mountain Unified School District board voted 5-3 to replace board chair Marilyn Mahusky of Chester with Joe Fromberger from Andover.

Superintendent Meg Powden counts the votes. Photos by Shawn Cunningham

The move came at the board’s reorganization session after Town Meeting Day in which newcomer Lois Perlah was elected to a three-year term on the board as was Mike Studin and Rick Alexander was elected to finish out an existing unfinished term for one-year. The GMUSD board governs Green Mountain High School and the Chester-Andover and Cavendish Town Elementary Schools.

The first order of business last Thursday was to elect the board chair. Member Jeff Hance of Chester nominated Fromberger. Cavendish member Kate Lamphere nominated Mahusky and Hance called for a paper ballot.

When the votes were collected, Two Rivers Supervisory Union Superintendent Meg Powden announced the results and Fromberger conducted the remainder of the meeting. Mahusky, who was attending the meeting by phone, congratulated the new chairman and nominated Deb Brown as vice chair. Brown was elected unanimously.

Board member Jeff Hance listens to a board training that advocated a ‘hands off’ approach to the administration.

“It was time for a change ” Hance told The Telegraph in an interview on Monday. “I don’t know where we are going, but we needed somebody different in the leadership role.”

The change in leadership comes on the heels of differing understandings of the role of the board since it was created out of the Act 46 merger in 2017.

Mahusky has maintained that the board tries to micromanage the school system. She has been generally supportive of Powden, while others have resisted a management model that puts the board’s interaction and oversight of the schools at arms length, with almost complete control of the schools in the hands of the superintendent.

Role of the board

From early days of the new district, board members questioned decisions and expenses that many described as heavy on administration and not in keeping with educational opportunities outlined during Act 46 merger discussions.

Members bristled at the expenditure of Act 46 transition grant funds for items including faculty/administration as well as board retreats, classroom furniture for the Supervisory Union building and a six-year contract for software to build curriculum (which the administration admitted was non-existent on a district-wide level after nearly six years with a curriculum director. They also disagree with centralized nursing and elementary principal plans that would have reduced the number of RNs in the district and cut the permanent principal at Cavendish Elementary in favor of a “dean of students” and then an “interim principal.”

With seats on both the district board and the finance committee, Joe Fromberger and Marilyn Mahusky clashed more than a few times during the budget process.

This came to a head at the Jan. 17 GMUSD meeting when members continued to question budgeting $74,000 for an assistant principal at Chester-Andover Elementary as a solution for behavioral problems on which Principal Katherine Fogg said she spends the majority of her time.

While several members asked whether an administrator or a behavior specialist was a better choice for the problem, Mahusky expressed her dismay.

“I’m just going to come out and say this: It feels to me that there are board members who are just really disrespectful and hostile to this process and I don’t understand why,” said Mahusky. “… it feels to me we have lost sight of our role as board members to focus on the educational outcomes of our students.”

Mahusky said she was “not comfortable being on this board anymore.” After that, the board, which had deadlocked on the new position, relented and approved it.

At the next TRSU board meeting, the administration brought forward policies to recognize the superintendent’s “experience and expertise in instructional and administrative matters” and calling for an annual board self-evaluation along guidelines developed by the superintendent. The board, including Mahusky, sent the policies back to the policy committee for clarification.

Hands off as ‘best practices’

Susan Holson, VSBA’s Director of Education begins the training session.

Following up on the proposed policies, Powden and Mahusky scheduled a late-February training session in which Susan Holson,  of the Vermont School Boards Association, told the GMUSD board that “best practice” was to defer to the judgment of the administration as experts and to support their decisions. This included refraining from asking questions that had been considered routine.

As an example, Holson pointed to the board’s questions about the senior class overnight trip to Boston discussed earlier in the meeting. The questions included how many chaperones would be on hand and whether there were accommodations for students who could not afford the trip. Holson said those questions were out of bounds since the administration has final approval over such trips.

Holson also advised the board to work on building trust among its members, although in meeting after meeting since the merger, members’ questions of trust and transparency have revolved around moves made or proposed by the administration.

The tension over the board’s role has also been playing itself out on the the TRSU board, which has also been chaired by Mahusky. Going forward however, Mahusky will no longer be a member of that board as Lamphere, Brown and Fromberger were tapped by the board to represent GMUSD with Fred Marin serving as an alternate in the event of a member’s absence.

School board veteran takes the reins

Fromberger, whose first term on one of the area’s school boards began in 1979, told The Telegraph over the weekend, that people have different leadership styles and that, that as GMUSD board chief,  he wants to concentrate on the business of the board and the education of the district’s children.

“Others want to plan for a great future,” said Fromberger, “I don’t intend to look at the distant future, 10 years from now, but at the next year, the budget that the voters approved.” Fromberger said he’s interested in seeing what is coming from the Vermont legislature in its education priorities and changes in education law. Calling his approach “more practical,” Fromberger said.  “I’m encouraged that the board is looking to do its best for the next generation.”

As to the roll of the board as laid out by Holson, Fromberger – who was unable to attend that meeting but has read the minutes – said, “If I had been there I would asked some questions as well.”

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