Joint Cavendish/Chester school board meeting turns on issues of transparency, trust

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2018 Telegraph Publishing LLC

At a meeting of the Cavendish Town Elementary School Board – on its own and in a joint session with the Chester-Andover Elementary School on Tuesday night – a number of Cavendish residents expressed misgivings about the intentions of administration of the new school district.

Their suspicions were bolstered when Two Rivers Supervisory Union Superintendent Meg Powden noted that the position of principal of Cavendish Elementary, which was to be cut and then seemingly restored at a budget meeting last week. would in fact be a one year “interim” position pending further board action in the future.

Superintendent Meg Powden, center, talks about the middle school agenda item that brought out a crowd of more than 20 concerned residents. Photos by Shawn Cunningham

“This is the first time I’ve heard about this,” said Doug McBride, a board member of both the Cavendish Elementary School and new Green Mountain Unified School District. He had also attended last Tuesday’s meeting where it appeared that the position had been restored.

Powden said that they needed a year to “sort out what’s best for the district.”

“There has to be a way to put budgets together without people thinking we’re going behind their backs,” said Powden. “It’s not that anybody is trying to be sneaky or not transparent.”

But Cavendish resident Christine Balch countered, pointing to a closed door session held by the Finance Committee of the new district. “There was no legitimate legal reason for that executive session,” she said. “This lends itself to an image that you are not being transparent.”

Powden said that the session was held due to a potential contractual issue in budgeting, that the meeting concerned a reduction in force and that those employees had not been informed yet.

The Telegraph has also questioned the legality of executive sessions that were part of the budgeting process and held under one or more of the exemptions to the law having to do with “personnel.”  But in response to Telegraph questions at the end of the Dec. 19, 2017 meeting held at CTES, Powden said that an executive session having to do with dismissal was not required under the school’s labor contracts.

In a Dec. 22 email, The Chester Telegraph informally pointed to the letter of Vermont’s Open Meeting Law and asked the board to explain what had happened at the board’s executive session of Nov. 14, 2017.

When more than two weeks passed without an answer, it was also noticed that there was a closed door session held by the Finance Committee on Nov. 29, 2017 under the agenda description “FY 2019 Budget – Personnel.”

On Jan. 9, The Telegraph delivered a formal complaint alleging that the Two Rivers Supervisory Union and Green Mountain Unified School District violated the Open Meeting Law by holding executive sessions to discuss plans to downsize employment under exemptions having to do with the evaluation, disciplining and dismissal of individual employees.

That complaint is on the agenda for this evening’s GMUSD board meeting scheduled for 6 p.m. at the Green Mountain High School Library Learning Commons.

Middle school muddle, school closing worries

Transparency issues notwithstanding, most of those attending the joint session were concerned about the “Middle School” agenda item, which also turned into an transparency issue.

CAES board chair Marilyn Mahusky explains how the discussion on middle schools came onto the agenda

Board member Marilyn Mahusky of Chester said she had asked to begin a general discussion of whether there were good educational reasons to expand the middle school to include sixth graders from both of the district’s elementary schools.

Mahusky noted that this came out of a retreat the Chester-Andover board did a couple of years ago, before the merger when the discussion was only between CAES and Green Mountain.

Audience members asked that, if the sixth grade was moved to middle school, would that make Cavendish Elementary less viable and thus vulnerable to being closed?

A number of those attending questioned the district’s intentions regarding Cavendish Elementary and asking what safeguards existed to prevent a closure. Powden said that after four years it would be up to the board, which – according to proportional representation – has three Cavendish members to Chester’s six.

“If you live in Cavendish, Chester calls it,” said Cavendish resident Margo Caulfield. “Whatever Chester wants, Chester gets.”

Board members noted that all members of the Act 46 Study Committee had affirmed the value of keeping local elementary schools open, but no one mentioned the discussions that neither Chester-Andover nor Cavendish Elementary could accommodate all of the K-6 students from both, making the point moot.

Caulfield, head of the Cavendish Historical Society, said that when Green Mountain High School was being formed, it was supposed to be placed closer to Cavendish instead of at the far end of Chester. She added that promised transportation also never materialized.

“Cavendish was screwed over by Chester,” said Caulfield, noting that older people who remember that time would be voting on the budget.

An issue of trust and another body shuffle

Fred Marin, a Cavendish Elementary and GMUSD board member, noted that a serious issue was that of trust.

“Big time,” came the reply from an audience member.

But Marin added that in his time on several school boards he has never found anyone “who is out to get anybody else.”

Appealing for more time to craft a budget, Marin said that there is no law mandating a vote on Town Meeting Day. Marin urged the board to take its time crafting the budget and explaining to voters.

As the meeting came to a close, Cavendish resident and Chester-Andover Elementary teacher Amanda Tyrrell called for unity.

“We need to come together and put aside the past. I’m sorry it happened. I wasn’t alive then. This is for the kids,” said Tyrrell.

“I’m really excited about the Spanish opportunity,” replied CAES Principal Katherine Fogg referring to a program that had been taken off the table a few weeks ago, but seems to have re-appeared.

On Jan. 2, Powden announced that she had eliminated the elementary Spanish language instruction – a cornerstone of the Act 46 merger –  from the budget in favor of a third grade classroom teacher for CAES.

At the time, Fogg said,  “We can’t have it all,” adding that the instructional time afforded by the third grade classroom teacher was more important than language instruction.

But one week later, Fogg said that, in a “tough call,” that classroom teacher had now been eliminated in favor of a dean of students to take responding to “student matters” off Fogg’s plate.

As of that meeting, only one of the 32 “must include” “educational improvements” listed in Appendix A of the state approved merger plan – “Principals become instructional leaders and can offload some administrative duties” – had been acted upon.

Explanations of these and perhaps more budget changes can be expected at the Finance Committee and board meetings this evening at Green Mountain High School.

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Filed Under: Act 46CTES Board of DirectorsEducation NewsFeaturedTwo Rivers Supervisory Union agenda

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