TRSU floats policies to govern its boards Move comes in the wake of questions by board members

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2019 Telegraph Publishing LLC

In the wake of a number of recent meetings in which Two Rivers Supervisory Union and Green Mountain Unified School District board members have been skeptical and even critical of the decisions and priorities of administrators, the “senior management” of the supervisory union is proposing policies defining the relationship between the boards and the superintendent and requiring annual evaluation of the board. Click here to see the text of the policies.

The new policies were requested by TRSU senior management which includes Superintendent Meg Powden. Telegraph file photos.

Policy CO8 and Policy CO9 will get a first read and be discussed at Thursday’s TRSU board meeting. They are also likely appear on the board agendas for the Ludlow-Mt. Holly Unified Union School District and GMUSD later this month.

The policies are models developed by the Vermont School Boards Association. The VSBA staff (with the help of the Vermont School Board Insurance Trust, which insures schools)  puts together such model policies for the use of its member school boards.

According to Sue Ceglowski of VSBA, there are three levels of such models policies: “required,” “recommended” and “for consideration.” Required policies are mandated by statute while recommended policies are not mandatory, but considered necessary. Ceglowski characterized “for consideration” policies as “best practices,” which don’t have the legal details of the other two categories.

Policies move from committee without quorum

Policy CO8 is in the “recommended” category and calls on the board to recognize the superintendent’s “experience and expertise in instructional and administrative matters” while the superintendent “recognizes and values” the board’s experience in issues around the school system and “… connections and responsibility to the community …”

VSBA’s Sue Ceglowski speaking to the TRSU board in August 2018

There is also a paragraph about respecting the “confidentiality of communication in both directions” while working toward “open communication and trust.” And it requires that board members who receive citizen concerns refer them to “appropriate levels of authority.”

Policy CO9 is in the “for consideration” category and is fairly light on details. Read one way, it would require that boards participate in “goal-setting and self-evaluation activities” in response to a recommendation by the superintendent “at least annually.” It goes on to say that particular attention will be given to “board goals and performance” in 10 areas, including board interpersonal communications skills, board-superintendent relations and board in-service training.

Responding to that interpretation, Ceglowski said the intent is “to give a board a process to set goals for itself annually and it sets the stage for the superintendent to make a recommendation.”

The two policies were presented to the TRSU policy committee at its Jan. 22 meeting when only two of five members were present.  Lack of a quorum notwithstanding, TRSU Director of Educational Advancement Linda Waite told the committee that “senior management” requested they review the policies for adoption.

According to unapproved minutes of the meeting, the two members present did not recommend CO8 for adoption but the minutes noted that the policy would still be forwarded to the board for consideration. The two committee members, chair Fred Marin and Kate Lamphere,  recommended CO9 for adoption, saying they felt that it would be good for the board to “get out of the weeds” and back to their purpose.

Boards grapple with different governance styles

In recent months, Marilyn Mahusky, who chairs both the GMUSD and TRSU boards, has complained about “micro-management” by those boards, arguing that the board hires education experts to run the schools and the boards should defer to their experience and competence.

TRSU board chair Marilyn Mahusky at a meeting earlier this year. Mahusky said she found comments on a software purchase by member Dan Buckley, left, inappropriate.

But board questions about administration priorities arose during the Act 46 process and blossomed when the pre-merger TRSU board rejected a 5.58 percent raise the SU had budgeted for Superintendent Meg Powden. The questions continued during the first budget season for the new GMUSD board with the SU’s proposals to cut school nursing staffs  and replace one principal for each of the elementary schools with a single supervising principal and two “deans of students.”

Once that idea had been shelved, the SU proposed an interim rather than permanent principal for Cavendish, sparking suspicions among Cavendish residents that their school was endangered. The interim principal idea was also turned down by the board.

More recently, the SU’s intention to use funds from an Act 46 transition grant – earmarked for school district use – strained board relations further. Among the expenditures proposed for the transition funds were retreats, books for staff to read across the two districts, software — including a curriculum mapping application that remained controversial — and new furniture for Fletcher Farm. The furniture was rejected in the FY19 budget and its reappearance stirred ire among several board members.

And then, at its Jan. 17 meeting, board member Jeff Hance asserted that a “gag order” exists with the CAES principal having made it clear to her staff that talking with members of the school board would result in discipline.

CAES Principal Katherine Fogg denied Hance’s allegations saying, “I would never say that.”

Mahusky maintains that the board has stepped outside its function. Recently during a meeting in which several members questioned the need for CAES to have an assistant principal, Mahusky said that this was the first time in nine years on school boards that she was “not comfortable being on this board anymore.”

The TRSU board will meet at 6 p.m. on Thursday Feb. 7 in the conference room of the Roost building at Fletcher Farm, 609 VT-103, in Ludlow. While the room is small and seating is limited, the meeting is open to the public.

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