Questionable executive session concerned Powden contract, evaluation

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2019 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Sue Ceglowski of the Vermont School Boards Association walks the TRSU board through the Open Meeting Law. Photos by Shawn Cunningham unless otherwise noted

In the five weeks since Superintendent Meg Powden told The Telegraph that the executive session of the May 2 TRSU board meeting was  “cited properly” and said she didn’t have to give any more information than that, the board of the Two Rivers Supervisory Union has admitted violating the Open Meeting Law, changed its story twice and disclosed that the session was actually about Powden’s contract and evaluation.

And then there was the retroactive action.

At the board’s June 6 monthly meeting, Sue Ceglowski of the Vermont School Boards Association, gave a 30-minute presentation on the Open Meeting Law. Following that, chairman Paul Orzechowski moved to “correcting errors,” an item that had been added to the agenda earlier that evening.  The “correcting” included having the board retroactively find that discussing the subject of the May 2 session in public “would clearly put the supervisory union or the superintendent at a substantial disadvantage.”

What is unclear is why Powden’s contract is again a topic of behind-the-scenes discussion since it was offered to her in another illegal session four months earlier.

Board member Joe Fromberger reads from a motion – just handed to him – to retroactively go into executive session.

Next, based on the new finding, Orzechowski asked for a retroactive motion to enter into executive session, but this time to discuss Powden’s contract and evaluation. This caused some confusion among a few members who thought they would actually be going into executive session. But Orzechowski explained that this retroactive action — in effect going back in time to the meeting in question and changing the way they went into executive session — was a way of acknowledging what they should have done and “curing” the violation.

Three weeks earlier, on May 16,  Orzechowski acknowledged the same violation with an entirely different story, telling the board that he had cited the motion incorrectly and that he should have made the board’s finding himself. No mention was made of Powden originally saying that the session had been cited correctly or that it is the superintendent’s office that puts the board’s agendas together.

Powden sits silently while board chair Paul Orzechowski reads a prepared statement about the board’s corrective actions

Powden did not attend the May 16 video conference when Orzechowski first took the blame for the violation. She was attending the Vermont Superintendents Association meeting at the Lake Morey Resort.  And at last week’s meeting, Powden sat silently, arms folded while Orzechowski, reading from a prepared statement, acknowledged the errors and offered the retroactive motions as “corrections.”

The Open Meeting Law training was precipitated by the Telegraph complaint of May 7 and confirmed most of the points alleged in it. This included the need to provide more information about an executive session in an agenda than “personnel” or “legal issues,” or just citing the Open Meeting Law exemption under which the session would held.

Ceglowski also explained how the two-step motion for contracts, negotiations and legal matters works. A board member must make a motion that discussing a topic in public would put the board or an individual at “a substantial disadvantage.” Discussion of the motion would mean that the board would have to know what the executive session was about before entering it.

Despite annual training sessions for the superintendent and board chairs, members have been given no advance knowledge of what they would be discussing in executive sessions and phrases like “so it won’t hold the board at a disadvantage” substituted for the legally required discussion.

Because of this, The Telegraph filed a multi-meeting complaint on June 4 alleging eight knowing and intentional violations of the Open Meeting Law over the past nine months. Part of the cure spelled out in the law for these illegal sessions is to revisit decisions made as a result of those sessions and either ratify or void them. These would include 2.75 percent raises for non-bargaining staff as well as Powden’s 2-year contract and 4 percent raise. A second part requires adopting measures to prevent future violations.

At the May 16 meeting, when Ceglowski’s session was announced, members of the TRSU board had suggested that the session be held in a venue large enough for members of the boards of the Green Mountain Unified and Ludlow-Mt. Holly Unified Union school districts to attend. The SU, however, apparently did nothing to encourage attendance aside from its usual email distribution of the agenda. And nothing in that email pointed to training except the single item on the agenda attachment. In addition, the training was held at the same time as the Cavendish Town Elementary arts night and concert.

On Monday June 10, the Supervisory Union announced it will hold a special TRSU board meeting from 5:30 to 6 p.m. on Wednesday June 12 in the Ludlow Elementary band room. The agenda for the session lists “Open Meeting Law – correction of errors” as the only business of the meeting which would allow the board a little less than 1o minutes per allegation. The Ludlow-Mt. Holly board is scheduled to meet at 6 p.m. in the same room for its regular monthly meeting. The agenda on the website on Wednesday morning showed no item for Open Meeting Law violations.

There will also be a special meeting of the board of the GMUSD at 6 p.m. on Thursday June 13 at the Green Mountain High School. On Tuesday afternoon, TRSU released an agenda for that meeting identical to the one for TRSU, showing the only items as “correction of errors.”

If all three meetings are being convened to “correct errors” it would appear that the Supervisory Union is getting ahead of the process since the law gives the boards the responsibility to decide whether a violation occurred and how it should be corrected.

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  1. Suzanne Waldren says:

    Felista, thank you very much for this information. I have been at a loss as to where to start in addressing some very unprofessional behavior by an educator. It doesn’t serve my child or any of the other children to be complacent.

    No parent wants to have their child come home riddled with anxiety, crying and afraid of being shamed (sometimes publicly) when they show up to class on any given day. It’s discouraging to hear from other parents that, “It won’t do any good to address your complaints because they won’t be heard and they won’t do anything about it.”

    We have been homeowners in Chester since 2005 and homeschooled, except for a 3-year stint in Middlebury, VT. My child had his first public school experience at Mt. Abe last year and had a wonderful, enriching experience. I was hopeful that he would experience the same thing at GM when we decided to move back to the area. He tells me almost on a weekly basis, he wants to go back to where he felt seen, respected and challenged academically. I have been less than impressed with our experience in our first year at this school.

    Katie, in my short year back here, I too have observed that an overhaul is needed.

    Randy, thank you for speaking up for all of us! Time to speak up for change. It’s happening at the national level (speaking of those in charge going unchecked), and we can do it at the state and town level too!

  2. Stacey Dunich says:

    I went to high school in New Jersey and I had seen a LOT of messed up things. Meg Powden has even surpassed anything I’ve seen down country. Her chain of command is beyond insane. The school board, superintendent and schools are SUPPOSED to work like our three branches government. With checks and balances. Superintendent is executive branch, school is judiciary and school board is legislative branch. I may have school and school board mixed up sorry. But Basic facts are she knows nothing of Vermont public meeting laws(school board meetings) or Roberts rules of order( how meetings are run). Both things you should know VERY well if you are going to be in a superintendent position.

    I agree with other parents and it is time we stand as a community and demand answers. But my question is will she show up?

  3. Felista Sutherland says:

    I have submitted my complaints and after my conversation with one of the Agency’s investigators I suggest you do the same.

    The Vermont Agency of Education has investigative authority regarding reports of unprofessional conduct of licensed educators and administrators. If you feel a particular teacher or administrator’s conduct has been unprofessional within the meaning of 16 V.S.A. § 1698, you may submit a written complaint to the Agency at the following email address: AOE.EDInfo@vermont.gov. Please include as much detail as possible and any supporting/relevant documentation.

  4. Michelle Messina says:

    Randy Miles – very well said. Our family moved here 3 years ago because we needed a break from homeschooling and this specific area was applauded for it’s phenomenal schools. Within the first couple of weeks we quickly experienced why our school district was one of the best in the state. Since this year, I have noticed things have definitely spiraled downhill as you shared in your previous comment. I couldn’t agree more. We are losing and have already lost some significant Paraeducators, Special Educators and teachers who have worked hard over the years to help build these great schools. This unfortunately, is still taking place as contracts that were previously offered to long standing gifted educators are now being withdrawn, because these educators refuse to support a truly flawed education system run by Meg Powden. It’s just now what these teachers stand for. They have bravely spoken up and practiced their rights, and as a result they are being fired. How can this be legal??? Who can we turn to with these significant issues taking place? The board allows Powden to rule over them and they continue to support her. I thought the board is supposed to keep Powden accountable for implementing her job correctly. I have tried to share the concerns of our community on behalf of teachers, parents and children including community members at a school board meeting but I was told at that meeting by Meg Powden I was not allowed to share any concerns publicly before meeting with her first and following HER proper chain of command. Directly after this board meeting in April had taken place, our group of concerned parents have continually contacted Powden and her secretary in an attempt to set up that meeting. We have yet to hear back with a scheduled time to meet or at all for that matter. Currently, this has left many families with several unanswered questions one of the biggest being, how do we proceed with our children’s education from here? Meg Powden is in a very powerful position to continue making poor decisions and ignoring major ongoing issues at hand that negatively impact our teachers and children directly. The saddest part is we are paying her a significant amount to do just this!!! IT’S TIME FOR CHANGE!!!!! She needs to be replaced by someone who can sincerely implement her job and would be in that position for the right reasons.

  5. Randy Miles says:

    I am glad to see things coming out into the light. Our family moved to this town in part for the schools. We have been saddened to see the down hill spiral of our schools. I have seen new good teachers leave because of how things are run from the top seats and their ways of doing things?

    The connection and voice of the teachers who know and teach our kids best have not only been silenced but retribution has been used to quiet their views and opinions.(Unbelievable) The communication between teacher student and parent is being squashed and that is a travesty. Our family has seen and heard of other situations that were not acted on by the Superintendent and principals. At least in any manner that made sense.

    To me it shows the buddy system and not what is right or wrong or even in the best interest of the schools or situation. I am glad I am not the lone wolf any more. It will help for more people to talk about our schools if we ever hope to make them good again! The state also bears burden to some of the things that have happened but our local Superintendent and Principals should be advocating for our best interest and not being a follower of down hill progress!

    Our schools have fallen in ratings over time and more and more kids are being home schooled or moving because of the wrong people in jobs within our school system. It is time to bring in qualified leaders and not one’s who will do as they are told. Ones who will bring our teachers and community to a better place. Schools that move forward not back, leaders that know what and how to do things! I hope others agree with some of what I am ranting about. Use you voice or change will never come! Thank you to all our teachers for all your hard work with our kids!

  6. Michelle Messina says:

    Kate M. I fully agree with you. We need to rally up parents and hold Powden accountable for not doing her job and not taking any responsibility on her part in all of this. Powden has been asked to stay from parents who have had meetings to help address the issues going on between their children, parents and leaders in our school. This is also true for teachers and staff members trying to communicate delicately the ongoing issues they too, are having. Instead Powden walks out and refuses to implement her job on everyone. Parents and teachers are left not knowing who they can turn to when clearly there are unresolved issues going on with their children and leaders of the school. Powden claims we need to go through the proper chain of command and these parents and teachers have done this. Still these ongoing issues are not being addressed by someone who makes a lot of money and will unfortunately be with us for another two years. It’s time for her to leave.

  7. Katie M. says:

    Seems to me parents need to get out to rally together. With the superintendent not being an active participant in meetings and letting others take the fall instead of being accountable for her own actions, I vote no raise, no contract, just termination. We need an overhaul.

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