Editorial: The public wins out at GMUSD board

By Cynthia Prairie
©2019 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Democracy is a rough ‘n’ tumble and startling beautiful occurrence. And it is rare to witness it being wrenched back from darkness.

But last Thursday night, the board of the Green Mountain Unified School District did just that and handed a resounding victory to you, the public, when it voted, during a special meeting, to adhere to the state’s Open Meeting Law.

It was correcting errors it made on March 21, when it had gone into an illegally warned executive session — the scant information on the agenda was one error. Not only that, the board had voted to go into the closed door session even though it did not have enough information to make a specific finding that conducting business in public would be disadvantageous to the board or the person involved. As Chris Winters of the Secretary of State’s Office has said, “Such a finding requires a weighing of specific facts and circumstances that is impossible if you don’t know what you are voting on.”

Why Open Meetings Matter to You

These may seem like odd and technical infractions. But the state’s Open Meeting Law is there to protect you and your right to know about your governments’ business.  But several governing bodies have prevented you, the public, from knowing and speaking out about what was happening with your tax dollars.

The Chester Telegraph has uncovered a pattern of transparency violations, most committed by the board of the Two Rivers Supervisory Union and the Ludlow-Mt. Holly Unified Union School District, which indicates that keeping the public in the dark is endemic in the Two Rivers Supervisory Union.

The curtain was drawn tight on Wednesday night, when the board for the TRSU decided that all it would have to do to correct its violations would be to recite the law and vote to go into “retroactive executive session” and to “retroactively ratify” Superintendent Meg Powden’s two-year contract and her 4 percent raise to $134,000. Earlier this year, the public was shocked and surprised that these had been given to Powden. The reason for their surprise? The purpose of those executive sessions had not been properly identified on the agendas for the meetings in which they happened. That’s why the Open Meeting Law is important.

But on Wednesday night, the TRSU board ignored the Open Meeting Law’s simple proscribed “cure,” preferring to use a complex multi-motion charade of “retroactivity” to pretend as if the violations had not occurred. And they once again took your voice about what happened in private away from you.

Still, let’s  give a shout out to TRSU board members Dan Buckley and Mary Alberty, who voted to adhere to the law.

The board of the LMHUUSD followed the TRSU example shortly afterward. It was a sad evening for democracy.

Hope for the School Boards, Openness

Thursday’s meeting of the Green Mountain Unified School District board, however, was what democracy is all about. The board members weren’t coy, didn’t obfuscate and no one just went along just to get along.  Their conversation was polite, but there were questions and disagreement and members actually thought their ideas through out loud. In the end, they decided for the openness, for the public, for disclosure.

The board decided that, in its effort to meet state law, this Thursday, June 20, it will revisit the contracts that it passed back in March, which left some administrators concerned that the contracts would not be ratified. We urge the board to look closely at the contracts and to ratify them. These school employees got caught between an overly secret Supervisory Union and a school board trying to reform. Let’s not make them pay for the SU’s mistakes.

Also, the board voted to adopt specific measures to actually prevent future violations. Among these may be a new process whereby members are informed beforehand of the details behind a request to go into executive session so that they can make an informed decision about whether the closed meeting is necessary.

This will also allow them to make informed decisions. Up until now, members have been kept in the dark until they are in the executive session. At times, immediate decisions were sought. That is no way to manage organization, let alone our children’s future.

These items were supposed to be on the June 20 agenda. Strangely, they were not there when it was issued on Friday afternoon.  Something is terribly amiss here.

The board will also continue to learn about the Open Meeting Law and its responsibility to the public through that law. It’s an ongoing process, but one that makes democracy stronger for all of us.

As for The Telegraph, our work on this front isn’t done.

The Telegraph invites the boards of the TRSU and LMHUUSD to revisit their actions of last Wednesday night and adopt the state-mandated cure. Currently, we are pulling together information for a possible lawsuit against those two bodies. But we’ll drop that just like we have done for the GMUSD board, should they comply with the law.

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Filed Under: CommentaryTelegraph Editorial

About the Author: Cynthia Prairie has been a newspaper editor more than 30 years. She has worked at such publications as the Raleigh Times, the Baltimore News American, the Buffalo Courier Express, the Chicago Sun-Times and the Patuxent Publishing chain of community newspapers in Maryland. She and her family moved to Chester, Vermont in 2004.

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  1. J. Smart says:

    Every time there’s a problem, Meg Powden’s name is attached to it. Thank you Cynthia Prairie for stirring the pot. I’m sure more Meg Powden misdeeds will surface. Up the good work. John