GMUSD board cures violation, increases oversight of supervisory union

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2019 Telegraph Publishing LLC

The board of the Green Mountain Unified School District continued to move toward both greater autonomy from and oversight of the Two Rivers Supervisory Union at its regular monthly meeting on Thursday, June 20.

In the wake of Open Meeting Law complaints and the revelation that there were at least three pending legal actions that Superintendent Meg Powden had not told the board about, members came together at the Cavendish Town Elementary School to pass motions that were not the course of action recommended by the SU.

Board member Doug McBride moves to add an item left off the agenda prepared by the supervisory union. Photos by Shawn Cunningham

Right from the start, board member Doug McBride of Proctorsville pointed to several items that he said were supposed to be on the agenda but had been left off, including adopting measures that would “actually prevent” future violations of the Open Meeting Law and a public discussion of the legal spending from the previous meeting on June 13.

Powden said that the legal spending information would be covered under the Administrators’ Reports, but that meant the topic was not listed for the public to see.

Board chair Joe Fromberger of Andover suggested that McBride wait until the end of the meeting and schedule those items for the next meeting. A board can add to its agenda at the beginning of a meeting – before they vote to approve the agenda – but not after.

McBride pointed out that the measures to prevent Open Meeting Law violations had to be done within 14 days and should have been on the agenda because a motion to discuss the measures had been passed by the board a week earlier. Fromberger invited McBride to move to add it to the agenda and the board passed that unanimously.

Fromberger took up the “correction” of the violation and was interrupted by the superintendent.

Superintendent Meg Powden suggests that board chair Joe Fromberger use motions rejected by the board the week before

“Do you want to use those corrections?” asked Powden, handing Fromberger a sheaf of paper that Fromeberger later said was the same four motion process recommended by the SU’s law firm and used by the TRSU and Ludlow-Mt. Holly boards. That recommendation was rejected by the GMUSD board at its June 13 meeting in favor of a simpler cure taken directly from the Open Meeting Law.

“Haven’t we done the first stage of the correction already, and are we not just correcting the action we have taken after that?” asked Fromberger, referring to the law’s requirement that the  board either ratify or void the actions taken as a result of the improper executive session. Several members of the board agreed and the board moved to ratify both the 2.75 percent increase for non-bargaining staff and a one-time sick leave donation for a member of the staff.

But Powden again interrupted suggesting that the board make a finding that discussing those subjects in public would put the supervisory union or an individual at a “substantial disadvantage,” apparently not understanding that what the board was doing was intended to be a public action, not another executive session.

Before the board voted to ratify both actions from its March 21 executive session, McBride apologized to the non-bargaining staff who felt their jobs were in limbo for the week, saying that he didn’t believe that the board ever intended to change its action but that it did have to get straight with the law.

Board member Mike Studin suggests wording that could allow the list of measures to prevent new violations to expand

The board went on to adopt specific measures that “actually prevent future violations of the Open Meeting Law” including requiring board members to attend training – in person or online – on the Open Meeting Law, requiring that a copy of the statutes on executive sessions be present at any meeting at which an executive session will be held and that agendas that warn executive sessions contain more accurate, detailed and specific information regarding the reason for the session.

“The specifics are going to be clear in any future agendas that I put together,” said Fromberger. “I will make sure the board members are aware of what the details are in the communications directed to the board.”

Member Mike Studin of Chester suggested adding the phrase “including, but not limited to” to the list of measures in the motion in case the board wants to add anything else. With that addition, the motion passed unanimously.

According to publisher Cynthia Prairie, the cure used by the board satisfies The Telegraph’s complaint.

Board assigns monthly report to superintendent

Several months ago, McBride suggested a standing report that the superintendent would give each month to keep the board informed of areas that fall within its legal responsibilities. This would mean that each month Powden would inform the board about lawsuits and other legal claims, the hiring of an attorney or a submission of an insurance claim. Also included are terminations of staff, expulsions, suspensions and withdrawals of students, any non-compliance with regulations, physical plant issues, over-budget expenditures among other issues.

“Some of the matters more pertain to principals … teachers and staff, student matters, physical plant … typically what a superintendent will do is have an expectation that their principals will speak specifically regarding their own schools,” said Powden. She also said that budget items would fall under the purview of business manager Cheryl Hammond.

Board members said that it was appropriate for others to deliver information, but that Powden was the point person who would be responsible for the report. Members also noted that the report would probably evolve with time and voted to approve it.

Executive session expanded to include more claims

The agenda warned two executive sessions – one to approve a sick leave donation from staff and one to fill the board in on a “termination” lawsuit that has been pending against TRSU since last June. Board members noted that according to reporting by The Telegraph, there are more actions pending and they wanted to know about those as well.

Board chair Joe Fromberger says The Telegraph complaint has helped the board do its business better

After some discussion about the facts of two cases that had been revealed in The Telegraph, and whether a portion of the talk about legal claims should be done in public, it was agreed that the board would go into a closed session to hear about lawsuits, arbitration and other pending claims and to look at strategies, settlements and solutions for such claims.

“The publication in The Chester Telegraph was helpful, it served as a catalyst for us doing it better. I do appreciate that,” said Fromberger referring to the board’s executive sessions.

Personnel Handbook and buses and legal bills

Board member Lois Perlah of Chester explains how she was able to find the handbook – with difficulty

The SU presented a  Personnel Handbook for approval by the board, but several members said it was the first time they had seen the 21-page document. Apparently, it was attached to an email from the SU, but was difficult to find and access. Board members noted that the unapproved draft sported the words “Approved by the Green Mountain Unified School District” on the cover and decided to delay consideration of the document until they could read it.

Hammond explained that the document came from one used at TRSU and that changes had been made to have it apply across the two school districts as well. Board member Kate Lamphere of Cavendish said it was customary to send a document with changes in a format where a reader could see the original plus what changes were made. Hammond said the SU would send that to the board.

TRSU business manager Cheryl Hammond explains the financing of the new bus fleet

The board looked at both the lease closeout for the buses the district currently uses and the financing terms for the eight new buses the district is buying for the upcoming year. Hammond told the board that the terms put forward by Community Bank save the district $2,660 over the course of the five-year loan and helps a little bit with cash flow in the first year. The total cost of the buses including interest under the Community Bank loan would be $754,136.80. The board approved Hammond’s recommendation.

Hammond also spoke about the legal expenses, explaining that she may re-categorize the $12,220 resulting from legal claims and lawsuits as insurance deductibles since that was how they were paid.

Hammond also said that TRSU only paid $11,494 for having Chris Leopold handle the collective bargaining negotiations. While that is true on the face of it, the bills show that TRSU also charged portions to the Green Mountain and Ludlow-Mt. Holly districts for a total of $50,000.

McBride noted that while the $12,220 was a deductible, it was against legal expenses and he asked that a complete accounting of legal expenses – whether paid by the SU and the two boards or by the insurance carrier – be given to the board. Studin also ask that the numbers be accompanied by details to make the expenses understandable.

“What the insurance company pays, I don’t have those bills,” said Hammond who noted that the SU does not submit bills to the insurance company.

“We as an entity should understand the amount of legal bills the entity is incurring regardless of who pays those legal bills,” said McBride. Other board members agreed and asked Hammond to bring a full accounting to the board.

Next meeting in July, not August

The Two Rivers Supervisory Union and Ludlow Mount Holly boards decided to take the month of July off, and the SU-created agenda listed the next suggested meeting date as Aug. 15 for the Green Mountain board. But GM board members decided there was too much on their plates – including an expected bid opening for elevator repairs at the high school – to lose a month and scheduled their next meeting for 6 p.m. Thursday July 18 at Chester-Andover Elementary School, 72 Main St., in Chester.

Among some of the things that were requested to be on the July agenda are a report on legal expenses, including those paid by the school’s insurance carrier, and an overall explanation of the insurance coverages by a representative of the Vermont School Board Insurance Trust.

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  1. Otis Nelson says:

    A congratulations and a job well done by the school board! Thank you for doing the right thing. Transparency to the public is key in this situation. A huge thanks to the Chester Telegraph for disclosing the supervisory unions obvious failure to disclose the information these boards that NEED to do oversight of this UNION! A union that continues to try to undermine the transparency to our communities, our schools and our boards! Thank you very much!

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