Vt. AG opens probe into alleged CTES disability termination

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2019 Telegraph Publishing, LLC

Another complaint for disability discrimination against the Two Rivers Supervisory Union came to light at the July meeting of the Green Mountain Unified School District and, with it, questions about the replacement of a special education teacher who is the husband of the complainant.

Fromberger announces that there will be an executive session regarding an investigation by the Vermont Attorney General’s office. Photos by Shawn Cunningham

At the July 18 GMUSD board meeting, chairman Joe Fromberger noted that the board would be adding an executive session to learn about an investigation by the Vermont Attorney General’s office of a charge of employment discrimination in the termination of an employee at Cavendish Town Elementary School.

While there are no details from the closed door session, it appears that the case involves Samantha Foster who alleged in a filing with the Attorney General’s office that she was fired in December of 2018 by CTES Principal Deb Beaupre soon after a meeting concerning a situation in which a student kicked and hit Foster and she was seeking accommodations for her disability.

According to the complaint, Foster had become disabled when a special needs student with whom she was working struck her over the head with a metal water bottle resulting in an injury to her brain. That occurred in 2008. At the time, she was working as a student supervisor providing support for students with autism while pursuing a master’s degree and was unable to resume work for several years. According to the filing, violence and aggression exacerbates the symptoms of Foster’s disability.

Returning to education as a volunteer after moving to Cavendish, Foster worked for several years at CTES in a variety of positions until she accepted a job as a paraeducator in November 2018. Following the incident in which she was hit and kicked, Foster also alleged that, due to her disability, she was not considered for several open paraeducator positions that were available at CTES.

At the July 18 meeting, TRSU Superintendent Meg Powden told the board that the SU had informed the Vermont School Boards Insurance Trust of the AG’s probe and had been in touch with a legal counsel about it.

Jim Vincent of the Vermont School Boards Insurance Trust explains the coverages for the Two Rivers Supervisory Union, including defense of lawsuits

Powden also announced that the SU would be looking for a special education teacher to replace one at GMHS due to “licensing issues.”

Foster’s husband, Justin Osier, has worked as a special education teacher at Green Mountain High School for the past two years. According to a funding campaign Osier mounted on Facebook, in June, the SU had agreed to pay the $1,200 fee for a peer review needed for his license renewal, but then had not followed through with the payment. Osier raised the funds and presumably will be able to secure his license before the start of the school year. In the meantime, however, the SU has advertised the job.

The revelation of the state investigation came just before Jim Vincent of the Vermont School Boards Insurance Trust — VSBIT — briefed the board on the coverages that it provides to the supervisory union and the two districts it comprises. These include the “errors and omissions” insurance that pays for the defending the SU against a growing number of claims. Board member Doug McBride asked a number of questions about the coverage to confirm that it is appropriate and sufficient for the supervisory union.

The Telegraph asked if VSBIT takes a hand in the decisions made in defending lawsuits. Vincent said that the SU signs a power of attorney as part of applying for the insurance. This gives VSBIT, which is paying the legal bills, the ability to decide on legal strategy and whether it is more appropriate to go to court or to settle claims.

Later in the meeting, the supervisory union – at the request of GM board members – revealed that it had spent three times the amount budgeted for legal advice. The SU and its two districts had budgeted $27,500 for legal services but as of July 16, nearly $83,000 has been spent. Of that, more than $54,000 was spent on labor negotiations.

“And we haven’t gotten all the bills yet,” said business manager Cheryl Hammond.

Employee handbook revisited

For a second meeting in a row, the SU brought an employee handbook for approval, but after reading it, McBride suggested a review by an expert.

Board member Doug McBride asks for a review of the proposed Employee Handbook by an expert in employment practices.

“I’m not an employment specialist,” said McBride, who is a lawyer, “but people who don’t get a legal review (of such a handbook) get into trouble and people who do are shocked at how much tightening up is done.”

McBride told the meeting that he had read the handbook and found it full of “aspirational statements” that went beyond  legal requirements and set a standard that could be subject to litigation.

“Most employee handbooks are written from an employer perspective,” said McBride, noting that the proposed handbook is written more from an employee perspective. McBride also pointed to statements like “we have zero tolerance” as litigation traps and suggested statements like “we follow the Vermont statutes.”

Fromberger agreed, asking McBride to put his suggestions into a written statement to guide a review.

U.S. News test rankings cause concern

Superintendent Meg Powden tells the board that low test scores have been a concern to her since she started with TRSU three years ago

The recent U.S. News and World Report assessment of U.S. schools that showed that GM math and other scores on “Smarter Balance” (SBAC) testing to be well below state averages was brought up during board comment.

“That’s been a concern of ours since I came here,” Powden, who began as superintendent in 2016, told the board. Powden noted that unlike SATs or other tests that have an effect on a student’s future, it is difficult to get to the kids to buy into the SBACs because “they don’t get a payback.”

GM Principal Lauren Fierman outlined some of the steps being taken to improve scores, including hiring new math teachers and providing math coaching for teachers. She noted that the rest of the state is not doing much better and that breaking down the underlying numbers is revealing useful information about who is scoring what.

GM Principal Lauren Fierman explains steps that are being taken to address the low test scores

Fierman said that free and reduced lunch students tend to under perform and that there is “an enormous disparity” between male and female students with girls scoring 10 to 15 percent above boys.

Saying that these are “terrifying numbers,” McBride asked why these scores were not put on the current agenda for discussion. He then suggested a five-year rolling average report “to see how we are doing.” Fromberger said that a motion for such a report was not needed and that he would direct the superintendent to produce it.

Board member Fred Marin cautions against putting too much stock in some of the standardized tests used in the school

Board member Fred Marin, who taught science for many years before retiring, cautioned against “getting crazy about standardized test scores.” He noted that the kids have “no skin in the game” and think “why should I kill myself” and don’t put in any decent effort.

Marin also pointed to what he called the “education/industrial complex,” which he said is changing the fundamental tests every three to five years. “Which is what the game is.”

The Chester Telegraph asked where more information on the scores for all the TRSU schools could be found, noting that the Agency of Education website is very opaque regarding test scores.  Fierman said the “un-suppressed results” were on the website but indeed difficult to find and she would provide links.

Cure for Open Meeting violation; memorial for Dr. Bont

Fromberger told the board that in keeping with its cure of an Open Meeting Law complaint by The Chester Telegraph the board would receive training on the law at its Sept. 19 meeting. The training will be conducted by the Vermont School Board Association.

McBride asked the GM representatives to the TRSU board to adopt the cure that the GM board did for its own violations to avoid even more litigation than it has on its plate now. The GM board passed a motion to that effect unanimously. The next TRSU board meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 1 at the Cavendish Town Elementary School, 573 Main St. in Proctorsville.

The board took up the hiring of a replacement for Jack Carroll as food service director for the three schools in the district. At the previous meeting it was noted that the resume of Michael Kennedy, the candidate brought by the superintendent, was out of date and more information was requested. There was continuing hesitation by several board members, questioning whether a chef with mainly restaurant experience would be able to handle large scale food service.

Fierman explained that the food service committee, including Jack Carroll, looked at all the applications, invited three candidates for interviews and ended up  interviewing two. She said that Kennedy had been interviewed, spent a day shadowing Carroll and a week working with the staff and students. Marin said that he was impressed by Kennedy and that “in the absence of something concrete mitigating against him,” the board should approve the hire, which it did with three no votes.

In a board meeting several months ago, the board asked Powden to look into a suitable memorial for the late Dr. Gene Bont, who served for many years on local school boards. The superintendent came back to the board with the suggestion of planting an oak tree, but Powden told the board that after talking with Doris Eddy of Cavendish Street Scapes, that was changed to a magnolia because that was Bont’s favorite tree and because an oak tree would present a number of problems.

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