Editorial: A question of judgment

By Cynthia Prairie
©2019 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Meg Powden took the reins of the Two Rivers Supervisory Union in 2016, when our schools were in the throes of Act 46 consolidations and all parties involved worked hard to make the transition smooth.

At the time, Powden was an unknown entity, so we sat back and observed, reserving judgment.

In the three years since, we have concluded that Powden lacks the judgment to lead the supervisory union and that her particular talents would be best suited somewhere else. This is not a conclusion we have come to quickly.

There is no doubt that any superintendent would have been challenged by the merger process of the schools of Mt. Holly, Ludlow, Cavendish and Chester.

Minding the money

But major concerns about her ability to manage the new supervisory union popped up quickly. In early 2017, during the tail-end of the Act 46 merger process, Powden rejected the analysis of then-Finance Director Chris Adams and got behind the idea of keeping the Black River High School building open for any one of several uses. Adams noted that the cost of doing so would have hiked the tax burden on both Chester and Andover residents, by up to 40 cents per $100 of assessed value. It would have been a huge fiscal blow to those communities.

With options added and altered, the opportunity was lost to create a single district with budgetary savings to invest in all of our students.

Since Act 46 was intended to increase the education offerings of merged districts, many parents were excited at the promise of foreign language instruction in the SU’s elementary schools. But in the budget after voters had approved the GMUSD merger, elementary foreign language was reduced to a “coordinator” position budgeted for the equivalent of one day a week.

Not only did Powden propose cutting that in January 2018, she also proposed cutting the Cavendish Town Elementary principal position and dedicated school nurses.  These cuts revealed a distinct lack of understanding of the needs and priorities of the students, parents and taxpayers.

Also in early 2018, Powden budgeted a 5.58 percent raise for herself. That was rejected by the TRSU board in favor of the more modest 2.5 percent raise that others had received. It was a tone-deaf request that many said indicated she was concerned more with her own welfare than that of our students.

So too were the dental benefits that went to TRSU central office staff. Powden has said that she negotiated those benefits on behalf of herself and her staff. But sitting on the other side of the “negotiating table” was Finance Director Chris Adams – her subordinate and a staff member who would also receive the dental coverage.

And then there was her proposal to use the $150,000 in transition funds — meant for the two school systems — to use for retreats, office furniture and computer software. She had already spent $25,000 of it without authorization.

Opening up the doors

Repairs to Chester-Andover Elementary School following major water damage in August 2018 could have taken less time and likely less money if Powden had recognized that the she did not have the skills and experience to restore the school quickly and cost-effectively. Instead of reaching out to her board for help, she instituted a policy of closely holding information and directing subordinates not to discuss the problems that arose.

It was that same atmosphere of secrecy and information-control that led to the eight Open Meeting Law violations that the Telegraph has uncovered. This wasn’t just a fluke; it was a pattern of skirting state law to keep the public in the dark. It’s difficult to ignore that the subject of at least two of those illegally warned executive sessions were the approval of Powden’s first-ever two-year contract and salary hike, both of which were a surprise to taxpayers.

The Open Meeting Law is meant to protect the public’s right to know what its government is doing. Skirting that law denies a basic right in our democracy.

Then there are the lawsuits. The Chester Telegraph’s reporting exposed lawsuits against the school system that its boards were unaware of. Powden justified keeping the school boards in the dark while running up legal bills as “a TRSU matter.”

But Green Mountain board member Doug McBride rightly countered that the TRSU has no budget except for those monies provided by the taxpayers of the GM and Ludlow-Mt. Holly systems. Keeping these schools’ boards in the dark showed extremely poor judgment.

And now there is another suit — maybe two — and an investigation by the Attorney General’s office.

Reforming the budgeting process

One of the most important duties of a school board is helping to construct, then overseeing the school budgets and ensuring, as best as it can, that money is spent in line with the voters wishes.

This is – at best – a difficult task with Powden at the helm. As I have stated on these pages before, the process is sloppy, and is being made overly complex.  It starts too late, the boards do not meet enough and information is fed to them by the SU in small doses in confusing and often-changing formats. Boards are then rushed to approve a budget that no one really understands, to be voted on by taxpayers who also have no idea what is really in the budget.

Just this past August, we learned of a $189,000 deficit in the GMUSD budget. Our article pointed out that the SU is cutting back on a larger deficit by under-spending in areas that, among other things, provide educational services that the board budgeted for. If these and a few other budget items had been fully spent, the deficit would have been more than $400,000 and the district would be in what TRSU business manager Cheryl Hammond called “a world of hurt.”

We believe it would be best for Powden to step down now, on her own. With multiple lawsuits ahead and school budgeting on the horizon, the boards will have much to concern themselves with. However, should the TRSU board tonight decide to ratify the two-year contract she received from an improperly warned executive session in February, we will also begin to question its judgment as well.  That would be too bad considering that the board stepped up last Thursday to properly correct its Open Meeting violation.

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Filed Under: CommentaryTelegraph Editorial

About the Author: Cynthia Prairie has been a newspaper editor more than 40 years. Cynthia 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, and has won numerous state awards for her reporting. As an editor, she has overseen her staffs to win many awards for indepth coverage. She and her family moved to Chester, Vermont in 2004.

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  1. Chris Curran says:

    Bravo Cynthia!
    I won’t elaborate. You hit the nail on the head.
    I hope she takes the hint before she gets kicked out.

  2. Ed Knapp says:

    Thank you Cynthia for a well thought-out and presented article on this very important subject. You provide information and reasoning that can not be found elsewhere. A job well done.

  3. Otis Nelson says:

    Meg Powden has shown time and again that her style as superintendent does not work for the benefit of the kids, the schools, our communities or the taxpayers! She is secretive and untrustworthy! It’s far beyond the time for her to go! That vote should be revisited and she should be replaced by someone who has the fortitude to provide excellent educational opportunities for our kids and the integrity to provide accurate, transparent information to the board, schools, parents and the communities it serves! This SUPERVISORY UNION CANNOT TAKE ANOTHER TWO YEARS OF CONTINUED MISMANAGEMENT!!

  4. Well written and concise. Why is it that Chester schools can’t seem to get good administrators? I don’t know the new GMUHS principal so I can’t comment on her.

  5. Tim Roper says:

    It’s clear that Ms Powden is either incompetent to the position she holds, or is dishonest regarding the way she wants to manage the budgets she has significant control over. If she stays in her position, our children will miss out on educational opportunities and the taxpayers will pay more for less. What we need is someone who knows how to maximize the effectiveness of the budget to increase the educational impact.

    I’d really like to hear from some teachers who are living under Powden’s rule, but it would seem that they feel unsafe in expressing their opinions in a public forum. That should tell us something as well.

  6. Shawn Gilman says:

    Just fire her already the sooner the better and let someone start cleaning up the mess she has created

  7. Beverly Hart says:

    Meg Powden needs to go and let someone else clean up the mess! It’s time….actually past due!

  8. Lynn Reilly says:

    Well written and factual. Time to clean house