GM board gets meeting law training, looks at overspending, honors Bont

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2019 Telegraph Publishing, LLC

At its Sept. 19 meeting, the Green Mountain Unified School District board received training on Vermont’s Open Meeting Law and later took steps to expand the public’s opportunity to comment at meetings – at least temporarily.

Sue Ceglowski of the Vermont School Boards Association presented the training, which gave an overview of the state law that defines what a public meeting is and protects the right of the public to be present at those meetings and to be heard by the board.

Sue Ceglowski of the Vermont School Boards Association conducts a training on Vermont’s Open Meeting Law Photos by Shawn Cunningham

In recent months, the boards of the GMUSD, the Two Rivers Supervisory Union and the Ludlow-Mount Holly Unified Union School District have been called out by The Telegraph for violations of the law in holding closed door meetings know as executive sessions. The training was one of the actions the board was taking to correct the violations.

Ceglowski covered the circumstances under which a board can shut out the public and how to properly enter executive session. She noted that the motion should identify the subject of the session and the statutory exemption that allows the session. Ceglowski said that it should be more specific than “personnel matters” or “legal issues.”

“It should give some indication of what you are talking about without getting into the confidential matter you are talking about,” said Ceglowski.

Fromberger tells the board that the TRSU board has adopted the Open Meeting Law cure that they had requested.

Board member Doug McBride asked if members could call VSBA for advice on executive sessions as a way of saving money on attorney fees. Ceglowski said she would be happy to answer questions and give guidance, but not legal advice.

“If you are not asking me a specific question about a specific scenario I certainly can help you and I’d be happy to, and I hope you call,” said Ceglowski.

After Ceglowski left the meeting, board chair Joe Fromberger announced that the TRSU board had decided to take the statute-based route to curing its open meeting law violations as the GM board had done. Fromberger thanked “the newspaper people who brought this to us” saying that it helps the board to things the right way.

McBride moves to add a second opportunity for public comment to the beginning of GMUSD meetings

At the end of the meeting, The Telegraph questioned why the “public comment” period was so late in the proceedings noting that anyone who wanted to tell the board something would have to wait for a couple of hours to speak. Having the comment time at the beginning was suggested, but Fromberger said that it was his decision to have it at the end so people could comment on what the board had done during the meeting.

McBride made a motion to move public comment to the beginning for a four-month trial period and board member Jeff Hance suggested having it both ways – at the beginning and at the  end. The motion to have two comment periods for the rest of this year passed.

If the public does not make use of the extra comment period, it will be eliminated.

Spending questions

At the request of the board at a previous meeting, business manager Cheryl Hammond presented two sheets, one of which characterized the growth of expense in special education as unexpected and unavoidable. Hammond noted that last year 17 new special ed. students moved into the district, while Director of Student Services Mary Barton said that so far this year 11 students requiring special education have moved in.

TRSU business manager Cheryl Hammond explains items that are overbudget or were never budgeted in the first place

McBride asked if there would be information on how this impacts the budget so the board could address it before the end of the budget year.

“Other than knowing, there’s no addressing,” said Hammond, referring to special education spending that is mandated by law. The crux of the situation is how much flexibility there is in the law to manage the expense.

One of the intentions last year’s Act 173, was to replace the current reimbursements for special education with census-based block grants that schools will have some flexibility in spending. Barton handed out a chart showing how the new law would be rolled out, but noted that the particulars are still uncertain.

“It’s my understanding that the state is trying to make a grant program out of this instead of a specific reimbursement,” said Fromberger, “and we could really get hurt that way. The state doesn’t do this because they want to give us more money. I’m afraid of what the state is doing to us.”

“Part of what they don’t know is how they’re going to do the census funding,” said Hammond.

TRSU director of student services Mary Barton notes that it is uncertain how special education funding under Act 173 will play out.

While there is still uncertainty in how the law will be rolled out, there was no discussion of how to position the school system to take the smallest hit from the new funding regime.

The second sheet listed spending on items that were not in the current year’s budget as well as items that were budgeted but were already overspent by $5,000 or more. While the latter showed the amount of money spent, the former did not have numbers associated with each item.

The Telegraph asked what the procedure is for approving items that had not been budgeted. Chester-Andover Elementary Principal Katherine Fogg said that if one line in a department goes over, they watch to be sure the entire department doesn’t go over.

But the question was how are expenditures approved if nothing was budgeted and there is no expense line. Green Mountain High School Principal Lauren Fierman said that in that situation, she makes a call to Superintendent Meg Powden or to Hammond for approval.

Honoring Dr. Bont

Cavendish board member Doug McBride remembers Dr. Bont as Meg Powden, Phyllis Bond and Doris Eddy listen

Before the meeting, a ceremony was held on a rise behind the Cavendish Town Elementary School to dedicate a magnolia tree planted to honor Dr. Gene Bont, who served on local school boards for many years. Two members who served with Bont on Cavendish boards – Fred Marin and Doug McBride – remembered Dr. Bont’s wisdom and perspective.

Fred Marin told the small gathering that whenever he is faced with a difficult problem on the board he thinks “what would Gene do?”

Several members of Bont’s family were present for the dedication.

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  1. Ralph Pace says:

    RE special ed funding – I have long maintained that special ed should be totally funded at the state level. A local board cannot reasonably predict or sustain partial special ed funding. The larger the sample for special ed mgmt., the more likely it will be able to deal with changes in number of special ed students in terms of budgeting and actual expenses. Also, the category of special ed should be more specifically defined and adhered to. Too often it is used when the problem is simply dysfunctional parenting.