Powden refuses to make speech public, says ‘I don’t trust’ some school board members

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2019 Telegraph Publishing LLC

On Thursday night, Superintendent Meg Powden refused to share with the Green Mountain Unified School Board the text of a speech she gave to a “welcoming meeting” held for teachers across the supervisory union on Oct. 15.

Superintendent Meg Powden tells Michael Studin that she will not share the text of the speech she gave to the SU’s teachers. Photos by Shawn Cunningham

Member Michael Studin brought up the issue, telling Powden that a number of staff members approached him with objections to her speech. He then asked the superintendent to share it with the board.

Powden told Studin that the speech was “written for that audience” and said she was not going to share it with the board. Powden said there were a few people who expressed concerns and that she was happy to talk with them.

“Overwhelmingly, I’ve had a huge positive response to my remarks,” said Powden

“Why don’t you want anybody else to see it?” asked Studin.

“You wouldn’t know the context,” replied Powden.

“Not wanting to share it makes me want to see it,” said board member Doug McBride.

Powden said she shared very personal information in her remarks.

She then said, “We have an issue – the administration and the board. … I don’t trust some of the board members because of some of their actions. That’s why I’m not sharing.”

According to a number of people who attended the meeting at Green Mountain High, the audience was made up of teachers and principals from all of the schools in the supervisory union — GM and Black River high schools and Chester-Andover, Cavendish Town, Ludlow and Mt. Holly elementaries.

Board member Michael Studin asked why Powden was unwilling to share the text of the speech

They said the speech concerned the implementation of proficiency based education and described some of those in attendance as active resisters in a tone that they said came across as threatening and offensive. The approximately 15-minute speech was greeted by what one person called stunned silence followed by perfunctory applause.

The names of the sources are being withheld due to a fear of retribution for speaking with the press.

Asked for comment, GM Board chair Joe Fromberger said he did not know about the situation before the board meeting and doesn’t believe he has enough information yet to comment.

On Monday, Studin said, “One of our priorities is to be transparent with the staff and community. This doesn’t seem very transparent to me. Another priority for us is working on the board/administration relationship and this doesn’t move the bar on that, it doesn’t help us advance that relationship.”

“There must be a free flow of information to the board for it to do its oversight function,” said board member Doug McBride on Tuesday. “In a number of cases the SU has failed to provide such information and the withholding of the speech in question is another example.”

The Telegraph has made a request for the text of the speech under Vermont’s Public Records Act.

Contracts and legal costs

Fromberger announced that both the support staff and teachers want to open negotiations for their contracts.

McBride pointed to the $54,000 cost of negotiations in the 2018-19 year and asked if there was any way to make the legal fees “less shocking.” In those negotiations, the schools were represented by Chris Leopold, a Burlington education attorney who attended the meetings.

Board member Doug McBride asks to limit the legal costs of negotiating labor costs

McBride noted that the teachers and support staff do not have lawyers representing them at each meeting and questioned whether there could be a different approach to reduce the costs.

“I’m not suggesting we don’t have a lawyer help us. I’m just wondering if there isn’t a way to make the fees a lot less shocking and more palatable to a fiscally conscious board,” said McBride.

Board member Marilyn Mahusky replied, “I think the work of our attorney is really invaluable not only in providing us legal counsel but also in helping us navigate the very challenging issues that come up in the negotiations. It would be unwise not to have legal counsel involved.”

McBride agreed that the schools need legal counsel but the board needs to see if costs can be contained.

Studin asked how other districts do the negotiations.

“Probably very similar to what we’re doing,” said Fromberger.

On Friday, The Telegraph contacted board members from a number of school districts and supervisory unions in southern Vermont to ask whether their lawyers attend the negotiating sessions. Of the six contacted, four said that lawyers do not attend the sessions. Paige Hiller’s comment was typical of those. Hiller said that the Windsor Central board always has legal counsel available, but that their lawyers do not attend the meetings.

The others said that they have done it both ways with lawyers attending negotiations some years but not in others. And they differed in how they viewed the value of having lawyers present.

David Chandler, who sits on the Bennington Rutland Supervisory Union board, said he had participated in five negotiations. He felt that having a lawyer present at the meetings for one of them was cumbersome and slowed the process. On the other hand, Richard Werner of Windham Central Supervisory Union said having a lawyer at the table can be useful especially when working on complex issues.

Whose buses are those? Reprise

Studin revisited his question from the Aug. 15 meeting  about the repainting of the livery of the district’s new buses, asking what the financial impact of that was. Studin had said it “made no sense” and business manager Cheryl Hammond had suggested he speak with Powden who was absent.

A newly delivered GMUSD bus in its original livery on July 30

On Thursday, Studin asked about whether the Ludlow-Mt. Holly district would be using the buses and what was the overall cost of the repainting.

Powden said the cost of picking up students in Ludlow and Mt. Holly who attend Green Mountain would be covered by their tuition revenue. She said that students would be picked up in Mt. Holly and at Ludlow Elementary School and possibly along the way on 103 if there are students there.

After a $3,575 repainting, GMUSD’s Buses displayed the TRSU livery.

Powden also said she did not have the cost of the repainting, but The Telegraph confirmed that replacing the words “Green Mountain Union High School” with “Two Rivers Supervisory Union” on eight buses cost $3,575.

“I guess I was set back by a school district that’s running a $150,000 deficit spending $3,500 to paint a name on a bus,” said McBride. “It didn’t seem a good way to spend our money.”

Powden told McBride that there are three schools using the buses, not just the high school and that by state law, transportation funding and responsibility goes through the supervisory union.

The Telegraph asked who owns the buses.

“I thought Green Mountain Unified School District owned them,” said McBride. “We’ve got someone else’s name on them.”

“The name on the side doesn’t mean that’s the name on the title,” countered Fromberger.

“We’ll have to research that Doug,” said Powden

Minutes from December 2018 show that the purchase of the buses was part of last year’s GMUSD budget process and the board approved spending $684,000 to purchase eight buses for the district from W.C. Cressy as recommended by its transportation committee.

Survey questioned

When the board was addressing budget priorities at its Sept. 10 retreat, Studin suggested conducting a survey to see what the people in the four communities that make up GMUSD believe is important. Through the meetings that followed, the board discussed aspects of the budgeting survey and GM Principal Lauren Fierman met with Studin to talk about ways that such surveys have been done in other schools.

Mary Moeykens explains her thoughts on how a survey should be done

On Thursday night, the review of survey questions was on the agenda as a discussion/action item but as the meeting opened, Mary Moeykens, an assistant to the superintendent who also coordinates public relations for the SU, said that at a recent meeting of a communications group she brought up the idea of the survey and the group recommended sending the questions to the Vermont School Boards Association for review. She also suggested getting in touch with a college communications professor to learn the proper way of sampling an audience.

Moeykens said the survey should be done by a subcommittee that uses the RACE methodology. RACE stands for research, action plan, communicate and evaluate. She advised the board that they shouldn’t just jump right in.

Studin said that this was becoming bigger than he wanted and that he was just looking for some feedback in advance of the budget process, which has already begun. He said he was hoping to get some direction from the public within a reasonable amount of time.

While the board began talking about the survey questions, Mahusky said she didn’t think it was “ready for prime time” and that more work was needed.

McBride described the discussion as “paralysis by analysis” and said that they don’t need a perfect survey but to get some public involvement as a “down payment on bigger ideas.”

Frank Kelley asking the board to approve his one year sabbatical

CAES teacher to take sabbatical

The board approved a one-year sabbatical for long-time Chester-Andover Elementary teacher Frank Kelley, who will be completing his Middle Level Certification in Social Studies and working toward a Certificate of Advanced Graduate Studies Degree from Southern New Hampshire University. A one-year substitute for Kelley will be recruited and Kelley will return to CAES after the one-year paid leave.

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  1. I agree– we need a change in “leadership”. The school board has the authority under Vermont law to see to her leaving her post.

  2. Randy Miles says:

    When is enough of enough, enough? I feel we have a good school board with members that care about our school and how it effects our kids and towns. It seems to be with what is in her interest not the schools, towns or the taxpayers interest? With that said we always have issues with our superintendent and how she does or does not do her job? Thank you to the school board members who keep asking the questions that should be answered by Meg but are not? Keep asking till we get our answer’s! Why must we the taxpayers not be entitled to here our questions answered from her? It is time for change and long over due. It is time to replace our superintendent and time to repair the damage done. thanks

  3. Tim Roper says:

    Refusal to share the text of a speech that was delivered to hundreds of public school employees is completely counter to an attitude of public service and clearly indicative of the core issue at hand, trust. How can we ever trust Ms. Powden when she’s not even willing to make such a document public? What else is she hiding from us?

    Thank you, “Chester Telegraph,” for requesting a copy of this speech. I wonder if it’s possible to confirm that it’s the same one she read to the school employees. For some reason I have concerns that it could potentially be altered…

  4. Karen Marini says:

    WHEN is the Board going to realize she is their employee? They and the taxpayers have every right to know what was in that speech. If she doesn’t trust some of the Board members then let’s wake up folks … it’s time for her to go!

  5. Julie hance says:

    I believe that the superintendent is hired and reviewed by the TRSU board not the GM unified board. The TRSU board is made of members from several boards including a couple members from GM.

  6. Wanda Purdy says:

    I can’t believe all I’m reading concerning Meg Powden and the way she is running our schools. This woman seems to have a problem with dealing with people and the school board. How her contract got approved and a raise to boot. I have to agree, she needs to go and the sooner the better. Our schools will suffer.

  7. Felista Sutherland says:

    Is this a joke?! The board members are voted in by the community and are HER bosses!

    She should be fired! Vermont is an at-will state and I think its taxpayers have had enough…! … I’m completely shocked she is still there. I’m profoundly thankful my kids are in private school. This whole system is the laughing stock of education in our area due to this woman and those who support her. What a sad situation! Disgusting actually!

  8. Nancy Pennell says:

    Regarding the repainting of the school buses, there is perhaps another option: magnetic signs that attach to the bus. These can be custom made at very reasonable cost. I have them on my car promoting our store Smokeshire Design. They attach and remove easily. If there is concern about vandalism they can be taken off nightly – not a big chore.

  9. Otis Nelson says:

    Ok, had enough yet? I want an answer to my question! Which is, WHY IS THIS WOMAN STILL IN CHARGE OF OUR SUPERVISORY UNION?

  10. Ralph Pace says:

    Has the board lost the fact that the Superintendent is its employee. “She doesn’t trust some members”?