Powden releases text of speech to board, Telegraph Board members' reaction to presentation mixed

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2019 Telegraph Publishing, LLC

A speech given by Two Rivers Supervisory Union Superintendent Meg Powden but withheld from the public was released after The Chester Telegraph requested the text under a state law that protects the public’s right to know what government agencies are doing.

Board members’ reaction to the speech was mixed, with some supporting it and others finding it inappropriate.

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

The situation began at the Thursday Oct. 17 meeting of the Green Mountain Unified School District board, when member Michael Studin told Powden that he had been approached by staff members who had attended a “welcoming” at which Powden had spoken.

Studin said that those he had spoken with had found the speech objectionable and he asked Powden to share the speech with board members. Powden replied that the administration and board have problems and that she would not share the speech because she did not trust some board members.

On Friday, Oct. 18, The Telegraph requested a copy of the speech through the Vermont Public Records Act. On Wednesday afternoon, Powden sent a copy of the speech to The Telegraph and also to the GMUSD board.

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

At nearly 2,800 words, Powden’s speech was roughly divided into three sections including an introduction and a portion in which she reiterates her commitment to public education in Vermont even though it failed her children. In the final third of the speech, Powden speaks specifically to the implementation of proficiency based education – which she characterizes as “the right thing.”

Powden’s message was that the rolling out of proficiency-based education and grading is behind schedule. Asserting that there are “early adopters,” those in the “wait and see” category and “active resistors,” Powden told the assembled teachers from all six of the SU’s schools — Chester-Andover, Cavendish Town, Mt. Holly and Ludlow elementaries as well as Green Mountain and Black River high schools — that teachers who have resisted proficiency-based education have harmed students, going as far as calling it “sabotage.” Below are excerpts from the last six paragraphs of the speech while the full text can be found  here.

“The harm you have caused has impacted our students; we haven’t given them our best because we aren’t where we should be. At this point in the implementation of proficiency-based education, at this point in our work, I should be able to tell my colleagues, our state, our communities, our families, and our students that we are on the cusp of having great schools….we need each other, we need to work together to be effective and successful.”

“Those of you who are ‘active resistors,’ I don’t know why you’re being resistant. We’ve never had a conversation about it and we never will. If this is work you will not do because you cannot wholeheartedly embrace it … then I am asking you to leave our supervisory union and find a public school that will be a better match. I don’t think you’ll find one in Vermont, because this is state work, this is local work.”

“Also, if you are in the category of ‘active resistors’ … please know, from this day forward, if you attempt to do anything to hinder our progress or pull your colleagues away from this work, I will actively work to see that your actions are addressed promptly.”

“Professional dialogue is welcome, sabotaging the work by not doing it, passively or aggressively undermining the work we need to focus on and complete is unacceptable. I respect and value each and every one of you….”

Eight of 11 board members attended the meeting in which Powden refused to share the text of the speech, and were asked for comment. Members Doug McBride and Jeff Hance could not be reached and Wayne Wheelock had no comment.

Of the remaining five, three were supportive of Powden’s remarks.

“I keep a close eye on the Agency of Education’s monitoring of progress in implementing Act 77 and no one has been very good about implementation,” said GMUSD board chair Joe Fromberger. “I saw the speech as an effort to bring that to the fore, as a sort of clarion call to start doing this. I think this hasn’t been progressing as fast as she would like.”

Board member Marilyn Mahusky called Powdens speech a “personal and powerful statement.” Telegraph file photo

Long-time school board member Marilyn Mahusky called the speech “a personal and powerful statement reflecting the superintendent’s commitment to moving our educational system forward.” Mahusky followed the comment with a letter to the editor endorsing Powden’s work.

But board member Rick Alexander said, “It was way over the top with personal content that she should not have shared with her employees. To rally your staff your don’t attack your staff, you encourage them.”

However, Fred Marin said, “I thought it was a great speech. She’s trying to address a problem and, while I can understand teachers being upset by her suggestions, it’s time to fish or cut bait. The only way to find out if something works is to implement it and she’s being a strong leader.”

Fred Marin called Powden’s talk a “great speech” saying it was a call to “fish or cut bait.”

Studin, who first broached the issue, told The Telegraph that it was not the speech he would have given in that venue. “A welcoming speech should be welcoming,” said Studin. “It should set out a vision for the year and be inspirational, not accusatory and confrontational.” While he was troubled by the speech, Studin said he was more concerned by Powden’s initial refusal to share it as well as her disdain for the board.

“Leaders are supposed to motivate and inspire their followers not intimidate and demean them,” said Studin. “She failed her followers with that speech and she failed the district by refusing to be transparent.”

Several teachers who would only comment on the condition of anonymity because of a fear of retribution said that they had been working on proficiency-based education for years and have moved over to it in the past two years, including the new grading system. Some noted that delays in rolling out the program had also occurred on the TRSU side.

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  1. Ron Jackson says:

    As a parent with a student currently applying to colleges, I can verify that the new “proficiency based” system does have consequences when trying to get into college. They are not insurmountable, but they are there.

    That said, arguing over proficiency based versus classic grading systems is like arguing over the color of your house while ignoring the dry rot. Latest national results show roughly 1/3 of kids in school meeting learning standards. How about we worry more about getting those other 2/3 of students up to par and worry less about whether we give them A/B/C/D/F or Proficient/Not Proficient grades?