Powden resigns as TRSU superintendent effective June 30

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2020 Telegraph Publishing, LLC

Meg Powden, superintendent of the Two Rivers Supervisory Union, resigned her position on Monday, Jan. 13 effective June 30 — the end of the 2019/2020 school year. She will have served four years, overseeing the operations of two school districts — Green Mountain Unified and Ludlow-Mt. Holly — with a total of six schools.

TRSU Vice Chair Joe Fromberger reacts as Superintendent Meg Powden announces her resignation.

In a letter to TRSU board chair Paul Orzechowski, Powden outlined what she believes has been accomplished during her tenure and what needs to be done. However, she did not say why she decided to leave.

In her resignation letter, Powden wrote that with changes in society, “we need to transform instructional practices and education to provide our students with what they need to achieve academically, socially and emotionally.” These include initiatives in personalized and proficiency-based education.

Calling public school education the “foundation of our democracy,” Powden wrote, “I treasure public education and I am proud of the work we’re engaged in to fulfill our vision.” She praised administrators, faculty and staff for their work in improving instructional practices, saying that tremendous progress has been made and that she anticipates that the work to provide students with “a diverse range of learning opportunities” will continue.

A rocky tenure over issues of transparency, trust

Powden’s tenure with the school system, which began in the middle of the Act 46 merger process, has been marked by a number of issues revolving around transparency and trust.

In 2016, TRSU Director of Finance Chris Adams and Superintendent Meg Powden outline the financial implications of various options at a meeting in Baltimore. Telegraph file photo

During the merger process, Powden consistently proposed ways to keep the Black River High School building open when then-business manager Chris Adams said it was clear there would be no savings and that Andover and Chester residents would see a large tax hit. The Green Mountain Unified School District — consisting of Cavendish Town Elementary, Chester-Andover Elementary and Green Mountain High —  was formed in response to projected tax increases if all the schools merged without the resolution of the BRHS issue.

The supervisory union then introduced its first Green Mountain Unified School District budget that included proposals to cut back on school nursing staff and consolidate principals in the two elementary schools. These proposals proved unpopular – especially in Cavendish where community members saw all of those moves as the beginning of the end for their school. Elementary second language instruction, which had been a promise of the Act 46 process, was dropped and the first GM budget was rejected by voters.

Superintendent Meg Powden, center, explains why next Cavendish principal position would be “interim.” That was later reversed Telegraph file photo

While the nursing and principal initiatives were dropped, second language instruction received only token appropriations in subsequent budgets.

In early 2018, before the new districts became operational, the TRSU board nixed a 5.58 percent salary increase for Powden that appeared in the budget and would have taken her salary from $125,580 to $132,590. Later, the TRSU board offered the superintendent a two-year contract ending in 2021 and a raise of 4 percent from $129,033 to $134,194. The executive sessions for those and several other meetings were challenged by The Telegraph as improperly constituted. The board admitted the violation and ratified its earlier decision.

Board chair Marilyn Mahusky listens as Joe Fromberger voices his opposition to the supervisory union deciding how to spend an Act 46 transition grant. Telegraph file photo

The spending of Act 46 transition grant funds became an issue between Powden and both the GM and Ludlow-Mt. Holly boards. Powden asserted that the $150,000, which was intended to help school districts with unforeseen expenses related to the Act 46 merger, belonged to the SU. Board members disputed that and, in the end, the funds went to the districts — less the money spent by the SU without authorization.

In June 2019, The Telegraph revealed that there were a number of lawsuits, complaints and investigations involving TRSU and its districts that their boards had not been informed of. As time went on, more complaints came to light and legal services budget lines swelled. A number of past TRSU and district board chairs confirmed that Powden had not informed them of the complaints either.

In the fall of 2019, Powden welcomed the teachers of TRSU back to school with a speech that claimed some faculty were “active resisters” to change in the schools. The tone, some felt, was threatening. When GM board member Michael Studin asked for a copy of the speech, Powden told him she didn’t trust members of that board. The Telegraph requested the speech under the Public Records Act and published it the following week.

Later in 2019, GM board members objected to attempts to grow the influence of the SU including a $3,575 repainting of GM-purchased buses with a TRSU livery, and taking over from GM several initiatives like busing, food service and STEAM programming. Powden was hoping to make those programs SU-wide. Joe Fromberger and other board members pushed back on what was perceived as a growth in expense. In time, those proposals were dropped.

This fall, Powden told the TRSU board that the spirit of collaboration with GMUSD was gone, citing the GM board’s rejection or tabling of administration priorities. In subsequent budget drafts, the SU zeroed out the GM board’s priorities, which the superintendent had asked the board to develop.

Praise for Powden, as boards look ahead

Administrators during Monday’s meeting had praise for Powden, noting that the public does not see most of what the superintendent does on a daily basis. Calling Powden a “model mentor,” Ludlow Principal Karen Trimboli told Powden that she appreciated everything she had taught her during her tenure and that she brought a fragmented administrative staff together to think about all students in the SU.

Superintendent Meg Powden Curriculum Director Michael Eppolito at a Vision Committee meeting after the defeat of the first GM budget. Telegraph file photo

Curriculum Director Michael Eppolito thanked Powden for doing what he called a “thankless job” saying that she “always kept students at the center of her work, you rarely get to see that but the work we get to see Meg do is really about kids.”

Mary Moeykens, who works as Powden’s assistant, said that she sees what Powden goes through and that the  “bad mouthing” of the superintendent “is so uncalled for.” Moeykens also asked that she sit in on interviews with superintendent candidates to find a “good bond” with them.

Green Mountain High School Principal Lauren Fierman said she wanted “to echo the positive comments” about Powden, noting that she took the job at GM in part because of the connection she felt with Powden during the interview process. “Her unwavering focus on what’s best for our students has come through in everything that we do in our work,” said Fierman.

Andover resident Joe Fromberger, who serves as chair of the GM board and vice chair of the TRSU board, expressed regret at Powden’s resignation and wished her well. On Tuesday morning, Fromberger told The Telegraph, “One quality I admired about her was that she is unflappable in the face of criticism and that has served her well.”

“I think it’s unfortunate because Meg had a vision for improving educational opportunities for our students,” said board member Marilyn Mahusky of Chester, adding that Powden, “was thwarted by the Act 46 process. She came into that turmoil and took over in midstream. I have a tremendous amount of respect for her and what she is doing and I wish her well.”

Michael Studin, GM board member and vice chair of the district’s finance committee, told The Telegraph that “Meg’s resignation provides an opportunity for the district and the supervisory union to start anew. I look forward to working with the TRSU to select a new superintendent who shares the values and priorities of the staff, the school board and the community. I believe that the GMUSD and the TRSU’s best days are yet to come and I am excited to see what the future holds.”

“I’m sad to see it happen,” said board member Fred Marin of Cavendish. “I think she tried very hard and had a rough time – not all of it deserved.”

“It’s important that the superintendent’s resignation does not distract the school board from delivering budgets that provide for high-quality education at a price that taxpayers can afford,” said board member Doug McBride of Cavendish.

By giving notice by Jan. 31, Powden is exercising a clause in her contract that gives her the option to get out of the second of two years. That timing also gives the board several months to conduct a search and hire a superintendent by the July 1 start date for the 2020/2021 school year.

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  1. Tonia Fleming says:

    I served on the Chester Andover Elementary School Board from 2011 to 2018. In my experience working with Ms. Powden, I appreciated her experience and thoughtfulness, and never doubted that she had the best interests of our community – students, faculty, family – at the heart of her decisions. I have been disappointed at her public vilification. The issues facing our educational system are complex and not easily explained in a one page article. I encourage everyone to become involved in understanding these challenges by attending school board meetings, serving on committees, and reading a broad range of media. Thank you.

  2. Tim Roper says:

    “One quality I admired about her was that she is unflappable in the face of criticism and that has served her well.”

    Translation- “She never showed any inclination to alter her leadership approach based upon the widespread criticism she received, so she just pushed on with what she personally wanted.”

  3. Felista Sutherland says:

    Thank goodness this woman will be gone. I, honestly, wish she was fired but leaving via resignation is good enough! She has been nothing but a drain on this community, which led to division! I do think those who are still working against the teachers, the parents and, most importantly, the students should take heed as this community isn’t done draining our own swamp!