GM board gives 3 principals 2-year contracts coming out of questionable executive session Board member says SU 'ignored' audit committee's request

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2020 Telegraph Publishing LLC

If the Green Mountain Unified School District board didn’t break Vermont’s Open Meeting Law last Thursday evening, they took it to the breaking point. The board entered the first of three executive sessions during the meeting using the exemption for “labor relations agreements with employees,” to discuss teacher negotiations. When it came out of executive session, the board appointed member Marilyn Mahusky – whose term is up this year and is not running for re-election – to continue as a negotiator.

GM’s three principals were offered two year contracts coming out of an executive session for another matter Photos by Shawn Cunningham

But then it became clear that in the final minutes of the closed door session, Superintendent Meg Powden had recommended that the board vote to award two-year contracts to all three principals of the district’s schools — Cavendish Town and Chester-Andover elementaries and Green Mountain High. Since the principals do not have labor agreements with the schools (which result from collective bargaining) but rather individual contracts negotiated by each principal, discussing those in the executive session appears to be a violation of the law.

Board member Doug McBride questioned the move, saying that the board had only heard about the recommendation 10 minutes earlier and he would feel more comfortable understanding what the board should do to fulfill its due diligence.

“We are acting on a recommendation by the superintendent,” said board chair Joe Fromberger who felt that Powden would already have done due diligence.

Board member Michael Studin noted that with a new superintendent coming in July, the board might not want to tie that person’s hands by giving the principals two-year contracts.

Outgoing board member Marilyn Mahusky cited her concern that principals would look for other jobs if the two year contracts were not offered on Thursday night.

Mahusky told the board that she was concerned that if they did not offer the contracts, it might encourage the principals to look elsewhere.

Asked if she had done annual reviews of the principals, Powden replied that she meets with each three times a month but has not written formal reviews. She said that they were progressing toward their goals and doing a great job.

“What is the message to our principals if the board doesn’t act on my recommendation?” asked Powden.

McBride cited the board’s own independent obligation to look at the situation and said he didn’t want to make a decision in 10 minutes the way the board did last year in approving a teacher sabbatical that some members later regretted.

There was no discussion of offering a one-year contract to show good faith with a discussion of a second year at another meeting and the board approved Powden’s recommendation by a vote of 6-2.

Mysterious executive sessions

In a little over a month, the boards of the Two Rivers Supervisory Union have held several executive sessions that are unexplained and that have resulted in no actions being taken afterward. The first such session was held at the GM board meeting of Jan. 16 when the board went into a closed door meeting under the exemption for evaluating employees, but did not invite any school employee including Powden into the 56-minute session.

Then on Feb. 12, the Ludlow-Mt. Holly school district board went into a 30-minute executive session to discuss a legal matter. According to a board member, no school staff was asked to participate in that meeting either.

The following evening, the Two Rivers Supervisory Union also went into executive session regarding confidential attorney-client communications. Again, no school staff was invited into the meeting and an LMH board member confirmed that the nine-minute meeting was on the same topic as the one held on the previous night.

Then last Thursday the GM board again went into an executive session without any school staff and again to discuss legal advice. The meeting ended without any action being taken. While members have been tight-lipped about the session, one member confirmed it was on the same topic as the Jan. 16 meeting and board chair Joe Fromberger told The Telegraph, that it was a “very serious matter.”

‘They chose to ignore it’ – Audit committee chair on SU cooperation

The 2019 audit for the GM district was on the agenda for near the end of the meeting, but during the board comment period near the beginning of the meeting, McBride criticized the SU for ignoring the board audit committee’s requests and concluding the work without any committee participation.

Board member Doug McBride saying that the SU business office and the school’s independent audit firm ignored the board’s audit committee.

McBride, who heads up the audit committee that was formed in early 2019, said he had sent an email to the audit company – RHH Smith – and to Powden and Business Manager Cheryl Hammond proposing several steps he called “audit committee lite,” noting that these would be less rigorous than a normal audit committee, but he received no reply.

“They chose to ignore it,” said McBride who called that disturbing.

“We own the financials and the audit,” said McBride, echoing what Sue Holson of the Vermont School Boards Association told the GM board at a retreat in September 2019. Holson said the audit was one of the roles of the board and that the board “owns” the audit.

McBride told the board that they either needed to decide to own the financials or disband the audit committee and began making a motion to do that. Fromberger called it out of order since such action was not warned on the agenda.

Mahusky asked if other boards have audit committees saying, “I don’t have enough information … I’m not sure owning our finances means we have to have an audit committee.”

Ironically, on that same evening, the Windham Northeast Supervisory Union was discussing the work of its audit committee, which was recently formed to deal with the disappearance of 10 years of payroll records according to a Brattleboro Reformer story the following day.

SU business manager Cheryl Hammond listens to a question from a board member

Business Manager Cheryl Hammond asked what the committee’s charge was and said there was no definition of what was wanted from the SU by the audit committee.

McBride said an email was sent to Hammond, Powden and several others outlining what the committee required.

“But it came from you and it should have come from the board,” said Hammond, adding that she did not receive the email.

At that point, Fromberger halted the discussion, but it continued during Hammond’s presentation of the audit later in the meeting with a number of pointed questions by McBride and with Mahusky countering by asking if it was necessary for the entire board to hear the exchange.

Superintendent search committee formed

Fromberger said the TRSU board had decided on the general makeup of the superintendent search committee, which will include two members of the GM board. He said that Kate Lamphere and Michael Studin had volunteered to serve on the committee along with Kelly Tarbell and Dan Buckley of the LMH board. Other members will include central office employees Cheryl Hammond and Michael Eppolito, Principals Craig Hutt-Vater of Mt. Holly and Deb Beaupre of Cavendish Town Elementary and two students from Green Mountain High School.

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  1. Jean Peters says:

    I agree with Tim Roper, especially regarding whether or not the three principals are deserving of their contract extensions and raises. There is no way of knowing. I would add that not doing a formal written review of the three principals not only does a disservice to the students but also to the three principals. Ms. Powden stated “they were progressing toward their goals and doing a great job.” What goals and where exactly are they in their progression continuum?. Each principal is owed an honest evaluation of their work, annually, at a minimum. It makes one think that Ms. Powden has no interest in the successful performance of her staff and therefore no interest in the successful performance of her students. I truly hope the new superintendent has more energy and more respect for the principals, the staff, the students, and the community that pays their salary.

  2. Tim Roper says:

    What is it with our school boards voting for contract extensions and raises without the employees having been through an annual review? They did it for Ms. Powden on multiple occasions and now again for the three top leadership positions at our local schools. In any private sector operation that’s the size of our school system, such a move would be unthinkable and in a public job, with those positions responsible for the educational and social foundation of our kids, it truly seems absurd to me. To be clear, I’m not saying that any of the three school principals are not deserving of contract extensions and raises; I’m saying that we, the people, have no way of knowing whether they do, or not.

    I hope this pattern changes under a new superintendent, but it’s clear our board needs to do more to show the public, who must approve school budgets, more accountability through due diligence on personnel matters.