A single vote changes and GM board appoints Keith Hill principal

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2021 Telegraph Publishing LLC

In an often contentious  and confusing meeting on Thursday night, the Green Mountain Unified School District Board looked at a bleak prospect and voted 5-4 to rescind its recent vote to reject its superintendent’s recommendation for a new high school principal. With four members continuing to stand against the recommendation, the change came from votes by the chair and a member who had previously abstained.

The board then went on to vote 5 to 4 to offer that candidate, Keith Hill, a one-year “probationary” contract to fill the position. The meeting was a rough ride, with a few shining lights no matter whose side of the aisle you were on.

Superintendent Lauren Fierman made it clear that the board hired her to make this decision and voting against Hill was a vote of no confidence in her. Telegraph file photo

With Two Rivers Superintendent Lauren Fierman making it clear that voting down her recommendation would result in her resignation, the majority was trying to avoid losing a highly respected leader as well as the possibility of conducting a search for both a principal and a superintendent at a time of year when most education hiring for next year is done.  Those still in the pool of available candidates tend to not made the cut elsewhere.

One candidate put forth,
four ‘no’ votes returned

The rumpus began back on April 6 when a search committee, made up of board members, faculty, parents, administrators and one student, sent two candidates for principal of the Green Mountain High School to the board.

During that special meeting, the candidates — Rutland math teacher Gwen Hagenbarth and GM social studies teacher Keith Hill — were interviewed by the board in an executive session.  In public, Fierman recommended Hill for the post, but the motion to offer him a one-year contract was defeated 4-3 with one abstention — Wayne Wheelock of Baltimore — and the chair — Joe Fromberger of Andover — not voting. Normally, the board consists of 11 members but since March there have been two vacancies in Cavendish.

After that meeting, emotions in the communities served by the high school ran high and board chair  Fromberger sent an email to board members saying: “In light of the considerable community controversy engendered by this issue, it is my belief that the Board needs an opportunity to re-visit the question, to either affirm or amend its previous decision.”

Fromberger and vice chair Deb Brown put a motion to rescind a previous action on the agenda and, at the beginning of the meeting on Thursday, April 15, board member Mike Studin asked that the board comment period be moved ahead of what he termed “the motion to erase the past.”

Why they voted the way they did

Mike Studin outlines his reasons for voting against offering Hill a contract

With more than 150 people — including teachers, community members, parents and former students — attending the Zoom meeting, several board members spoke to the reasons why they voted the way they did on April 6.

Studin, a Chester resident, said he had been in the hiring process since the beginning as a member of the search committee and that it’s clear to him that Hill is well-liked, well-respected and a good teacher. But, he added that Hill ranked near the bottom of those interviewed in supervisory and administrative experience and Studin believed that Hill was “pushed through each round.” Studin also said that Hill had never worked on a budget or supervised staff. He called appointing Hill a disservice to him, the staff, students and the community. Thus, he said, he voted no.

Dennis Reilly found Hill lacking in leadership and administrative experience

Dennis Reilly of Cavendish, who also voted no, told the meeting he holds a doctorate in leadership and is an educator himself. He noted that Hill is “a likeable guy” and “very well respected,” but in a number of areas he thought important for a principal — professional development, fiscal experience, innovation in secondary education trends, educational leadership experience and administration experience — Hill was lacking. He said he appreciated the response from the community and asked that they respect and honor the opinions of those who voted no as well.

Jeannie Wade said she did not feel comfortable putting Hill in the office

Rick Alexander of Chester, another no vote, said that he preferred the other candidate for her experience, leadership in various areas, and managing people and budgets. Alexander said her answers were based on experience and facts and he praised her vision. He said that many of the questions asked of Hill went largely unanswered and that Hagenbarth was a better candidate.

Jeannie Wade of Chester, the fourth no vote, gave a lengthy definition of the characteristics of a leader and told the meeting that she could not support someone who does not demonstrate those attributes. She said she did not feel confident in the candidates that the search committee brought forward, and while she said she had taken into account the community’s opinions, “at the end of the day, there are things that are there that I do not feel putting this person in the position he has applied for. I just don’t feel comfortable.”

Three members who voted yes also spoke:

Deb Brown compared the board/superintendent relationship to that of a CEO in a company

Vice chair Deb Brown of Chester said that the members misunderstand their role as directors who hire a “CEO” to manage and run the operations. “If we don’t like our CEO’s decisions we can find someone who is more in line with what we want.” Brown also asked if any of the no voters had the qualifications to make the choices Fierman has to make. Brown also said that while another candidate would have to take time to learn the ropes, Hill would be working in an atmosphere he knows well. “What are you afraid of with a one year contract?” asked Brown.

Lois Perlah of Chester said that the role of the board is not to make academic or educational decisions but to support the people the board puts in place to make those decisions. “Therefore, I support our superintendent in her decision to offer Keith the job.”

Josh Schroeder said that with all the support, Hill could survive and grow

Josh Schroeder of Chester said that after listening to the candidates he felt Hill was more qualified. “He may not have had all the pieces of the puzzle that everybody was looking for but his qualifications came from the heart … Mr. Hill does not have all the cards. (But) I don’t know who does.” He went on to say that with the support of Fierman, the community, students and peers, Hill would “survive” his first year and “grow.” He called the decision a “win/win.”

The member abstaining from the April 6 vote – Wayne Wheelock of Baltimore – did not make a statement.

Motion to rescind previous action

About 40 minutes into the meeting, Brown made the motion to rescind the previous vote and, as discussion began, GM alum Anna Martel asked if the public would be allowed to comment before the vote. Fromberger said there would be ample time for the public to comment.

In response to the motion, Studin told the meeting that he was surprised and disappointed by what was happening, calling the motion to rescind “sour grapes” that undermine the process.

Alison DesLauriers, who served as a board member and board chair of GMUHS and TRSU wrote that it’s late in the year to find good candidates with a search Telegraph file photo

Brown read a statement from Alison DesLauriers, who served for 25 years on local school and supervisory union boards, often as chair. DesLauriers said it was not up to the board to judge the qualifications of the candidates and that it is up to the superintendent who has the “vast knowledge and experience to offer.”

“A third search in this hiring cycle is not likely to produce better candidates and to be blunt, the hiring pool is limited, wrote DesLauriers, adding that word gets around about how difficult a board is. “The idea that a board would go against a superintendent’s recommendation is not a situation that will attract highly qualified principals,” she said. “It’s a great negative.”

Then, over the next 47 minutes, more than 20 school staff, community members and recent graduates of Green Mountain spoke in Hill’s favor.

Search Committee member Kate Lamphere said she found Hill to be the person I want to inspire my kids and your kids because he inspired me

Former board member and search committee member Kate Lamphere of Cavendish said that everyone on the search committee took their job of finding the right candidate seriously during two searches. “I went away from hearing Mr. Hill speak saying that’s the person I want to inspire my kids and your kids because he inspired me.”

Patrick Spurlock of Grafton said he has a child who graduated from GM and one who may be attending next year. He noted that Hill is the advisor of the Circle Club which gave members a chance to talk about social justice issues and that his child is part of the LGBTQ community. “If Mr. Hill leaves this school as a result of this board’s ridiculous decision … then my child no longer has a representative on your faculty.” He noted that his child has other choices for school but he wanted to chose Green Mountain.

GM grads Anna Martel, Tuckerman Wunderle and Emily Tornquist spoke to the effects that Hill had on their time at school

Saying that she was the only out lesbian in the school when she attended, GM graduate Anna Martel said that school was a lonely, painful place and her problems were met with an “oh well, things will better after high school attitude.”

She said she seriously considered suicide because there was no safe place at Green Mountain for her. “Keith was ultimately the one who stepped up and supported me when I had no one else to go to.”

She told the board members that they don’t know what that is like, that they aren’t in the school “as a student day in and day out.  …  I think you really need to support the people you are electing a principal for.”

Citing  the experience of the student member of the search committee, who put in many hours and missed many opportunities, teacher Brett Mastrangelo asked why anyone would ever give up that time to be part of a search committee. “Who do you think would want to be part of a charade that’s a third search when they have no idea if their recommendation is going to mean anything to this board?”

Brett Mastrangelo asked who would invest time in serving on a search committee if they have no idea if their recommendation will mean anything to the board

GM grad Emily Tornquist told the board that she wrote her college essay on Keith Hill’s leadership, that he convinced her to go to college and inspired her to be a teacher. She said that the people that she respects most in her school’s administration all have teaching experience in common.

Educator and mother of three GM graduates Judy Verespy told the board she could not underscore enough the importance of staff and student support for a principal and that there is no shame in reconsidering their vote after hearing what their constituents want.

School counselor Ally Oswald noted that searching into the summer ignores the fact that planning for summer programs and next year – including funding decisions — are going on now. She asked the board what they think they will find in June: “a magical unicorn?” while putting students at risk.

Saying that she had once worked for a board named “worst board in America” Chester resident Linda Diak warned against micromanaging the organization with their personal opinions.

It was notable that although those who voted “no” on Hill’s appointment said they had receive a lot of supportive calls and emails, only one person spoke in support of their decision and she is the daughter of one of those members.

Denise Reilly-Hughes said personal feelings can cloud judgment

Denise Reilly-Hughes said that personal feelings can cloud the judgment of the public, the teachers and the board. She said she supports the decision that was made on April 6 not because Hill is not a good person. “Having hired people and fired people, I have never hired them because they are good people, but because they were capable of doing a good job,”  she said. Reilly-Hughes said that bringing Fierman in with a fresh perspective was positive and that people needed to listen to what the board is saying and not make it personal.

Before the vote, Fierman defended her recommendation of Hill, saying she appreciated the good things said about her skills and that the board had thought enough of her judgment to put her in charge of GM for two years, then to hire her as superintendent.

But she said, “I’m struggling to understand how you feel that I know what is necessary for the building, the district and the SU and at the same time you will not support my decision? What I am telling you is that I have the skills to know what we need and to supervise that person effectively.”

The vote and Mr. Ripley

At the end of the public comments, Fromberger asked for the motion to be read and the vote was taken. When the vote went the same way as the April 6 vote, with four against, three in favor and one “not voting,” Fromberger said that the motion was not adopted.

Crowd members began shouting over the chairman and Fierman was heard to say, “You understand that you are going to lose your superintendent. Everybody is clear that your voting this is telling me that you don’t have confidence in me? You’re clear about that?”

Amid more chatter, Fromberger called for order and, raising his voice, said, “Before we go any further, let me clarify what this vote means. The vote right now stands as a tie. OK?  There are are four votes no and four votes yes and one abstention.” Fromberger was again interrupted. “Where we go from here is up to the board,” Fromberger enunciated. “It is not up to a public comment period.”

Interim Principal Mike Ripley saying that he and other GM staff would “walk through fire” for Keith Hill

At that point, Mike Ripley of Cavendish, who has been GM’s interim principal and had twice applied, but failed to secure that position on a permanent basis, asked to speak. The crowd quieted.

Ripley told the board that he had a lot of mixed emotions about what was happening. “A few years ago, when you hired Lauren (as principal of GM) I thought you made a horrible mistake by not hiring me.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought ‘thank God they hired Lauren for this job.’ ”

“You need to know there are members of this staff, me included, who would walk through fire for Keith if he was our principal. I could say that about Lauren but maybe not a lot of others that I’ve worked with.”

“Everybody’s experience has to start somewhere … I think that with all the support Keith would have from Lauren, myself, (director of guidance) Mrs. (Pam) O’Neil, the dedicated and veteran staff we have and Todd Parah, he’d do a fine job. I’m not saying you made a mistake. It could have been different and should have been different.”

When Ripley finished speaking board member Josh Schroeder asked Wayne Wheelock, who had abstained twice, to vote yes or no, but to “please vote.” Studin said it was not appropriate for people to be called out and “belittled.”

But Wheelock piped up: “If you really want me to vote, I’ll vote. Can I vote now?”

Brown restated the motion and Brown, Perlah, Schroeder, Wheelock and Fromberger voted yes with Studin, Reilly, Alexander and Wade voting no.

Immediately after the vote, Brown moved to offer Hill a one-year probationary contract as principal at Green Mountain. That motion passed along the same vote.

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  1. Lillian Elliott Miller says:

    I congratulate the GM students, staff, and community on this success.

    Thank you for your consideration and valuable time, GM Board.

    Thank you, Mr. Hill. I’m excited to watch you systematically remove “probationary” from your title.

    Thank you, The Chester Telegraph for your excellent reporting.

  2. Sharon Jonynas says:

    Thank you to all of the school board members. You all took part in a long, emotional, and at times tense school board meeting. I’m very happy with the outcome, and I hope that the entire board can now accept the decision and work toward the future.

  3. Sue Willis says:

    Thank you GM school board!