TRSU boards look at their roles during retreat Association continues to push for less hands-on approach

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2021 Telegraph Publishing LLC

School boards don’t operate schools.”

Susan Holson of the Vermont School Boards Association facilitates the retreat. Photos by Shawn Cunningham

If there is one takeaway from a presentation that facilitator Susan Holson of the Vermont School Boards Association gave to members of the Green Mountain and Ludlow Mount Holly district boards during their June 30 retreat, it was that school boards hire experts and should let those experts do their jobs without interference.

And while the 12 out of 19 members of the two boards who attended were generally in agreement with the VSBA’s positions, there were a few places where some pushed back on the limits and asked, in effect, what constitutes interference as opposed to oversight. That included whether to delay a vote to approve a heating oil bid that would have put the that line in the annual spending plan over budget. The presentation was very similar – although longer – t0 one Holson gave to the GM board in February 2019.

Duties and powers

Holson began by outlining the statutory “duties” of a supervisory union board and the “powers” of a school board saying that she did not know what accounted for the difference in that wording. One very big difference between district boards and SU boards is that school districts in Vermont are municipalities (like towns) and have powers given by the legislature – including taxation – that supervisory unions do not.

‘We are all the supervisory union,” said Superintendent Lauren Fierman

Among its duties, an SU is supposed to provide a “union-wide” curriculum, professional development and special education and manage financial and student data. District boards have the power to determine the educational policies of the district, provide for sound administration of the schools, maintain the buildings, prepare each year’s budget, borrow money, execute contracts and exercise the general powers of a municipality – like taxation. The district board also elects, from its members, the board of the SU.

“We are all the supervisory union,” said Superintendent Lauren Fierman, early in the meeting.

Holson summed this up with a PowerPoint slide saying that district boards act as community trustees providing oversight to give students high quality educations, give the taxpayers their money’s worth and make sure the whole system runs ethically, efficiently and effectively.

GM board member Josh Schroeder questioned the price of heating oil for the schools which led to a delay and a reduction

Recalling the board’s approval of an overnight field trip during the meeting in 2019 when she made her previous presentation, Holson said that such decisions “are not a board level need” and again played an animated video about the role of a school board as “grandparents” who should support their grandchildren (students, faculty and staff etc.) but not interfere with the parents (the superintendent and administration) in raising them. Fierman noted that board approval of overnight trips is currently a policy for both GM and LMH. Holson suggested it should be at the top of a “hitlist” for review.

Another agenda item – approving a bid for heating oil – prompted more discussion of what is and is not the board’s role. Two bids came in much higher than last year and when a GM member Josh Schroeder mentioned receiving a substantially lower rate for oil earlier in the week. The board decided to table the subject and make a few calls to decide whether to approve a bid now or perhaps wait. Holson pointed to the recommendation of business manager Cheryl Hammond and said it was not in the board’s wheelhouse to do anything except approve or reject it.

GM board chair Joe Fromberger was skeptical about taking a hands-off position on the budget

Hammond was not at the retreat due to illness but was reached by Fierman and over the next couple of hours the low bidder revised the bid down by 3.5 cents per gallon, bringing the cost below the budget number. Holson maintained that it’s not the board’s job to manage budget line items but rather to look at the bottom line.

GM board chair Joe Fromberger disagreed about not looking closely at spending and several board members thought that if Hammond had been there she might well have seen their intervention as a positive.

The savings from making inquiries and waiting amounted to $2,590 for the GM district. The LMH district will also save money based on the number of gallons it uses.

Self evaluation results

Saying that good governance relies on “respectful listening and dialog” and that she understood that there has been a recent breakdown in that, Holson pointed to the results of a “self-evaluation” survey that was sent to all of the board members. Results showed that  most of the answers showed there is “room for improvement.” Holson said the answers to the question of whether board members understood their role as a community trustee rather than running the school was a “major red flag.” Eighteen percent of the board members answered “strongly disagree” while 9 percent chose “disagree.”

Areas in which members answers led to a grade of “good” or “acceptable” included budget/finance and policy. The areas in which the answers merited a “room for improvement” were vision, board/superintendent partnership, monitoring and board operations.

The board operations questions included whether members adhere to the conflict of interest policy (15 percent said no), whether members respect that they don’t have official power outside of the board and that board members are respectful of other members, administration, staff and community. Thirty-six percent strongly disagreed with the last statement.

Protocols to consider and more

Among Holson’s other suggestions was the adoption of a set of “protocols” for how the board operates. These include a number of items about how the board will conduct itself respectfully.

In addition, one protocol calls for the chair or an appointee to be the only person  speaking for the board and for members not to discuss the board’s actions in public. The protocol calls on members who do speak about the schools to clearly state that their opinions are their own and not those of the board. She discouraged this however saying that the public won’t be able to distinguish between the board as a whole and an individual member.

Holson also suggested that one member should monitor social media with regard to discussions about the schools but not to engage in those.

While the board discussed the protocols, they did not adopt them. That could take place in a future meeting.

At the end of the session, Fierman asked the board if they would want to get together for two more meetings in August to work on a list of goals for her and for the schools. Members agreed but asked for evening meetings. Those are being scheduled.

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