As The Valley Reporter goes to press on October 11, the Harwood Unified Union School District Board is discussing board superintendent Brigid Nease’s response to two complaints about potential violations of Vermont’s Open Meeting Law as well as Nease’s response and that of board attorney Pietro Lynn.
On May 24, the board entered an executive session to discuss personnel matters, which did happen for at least the first part of the nearly two-hour executive session. After that, the discussion became an often heated discussion of board conduct, according to three board members who have spoken on the record and two who have spoken off the record.
Board members Jill Ellis and Heidi Spear (who has since resigned from the board) responded in a June letter to the board, voicing objections to the legality of the executive session.
They did so again in August.
In September, Gabe Gilman, vice chair of the HUUSD Board, also voiced his concerns in a complaint about Open Meeting Law violations. Those complaints mirror the one submitted to the board by The Valley Reporter and the Waterbury Record which allege that the board violated Vermont’s Open Meeting Law by entering executive session to discuss board conduct – which is not a legal reason for doing so.
“After extensive research, investigation and off-the-record conversations with multiple people who participated in that executive session, we cannot ascertain any legal, allowable reason for your closed-door session and have determined that it violated Vermont’s Open Meeting Law. Despite the given reason for the session — personnel issues — the actual discussion centered around board member conduct and board dynamics. Those are not protected or legal reasons for executive session.
“We feel that we are one of the primary avenues for relaying what you are doing to the public and those who voted you into office. Those who elected you have a vested interest in understanding how you think and how you perform and how you handle issues and interactions on our unified union district school board. In particular, how you handle board conflict and internecine strife are relevant to voters and the public,” the letter from the newspapers reads.
At the board’s September 27 meeting Nease said she would issue a written response to Gilman’s letter which she also used to respond to the letter from the local newspapers. In her October 9 response, she talked about the difficulties the board faced in the spring, including the resignation of Harwood Union Principal Amy Rex this spring.
“After eight years of service with these highly competent administrators, I became seriously concerned with the thought that we would lose good administrators if something could not be done to turn this around. Several of our administrators were speaking to me individually about not signing a new contract or resigning from the one they had. A few were interviewing elsewhere. So, I asked for an executive session.
“During that lengthy executive session, I shared individual details about our administrators, their job performance and personal information, why they had such serious concerns, and who was contemplating leaving. I told the board that it felt as though this supervisory union was imploding and I later shared that publicly. ANY one of these administrators, including myself, could have been damaged by the disclosure of this personnel information prematurely,” Nease wrote in her response.
Two paragraphs above that statement, Nease pointed out that the Open Meeting Law allows the discussion of employment contracts without a finding that the premature disclosure of the personnel information could be damaging.
“It is true that board members actions were discussed as it related to personal information about administrators, their performance, things they shared with me confidentially, and administrators’ contracts. Reflections and interpretations of previous board meetings as it related directly to administrators’ possible decisions were spoken about. In general it included failure to follow policies, the appropriate chain of command, due process for public complaints, use of email and sharing them, and other actions that were directly related to the situation we found ourselves in with the administration. In my professional opinion, this is allowable executive session discussion. This session was awkward and uncomfortable for all,” she continued.
The board members who have spoken out against the May 24 executive session have made clear that the discussion that took place was well beyond a discussion of any local administrators and that it was “awkward and uncomfortable for all,” because of exactly how the conduct of specific board members in the closed-door session with no members of the public or press present.
The response by board attorney Pietro Lynn asserts a right for the school board to go into executive session to discuss the conduct of its own members because it is legal to use executive session to discuss appointment or employment or evaluation of a public officer or employee. He then asserts that board members, who are hired by voters (elected), are public officers and that Vermont’s Open Meeting Law allows a board to evaluate its own members, joining the idea that boards negotiate hiring and firing in executive session with the idea that voter-elected board members can legally be the subject of an executive session being held for personnel reasons.
The Vermont secretary of state’s office would not answer specific questions about the assertion that board member may be considered public officers for the purposes of executive session or whether board members could be hired, fired or evaluated by any other than voters because vice chair Gilman works for the Vermont secretary of state’s office.