HUUSD denies Open Meeting Law violation

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The Harwood Unified Union School District (HUUSD) Board has formally denied any Open Meeting Law violation, but board members will receive additional training on the subject.

After many months of dispute, Alexandra Thomsen read a motion denying any violation of Vermont’s Open Meeting Law. Nine members voted in favor, two voted against and two members abstained.

On May 24, the HUUSD Board held an executive session for personnel matters. Prior to the next meeting on June 14, board members Heidi Spear and Jill Ellis sent a five-page memorandum that accused the board of breaking the law. Earlier this fall, board vice chair Gabe Gilman explained his own discomfort with the executive session to The Valley Reporter. All three board members have charged that the May 24 executive session was not legal or appropriate because rather than discussing personnel matters, the executive session became a lengthy discussion of board conduct. Board conduct is not one of the legal reasons to hold an executive session.

Spear has since resigned from the board.

On September 26, one day before a board meeting, Gilman sent his own letter explaining to his fellow board members that it would be in the best interest of the board to apologize, set up a system so that no violations occur in the future, and move on.

At the board meetings following each of these letters, the authors were not present, so the rest of the board members were unable to discuss the issue; however, the board did pass a unanimous vote of confidence in board chair Christine Sullivan and the administrative team, following Spear and Ellis’ letter.

The board also passed a resolution on August 30 denying demands that Spear and Ellis made in their letter.

JOINT COMPLAINT

On October 6, The Valley Reporter and Waterbury Record sent a joint complaint to the HUUSD Board alleging that it had violated Vermont’s Open Meeting Law.

Every board member was present at the board’s October 11 meeting.

Most board members explained in either written statements or throughout the discussion that they feel that the discussion in executive session was completely legal. They contended that issues of board member conduct were having a negative impact on school administrators and some were hesitant to sign new contracts or renew old ones.

Amy Rex, Harwood’s former principal, resigned at the end of the 2016-2017 school year.

“The executive session was requested out of necessity. There was no pretext, no ruse and no intent to have an illegal discussion. Board behavior had deteriorated to the point at which dynamics and failure to follow policy or respect roles and responsibilities threatened our ability to retain members of our administration. The outcome could have been worse than losing one principal,” Sullivan wrote in a letter to the board.

DID NOT ATTRIBUTE INTENT

Gilman explained that he did not attribute intent to either the board chair or Superintendent Brigid Nease. He explained that often when boards violate the Open Meeting Law it is by mistake, which is why the law is so lenient, if the board comes forward.

Jim Casey of Waterbury explained that he does not believe that the board broke the law and, therefore, the board should not apologize for something it has not done. Most board members agreed with Casey.

“Upon review of my memory of what was discussed at our May 24 executive session and what I now know about calling an executive session, I firmly believe there was information discussed which appropriately fits the definition for calling an executive session. However, I also feel there was discussion which did not as clearly fit the definition. Consequently, I feel we probably should have gone in and out of executive session possibly a few times to strictly adhere to the Open Meeting Law,” explained board member Rosemarie White, Warren.

When the time came to vote on Thomsen’s motion, Ellis, of Fayston, urged all of the members to truly think about the executive session and whether or not it met the guidelines of an executive session. Ellis, Gilman and White were the sole votes against the motion. Rob Williams and Tom Cahalan abstained. Williams was not present on May 24 and Cahalan was sworn in as a board member on October 10.

After that vote, the board voted to seek out training on how to comply with Vermont’s Open Meeting Law. Board member Caitlin Hollister from Waterbury then made a motion dictating that if any board member has an issue that they raise it with the board rather than a letter or within the press. The motion passed unanimously.

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