Mount Abe board accused of illegal executive sessions
BRISTOL — The Mount Abraham Union High School Board meeting on Tuesday kicked off with a statement from Starksboro’s John Jefferies, a previous Robinson Elementary School board chairman, that he believed that the veiled nature of the teachers’ contract negotiations this past winter was unlawful.
The negotiations between the board and the teachers’ unions were conducted behind closed doors in an executive session. He said the executive session law was abused and that a formal policy to prohibit such activity in the future should be enacted by the board.
“In a nutshell,” Jefferies said, “I believe that the final meeting that you (the Mount Abe board) or your negotiating team had with the teachers’ negotiating committee just after the imposition … where it forbade the public to sit in to witness is in fact illegal … I ask simply that you consider passing a written policy that will in the future prevent that from happening.
“At the end of the day I believe that when a committee of the boards sits down in private with a committee representing the teachers, they are deciding on the education of our children and the taxation of our citizens. And I believe that democracy does not work well in the dark of a closet.”
Jefferies pointed to a law from the Vermont Education Law Book that outlines the purpose of an executive session. It reads, “A public body may not hold an executive session except to consider … contracts (or) labor relations agreements with employees … where premature general public knowledge would clearly place the state, municipality, other public body, or person involved at a substantial disadvantage.”
Since Jefferies feels that neither side could have been placed at a disadvantage in open negotiations with each other, he thinks that this law was abused.
“How could it possibly have (placed either side at a disadvantage)? The board was in open negotiations with the other side. It was just us that weren’t allowed to watch,” said Jefferies in a later interview.
The intent of the law, as he interprets it, is to protect the board while it’s conducting internal planning.
“If (the board) had to work out their negotiation strategy in an open session that the union could watch, they’d be at a terrible disadvantage. So I don’t object to that at all,” he said. “What they are doing here is keeping the taxpayers out of the room. It’s kind of like Congress when they debate a law. You might not be able to get into the caucus to see what the Democrats are really thinking. But you can sit in the gallery and watch the debate going on. You don’t get to participate, but you get to watch. That’s what the open meeting law is all about so that this stuff does not get done in the dark of the night.”
Board chairman Lanny Smith said that he and Addison Northwest Supervisory Union Superintendent Evelyn Howard are trying to contact then ANeSU attorney about the issue and would not act until having done so.
New ANESU business manager Ed Gomeau made his school board debut on Tuesday with the introduction of five new fiscal policies, all of which the board adopted. They are:
• A “fund balance policy” that follows accounting industry standards for governmental entities and limits how surplus funds can be allocated. Surplus funds listed under particular categories, like books or health insurance, cannot be redistributed to the general expenditures category. In some cases, a fund might appear to have a surplus at the end of a fiscal year, when in reality it might not have resolved itself due to pending expenses.
“It’s an attempt to make clear to people what we’re doing with that money when it’s left over,” said Gomeau.
• A new “capital assets policy” recommended by the school’s auditors to take depreciation of the school’s assets into account. As Gomeau explained it, the school’s buildings and property decreasein value over the years. The school’s books will now account for how these assets depreciate over time.
• An “employee conflict of interest policy” recommended by the school’s auditors to sets up guidelines for employee interests. “There has to be a separation between what you’re doing for your job and any outside activity,” said Gomeau.
The policy “basically gives you a roadmap for what’s allowable and what’s not allowable, he said, adding, “You can’t use your job to benefit yourself financially or someone else financially. That’s not what you’re here for. I’m not saying anything like that’s going on here, but it’s the type of thing that people aren’t always aware of.”
• A “fraud prevention policy” recommended by the school’s auditors to set up guidelines and a structure to report incidents of fraud. It also makes people aware of what is fraud and what is not.
• An “investment policy” recommended by the school’s auditors. This policy sets up strategies and safeguards for prudently investing the district’s money.
To implement all of these policies, Gomeau said ANeSU employees will need training, and the transition is already under way.
“It’s not that anything was wrong here. These are recognized procedures on how to operate financial management in school districts and municipalities. We’re just formalizing them here,” he said. “We need something that’s recognized by outside auditors that we are following good financial practices.”
Reporter Andrew Stein is at [email protected].