Board error stymies Mt. Abe Unified School District
BRISTOL — What might have been an open-and-shut grievance case in the Mount Abraham Unified School District (MAUSD) has led instead to a public dispute between the head of the teachers union and MAUSD board and superintendent, which has raised new questions about transparency in the district.
At issue is not the grievance, itself, which apparently was a personnel matter that was discussed in executive session and was denied at the March 11 school board meeting. The issue is what happened immediately afterward: The board directed Superintendent Patrick Reen “to collaborate with MAEA (Mount Abraham Education Association) to find a solution by March 26, 2019,” and to “prepare to report the solution to the board.”
At the March 26 meeting, MAEA Co-president Tom Learmonth reported during public comments that no collaboration had occurred.
Furthermore, he added, “It says that there’s going to be a report for the solution to this board, but I don’t see that report in the agenda. So I’m wondering if I should stay because that report’s going to happen?”
No, said board chair Dawn Griswold.
“The board has not had further discussion,” she explained. “There may be a statement at some later date, but not tonight.”
Two months passed and still no statement was issued, and Learmonth reported at each of the following two board meetings that the non-collaboration situation remained unchanged.
“I would just caution the board that as they talk about the Strategic Plan and the language you use around the Strategic Plan, especially around directives and collaboration, that you need to stand behind your words,” Learmonth said during public comments at the May 28 meeting.
The subject came up again later in the meeting, during a discussion of the report Reen had submitted regarding “Treatment of Staff.”
“I’m just curious if this might be an appropriate time to talk about how we resolve Mr. Learmonth showing up at every meeting and giving the same spiel,” said Steve Rooney, a board member from Starksboro. “There’s got to be a way to resolve this.”
After a brief discussion, Griswold revealed the problem.
“We made an error in our motion,” she said. “We made a mistake in our language.”
The board had overstepped its authority, Griswold explained in a June 10 email responding to questions from the Independent.
“The Board’s goal … was to encourage the ongoing collaboration (that had been happening) to reach a solution,” Griswold wrote on behalf of the board. “Our intent was to show support for the continuing conversation.”
Griswold declined to say how long the board had known about the error.
After Griswold mentioned the error at the May 28 meeting, discussion turned to finding solutions, including the possibility of rescinding all or part of the directive it had issued.
But then Reen interjected.
“As far as I’m concerned the board did see information and was satisfied with that information,” he said. “It’s just the nature of the information that was shared couldn’t be shared publicly, which was why it happened in executive session.”
When asked separately about when the board saw this information and in what context it was presented, Griswold declined to comment.
“So from my perspective,” Reen continued, “mission accomplished, board satisfied. That message just hasn’t been conveyed yet to Mr. Learmonth, so he keeps coming and making his statement — that’s the disconnect.”
Learmonth confirmed that he had received no correspondence from Griswold on the matter.
When asked separately if the board agreed with Reen’s assessment, and if so why nothing had been conveyed to Learmonth, Griswold did not comment.
Reen suggested at the May 28 meeting that the MAUSD might want to “confer with legal counsel ahead of whatever action it is we plan to take.”
When asked separately if the district had consulted an attorney, or whether it planned to, Griswold declined to comment.
Though the May 28 discussion had not been linked to a specific agenda item, Griswold allowed it to proceed anyway, she said.
“I let it go because I know we have to get to the bottom of it,” she said.
When questioned separately by the Independent, Griswold wouldn’t specify how long she had recognized the issue as something that needed to be gotten to the bottom of.
According to the agenda for its June 25 meeting, the board plans to “accept evidence provided by superintendent regarding board directive to collaborate with MAEA,” though it’s not clear why, in light of the erroneous directive, such action might be necessary.
The board declined to comment on what steps were being taken to ensure that the issue will be resolved as transparently as possible.
Whether or not the board rescinds the original directive remains to be seen.
“I’m not sure where things stand now,” Learmonth told the Independent last week. “The minutes of the 5/28 meeting seem to suggest that either the board will rescind their directive or they will declare that they received a report in executive session. Well, if they received a report, why would they rescind the directive? And if they received and accepted the report based on the premise that collaboration occurred, then I worry about the interpretation of ‘collaboration’ as the District works to implement its new Strategic Plan.”
In addition to suffering a series of high-profile setbacks, most notably the firing of Superintendent David Adams in 2015, the school district has in recent years endured a number of accusations regarding a lack of transparency.
At its annual meeting in February the MAUSD came under fire for failing to make the entire 2018-19 budget publicly available.
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].
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