Education Op/Ed

Letter to the editor: Hannaford board ignores public

I am writing to express concerns that the board of the Hannaford Career Center is creating obstacles to public comment, specifically at its two most recent meetings (Dec. 1, 2021, and Jan. 5, 2022).

Over the course of the two meetings, five individuals, myself included, asked to be heard during public comment. I will speak to my experience, but would like your readers to know that the issues being raised by — and the board’s response to — at least two other citizens are similar enough to mine to denote a worrisome pattern.

The proceedings of both meetings were captured by MCTV, so I will not go into detail about what happened to the other folks attempting to make public comment, which is sanctioned by the approved agenda and therefore well within the bounds of open meeting law. As I said, my experience is a representative sample.

When I expressed that I had become scared to come to work as a result of how I was treated toward the end of my tenure at the Career Center, the board chair began attempts to interrupt and derail my comments. I was able to finish and felt fairly comfortable that my comments were heard. But, they were so pock-marked by interruptions that I do not feel comfortable saying that they were able to be received in the spirit of the true, unadulterated public comment (kept to time and free from profanities) that we Vermonters enjoy in our local school and selectboard meetings.

And I was not alone in my concerns. In the chat connected to the Zoom, two other taxpayers begged the same question, one asking, “Is the board really allowed to prevent members of the public from expressing themselves? I know the board members can’t discuss personnel matters in public, but don’t members of the public have a right to express themselves publicly?” and another stating, “This is the public comments portion of the meeting and it feels as though the public is being muzzled.”

I have noticed that the board, when interrupting those speaking under the agenda item visitors comment, as voiced by its chair, frequently cites that the comments being made are for executive session because they relate to a personnel issue. This is true as cited in V.S.A. § 313 (4) that a board may choose to go into executive session to discuss “a disciplinary or dismissal action against a public officer or employee.” My comments were not asking the board to discuss, debate, or discipline anyone publicly; I was bringing to the board’s attention what I experienced working for its school and how those experiences affected me personally and professionally. The board chair also routinely states at the beginning of each public comment period that it is not meant to be a dialogue and that the board will not react or respond to comments made by visitors. Is an interruption not a reaction or a response?

The issues that were raised at the December and January board meetings and by those interviewed in the Dec. 23 article in this newspaper coupled with how members of the public have been treated at these recent meetings should give folks a legitimate reason to be concerned with how the governing body of the Career Center manages not only its sole employee, the superintendent/director, but also the institution and its operations as a whole.

I won’t attend a Career Center board meeting again with any hope of having my voice heard during public comment, which is perhaps the board’s goal, but I would welcome anyone to clarify what makes it acceptable for a board to warn an agenda that contains space for public comment, approve said agenda, and then proceed to actively block those wishing to participate. Further, if it is not to be public comment, what other mechanism does this board offer to obtain input from the taxpaying public if not through its regular, monthly meetings and the agenda item alluding to the fact that such input is welcome?

Kate La Riviere

Starksboro

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