Emails between members of the Lamoille South school board, who weren’t consulted about the administration’s pandemic-spurred decision to nix the regular grading system, detail a mad scramble to get ahead of the message before the grade changes were finalized.
The emails came from a public records request filed by superintendent Tracy Wrend. The newspaper filed a similar separate request to get the same information Wrend sought.
Although Wrend had previously bemoaned the fact that someone had leaked “misinformation” about the grading changes before they were ready for prime time, she declined to say why she filed the public records request. She said only that she hoped the board would “cooperate with the democratic process that is afforded every member of the community.”
Stowe board member Erica Loomis said this week it is “bizarre” for a superintendent to go “against your employer” — the board. She called Wrend’s public records request “an intimidation tactic.”
“I believe this type of request, to the board, sends the wrong message to the board and to the public,” Loomis said Tuesday. “To me, this request says she doesn’t trust the board.”
Last week, the school board forced Wrend to offer students a choice between grades that count toward GPA and a more simplified pass-or-not system.
The most vituperative criticism of Wrend came from Loomis and Tiffany Donza, the two Stowe board members who voted against Wrend’s contract renewal in February.
“You lack transparency, accountability, honesty, and good leadership and social skills,” Loomis told Wrend in a May 7 email, the day before the grading changes were announced. “I was really hoping you were going to prove me wrong when I voted against renewing your contract, but all you have done the past two months is prove to me I made a really smart decision.”
In another email four days later, Donza said Wrend’s “disrespect for the board is astounding,” and said Wrend is “spiraling out of control.”
Stowe board member Norm Williams — a former Stowe High School social studies teacher — said this week he’s been involved with five superintendents and countless board members over the years and hasn’t seen a relationship as contentious as the one surrounding Wrend and this board.
“I think it is incumbent on both the board and the superintendent to work out our differences and create a more collaborative working relationship, rather than confront one another in the press or at meetings,” he said Tuesday. “I think that both sides need to work on this process for it to work for the students of the district. Confrontation will get us nowhere.”
It remains unclear what “misinformation” Wrend was referring to that spurred her decision to go ahead with the grading changes, or what she was hoping to dig up in her public records request. But there is a working document about the grading changes purportedly sent from the central office to principals that board members got a hold of without any explanation of where it came from.
Loomis said in a May 8 email to the newspaper, “The board didn’t approve the document, didn’t know about the document and hadn’t seen the document.”
Donza said the three-page memo was sent out April 30 from the central office to teachers and principals, before the May 4 board meeting in which Donza originally asked for board input on grading changes.
“Just because no one likes the information doesn’t make it misinformation,” Donza wrote May 7. “I am so disappointed and embarrassed to be part of this.”
Board behind the scenes
The backstage drama was explosive from the start.
“Tracy, please consider this email a strong warning not to communicate this plan with parents until the board has had an open meeting discussion about it,” Donza wrote to Wrend May 6, two days after a school board meeting in which Donza said she didn’t want to be blindsided by grading changes. “The fuse has been lit. … Let’s see if we can put it out before the dynamite explodes.”
A couple of hours later, after the board received an email from a parent who’d heard about the proposed grading changes, Loomis sent a three-word email to Donza: “And it begins…”
To which Donza replied: “BOOM!”
Those first few days of emails show a board scrambling to get ahead of the message, with numerous smaller conversations that didn’t include the whole board.
Loomis and Donza sometimes had their own thing going on, and would sometimes loop in fellow Stowe board member Norm Williams and Morristown’s Dick Shanley, the newest board member elected in March.
In a May 11 email to just Donza, Williams and board chairman David Bickford, Loomis accused Wrend of misconduct and said there was “just cause to suspend” Wrend and issue a written reprimand.
Largely absent from these smaller email chains were Elmore’s Penny Jones and Morristown’s Stephanie Craig.
Wrend attempted to quell the chatter in a May 7 email to the whole board, asking that things go through her and/or Bickford, noting, “Even the sharing of opinions about potential agenda items could be considered inconsistent with the spirit or intent of open meeting law.”
Jones replied that the emails she received “certainly felt like something that could have been in violation of open meeting law.”
Shanley bristled at suggestions that board members refrain from discussing issues outside the board meeting.
“I will continue to email and talk on the phone to whoever I want to unless it is confidential information or conversations from an executive session. It is called free speech!!” he wrote in a May 11 email to Donza and Loomis. “The crux of the question is whether Tracy is in charge of us or are the voted-in members and the taxpayers in charge of her?”
Williams this week acknowledged he was “treading a fine line, if not outright crossing it” when it came to stating his opinions over email that the board ought to be involved in grading decisions. He said when he was on the Stowe Select Board, the town manager made sure the board was included in big decisions.
“I guess my only defense is that I was frustrated with the timeline and pace of the decision-making process,” Williams said.
Loomis, also this week, said her motives in the back-and-forth emailing stemmed from her “wish for everything to be on an agenda and discussed in an open meeting.” She said, however, that not enough board members agreed a special meeting was needed.
“Not everyone felt the issue was as pressing as I did,” Loomis said.