The Lamoille South school board voted Monday to affirm that it did not violate open-meeting law and that one of its members did not have a conflict of interest.
The board voted to ratify its previous decisions to go into closed-door sessions Oct. 7 and Oct. 21, and voted not to investigate a complaint that board member Stephanie Craig should have recused herself when the board voted to issue a statement in support of Superintendent Tracy Wrend.
Immediately after calling Monday’s meeting to order, the board went into executive discussion to get legal advice from the district’s attorney about complaints filed by Leigh Pelletier, who resigned from the school board in protest.
On Oct. 28, Pelletier, a Stowe resident and lawyer, wrote to her former colleagues, saying the board should not have used a closed-door meeting Oct. 7 to discuss crafting a statement of support for Wrend after a federal court jury found she had fired a Peoples Academy teacher in retaliation, and awarded the teacher $150,000.
The board said it was going into executive session to evaluate an employee, a perfectly legitimate reason under state law. After emerging from the executive session, the board voted to issue a statement saying, “With the information at hand, both Tracy Wrend and the former Morristown School Board have our support that the proper process took place surrounding the dismissal of David Bain.”
On Oct. 21, the board once again went into executive session, and once again emerged with another statement of support for Wrend
Pelletier, who resigned from the board Oct. 8, said the board wasn’t actually discussing the lawsuit during the Oct. 7 executive session, but was rather protecting the prior actions of a Morristown School Board that has been extinct for three years.
At Monday’s meeting, Pelletier, now in the audience instead of the conference table, outlined her complaints about the board’s actions.
“What is ‘the information at hand’ that the board relied on?” Pelletier asked. “It would be reasonable to assume the board did some sort of independent investigation. Yet, there was none. Despite my asking for the court pleadings to be emailed to the board, we never received any documentation.
“What does ‘proper process’ mean?” Pelletier continued. “It would be reasonable to assume that ‘proper process’ is referring to the entire process looked at by the Bain v. Wrend jury. Yet, the board’s use of ‘proper process’ is limited to a very small part of the process, specifically the termination. This would be like me talking about the great marathon I ran even though I ran only the last 4 miles.”
Pelletier argued that the discussion that led to the statement of support should have been held in open session for the public to hear.
“Any discussion and decision to refute or ignore the findings of the jury should have occurred in open meeting,” she said. “The board should not rely on conjecture, hearsay or false statements about the moral turpitude of David Bain to make determinations about the verdict.”
Pelletier also made her case that one board member had a conflict of interest.
“Stephanie Craig, the former chair of the Morristown School Board who presided over the Bain termination hearing, should have recused herself from voting on the support statement that ratified her and her old board’s actions concerning the termination of Bain,” she said.
After Monday night’s executive session, the board’s first action was to appoint a new board chair to replace Cara Zimmerman, who abruptly resigned one hour before the board meeting Oct. 21.
By unanimous vote, the board appointed David Bickford of Morristown, who began by addressing the conflict-of-interest complaint.
Bickford began by reciting the district policy — adopted at the meeting Oct. 21 — that defines conflict of interest as “when a board member’s private interests, as distinguished from the board member’s interest as a member of the board, would result in a benefit or harm by his or her actions as a member of the board.”
“Our legal counsel advised that this narrow definition applies, for example, when a board member is personally impacted financially by a decision, or if a member of their family is affected by that decision, or when the board member may have an interest that is not similar to that of the general public,” Bickford said.
“A board member does not have a conflict of interest when considering prior decisions of the board,” Bickford said. “Considering past decisions is part of what board members do.”
Craig said she did nothing wrong when she voted on the statement of support for Wrend.
“I do not believe I have a conflict of interest,” Craig said. “I have no financial interests in any matters related to the David Bain case or the way the district has handled it. I do not have any family relationships with anyone involved in the matter. I’ve never had any personal interests, one way or another, and I was involved in only acting in my capacity as a board member at all times.”
Board procedures allow the board chair to launch a formal investigation, but Bickford said he will not do so. Instead, board members voted to hold an informal hearing, which consisted of a statement from board member Tiffany Donza of Stowe.
“Our legal counsel, as everyone sitting here knows, has advised us that, not only was it not a conflict of interest for Stephanie to be part of the discussion that was held in executive session at the Oct 7 meeting, but because the (Lamoille South) board is the successor board of the Morristown School Board, it was completely appropriate and important for Stephanie, who had firsthand knowledge and was on the Morristown School Board at the time the incident, to be part of that conversation,” Donza said. “I therefore would implore the board not to hold a formal hearing for Stephanie on the conflict of interest charge.”
In the end, the board voted 3-0 not to launch a formal investigation; Craig abstained and Bickford, as board chair, did not vote.
The board then discussed the open-meeting law complaint. Once again, Bickford said the district’s lawyer told them they had done nothing wrong, and there was no need for the board to take any action.
However, “the board may want to ratify those decisions we made at those meetings” Oct. 7 and 21, he said.
Once again, Donza spoke in support of the board’s actions.
“We absolutely had discussion about Tracy’s employment during that meeting, and was one the major reasons we went in — to discuss her employment as superintendent coming out of hearing the jury verdict in the David Bain versus Wrend case,” Donza said. “There was absolutely no consensus of these board members or others going into that meeting about if or what kind of statement we would come out of that meeting with. It’s a completely false claim against the board. We had an extremely healthy discussion about how we should respond to the jury verdict, in terms of Tracy Wrend’s employment as superintendent. There was a lot of back and forth, and it went on for some time.”
In the end, the board voted to ratify its prior actions, and in doing so affirmed it had done nothing wrong.
‘It was insulting’
“I find it troubling that I’ve been bringing up open meeting law violations since I resigned, and the board keeps responding by simply ratifying their statement without any substantive explanation,” Pelletier said after the meeting.
“The board seems to be unwilling to admit anything was wrong, yet they’ve now fixed the record two times after the original vote.
“It was insulting that the board refused to address any of the questions or concerns I presented, and community engagement was not allowed on this issue that is clearly important to many. At the end of the day, I am amazed at all the legal costs and energy that’s been put into defending a 29-word support statement that is completely unresponsive to community concerns.
“Who benefits from that statement? Certainly not our children, teachers, or schools.”
With the back-to-back resignations of Pelletier and Zimmerman, the seven-person board was down to five members, with just one person from Stowe, rather than three.
The board interviewed five candidates:
• Drew Clymer, a former board member for the now-defunct Stowe Education Fund.
• Ryan Heraty, principal at Union Elementary School in Montpelier with three kids who he said will one day go through the Lamoille South school system;
• Erica Loomis, a Stowe resident for nine years and one of a handful of Stowe residents who attended meetings when the Vermont State Board of Education considered — and ultimately ordered — the merger of the Elmore-Morristown and Stowe school districts into a single district in 2018.
• Alan Ouellette, who has a daughter at Stowe High School and who, like Loomis, frequently attended the State Board of Education meetings during merger talks.
• Norman Williams, who was on the Stowe Select Board when it oversaw the construction of Stowe Arena and the Public Safety Building, and who retired in June after teaching history for nearly four decades at Stowe High School.
In the end, the board appointed Loomis and Williams; their terms will expire in March 2020.