The Lamoille South Unified Union school board is severing ties with its superintendent a year before her current contract is up.
Superintendent Tracy Wrend announced last week she is stepping down at the end of the school year “to explore other opportunities.”
She will serve until June 30, but agreed to vacate the post if the school district can hire an interim superintendent earlier.
Wrend will receive her salary in its entirety next fiscal year.
“I truly appreciate the opportunity I had to serve the communities, schools, and students of LSUU,” Wrend said in a Jan. 8 statement. “I am most proud of my continued commitment to doing what was best for each and every LSUU student, even when it was hard, unpopular, or difficult to explain publicly.”
Per the agreement, the district will continue to pay Wrend her entire $153,217 salary for next year, in two equal installments — the first one July 1 of this year and the second some time in the first six months of 2022.
She will also be paid for 22 unused vacation days and the cash value of her remaining health, dental and life insurance and sick days.
The separation agreement, also dated Jan. 8, said the salary and benefit money paid to Wrend are “liquidated damages and not penalties.”
There are, however, penalties for board members who don’t play nice.
Wrend has come under fire in recent years for her role in having a Peoples Academy teacher fired six years ago, and some board members have accused her of bullying and a lack of transparency.
She also has faced criticism for her leadership style from members of the community who have called for her resignation or termination, in letters to board members and local newspapers, and on social media.
Last year, the Lamoille South school board allowed for a cavalcade of community members to enter closed-door sessions with the board to help evaluate Wrend ahead of her contract renewal.
Ultimately, two of the seven board members — Stowe representatives Tiffany Donza and Erica Loomis — voted against extending her contract another two years, through June 2022.
Then, at both Dec. 29 and Jan. 5 meetings — after executive sessions — the board voted unanimously to terminate Wrend.
Board chairman David Bickford was mum about what happened in those closed-door sessions, even though the board’s votes were placed out in the open.
Wrend had three weeks to decide whether or not to sign the agreement, which she ultimately did on Jan. 8.
If you can’t say anything nice…
Another part of the separation agreement bars board members from speaking ill of Wrend for the next two-plus years.
“Board members agree not to make statements or representations, or otherwise communicate, directly or indirectly, in writing, orally, or otherwise, or take any action which may, directly or indirectly, disparage you through June 30, 2023,” the clause states.
Any infraction of that is punishable by a fine of $10,000 per violation, with the fine amount paid directly to Wrend.
The past several years have proven tumultuous, with board members past and present critical of Wrend’s leadership — including issues of transparency with grading and standardized test scores and accusations of bullying staff.
Much of this came to a head in September 2019, when a jury in U.S. District Court ruled that Wrend acted out of retaliation when she had former Peoples Academy teacher David Bain fired in September 2014.
A judge had previously dropped other aspects of Bain’s wrongful termination suit against Wrend, but allowed the retaliation suit to go forward. Bain was awarded $150,000 in damages.
In the wake of that, two Stowe members resigned from the board, which had only just formed two months earlier.
There was also a flap in late spring 2020 when Wrend informed the board that grades would be done away with as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, a move that upset a few board members.
A public records request for those emails by this newspaper — and from Wrend herself — revealed several instances of personal insults about Wrend.
There was also a tumultuous eight-month span following the Vermont State Board of Education’s late 2018 decision forcing Elmore, Morristown and Stowe into one district with one seven-person board.
Proponents said Wrend shined while helping navigate the legal and legislative challenges to the state board’s forced merger and helping bring two separate boards — Elmore and Morristown were already merged — into one.
‘An exemplary, strong leader’
In addition to the gag order placed on displeased board members saying negative things about Wrend, the separation agreement requires a letter of recommendation from the board for future potential employers.
Bickford wrote — and the board unanimously approved of — the letter calling Wrend “an exemplary and strong leader who has managed LSUU with enthusiasm, ingenuity, and compassion for students, teachers, and staff.”
The letter touts her leadership during the merger and shares Wrend’s professional accolades — including her being named superintendent of the year for the 2016-17 school year.
“In summary, I have too little space to chronicle all of her contributions and achievements to do her justice,” Bickford said. “Suffice it to say that Tracy has made a deep and lasting contribution to LSUU, its antecedents, to education in Lamoille County and within Vermont.”