The Lamoille South school board is under pressure to discipline or fire superintendent Tracy Wrend after a federal jury decided she was retaliating against a teacher when she fired him five years ago.
Lisa Mihan, a Stowe resident who called for Wrend’s termination in a letter to the editor last week, said in a phone interview this week that she fears the board is siding with Wrend, instead of a jury.
“It does seem that the board works for Tracy, instead of the superintendent working for the board,” Mihan said.
On Sept. 11, a jury in U.S. District Court in Rutland sided with former Peoples Academy technology teacher David Bain, who sued Wrend in 2014 for wrongful termination. The jury awarded Bain $150,000 in compensatory and punitive damages.
School board chair Cara Zimmerman said in an email this week that the board “takes its role of overseeing the superintendent seriously,” but hasn’t been able to make any decisions yet, because of the board’s meeting schedule. Five days after the jury verdict, the board held an executive session and retained a lawyer “to assist us in understanding the jury verdict and its implications on Ms. Wrend’s contract,” Zimmerman said. The board hasn’t met since then, and it plans to talk about the issue behind closed doors Oct. 7.
“As a reminder, we are a public board and are subject to open meeting law, thus we are not able to meet as a board outside of publicly warned meetings,” Zimmerman said. “We appreciate your patience as we go through our thoughtful and deliberate process so that we can make decisions that are in the best interests of our schools and children.”
Mihan said she thinks the school board is “hiding behind the process, hiding behind the rules,” instead of speaking up about the jury verdict.
“I feel the relative silence in this case is because they hope it will go away and people will forget,” Mihan said. “I feel that, if the board is backing her, or trying to delay so people forget about it, then the board needs to explain to the public why they are doing this.”
She said she isn’t the only one who feels that way, but all her children have graduated and she no longer needs to protect them from any pressure at school.
“I no longer have to fear the retribution other parents have to face for speaking out, and I am speaking for many friends who feel they can’t speak out,” Mihan said.
Wrend’s contract runs through June 30, 2021, and Zimmerman said the board can’t just fire her based on the jury decision.
“We have been advised by our attorney that the jury verdict in the civil lawsuit against Ms. Wrend does not constitute ‘just and sufficient cause’ to terminate her contract,” Zimmerman wrote Tuesday, asking the public to be patient while the board continues to monitor the case.
Calls for Wrend’s end
Social media was set alight after the jury decision, with most people calling for an end to Wrend’s tenure as superintendent — a Sept. 13 News & Citizen Facebook post about the decision was shared 59 times and had 59 comments, almost all of them anti-Wrend.
Some people also emailed the school board about their concerns. Those emails were obtained by a public records request.
Brent Miller of Elmore, in an email Sept. 30 to the board, said Bain “has been put through things that most of us can never fully relate to” throughout the past five years.
“Horrendous,” he wrote. “So, the one who is supposed to guard her schools from bullying has now been confirmed as the top bully.”
Todd Deuso, who chairs the Morrisville board of village trustees, called on the school board to fire Wrend in an email Sept. 21 to the board. A week later, he suggested she be placed on paid administrative leave.
Deuso was chair of the Hardwick Select Board in 2003, when a transgender police officer was fired and accused the town of discrimination. The town settled with the officer but never admitted wrongdoing, something Deuso now feels was wrong.
This week on the phone, Deuso said that as long as Wrend is allowed to keep working, the board is sending a message “that her leadership is intact.”
“We have an employee who has been convicted of retaliation, which everybody should take seriously,” Deuso said. “I hope the board does its due diligence and does a good investigation and doesn’t sweep it under the rug.”
Wrend has at least one defender on the record.
Emily Rosenbaum, a former Stowe school board member and an active part of the school community, said in an email Sept. 23 to the school board that she doesn’t “know all the particulars of this case,” but believes Wrend acted out of the best interest for children.
During the trial, Bain told the jury he had been accused of “grooming,” a behavior sexual predators use to gain a minor’s trust.
Rosenbaum said she was abused as a child, and was saved by two teachers who “acted on a hunch and spoke up.”
“What I have always admired about (Wrend) is that she watches for children being victimized,” Rosenbaum wrote. “I’ve seen her do it time and again, because vulnerable children seem to end up in my life a lot; my children seem to bring home birds with broken wings. As a parent, as a survivor, as a taxpayer who pays Tracy’s salary, I am surely glad she is watching.”
Insured for suits
Lamoille South finance director Andy Lundeen had said after the verdict that “there is zero cost to the school district” for Tracy Wrend’s legal battles.
Instead, Lundeen said, those costs are borne by an insurance pool that 80 to 85 percent of Vermont school districts belong to, the Vermont School Boards Insurance Trust.
Elmore resident Don Valentine said he’s concerned that insurance rates will go up as a result of the five-year Bain lawsuit. In a letter to the editor this week, he called Lundeen’s comment a “gross misstatement of the truth.”
But Lundeen said it’s not that easy to quantify, since the insurance pool is there for all schools that contribute to it. He said Lamoille South has been a part of the pool since 2012, and the majority of increases in the district’s contributions have come from workers’ compensation.
“The people who come to me are looking for a dollar impact, but I can’t do it. Not to avoid the question,” Lundeen said this week. “The bottom line is there really isn’t a way to say this claim translates to an exact dollar increase.”
Lundeen provided an eight-year summary of the district’s contribution to the insurance pool, which covers things like property, workers’ compensation, automobile liability, crime, and pollution liability. It also covers “school leaders legal liability.”
In the 2013 fiscal year, Lamoille South contributed a total of $192,809 to the pool. This year, that contribution was $259,603. The overall contribution has ticked up every year except for last year, when there was a decrease.
Of those total contributions, the legal liability line — which covers things like lawsuits — made up $23,029 in the first year. This year, it was $29,784, which is a decrease from last year.