The Lamoille South school board held a series of more than 30 closed-door sessions Monday evening so residents could say what they think about Tracy Wrend, the school superintendent.
Wrend still has almost a year and a half on her current contract, but the board decided it ought not do the evaluation alone.
“I think it’s the school board’s job to establish goals for our superintendent,” said board member Erica Loomis of Stowe.
Board chair David Bickford of Morristown, a former superintendent himself, said the board will now review the evaluations and “take action” on Wrend’s contract at its Feb. 17 meeting, after another executive session.
Monday’s private two-minute sessions were unorthodox, but seem to have abided by Vermont’s open meeting laws, since the board provided a list of everyone attending, and the sessions’ stated purpose.
Wrend has come under fire since last September, when a federal jury sided with a former Peoples Academy teacher who sued Wrend in 2015 after she fired him the year before, and awarded him $150,000. The teacher, David Bain, has attended school board meetings ever since, remaining silent the whole time.
On Monday, he wasn’t silent, saying the board denied him access to the executive session.
He made this announcement to a Stowe Elementary School classroom full of Stowe, Morristown and Elmore residents waiting their turns with the board, which was in another room down the hall.
Bickford said the executive sessions were intended only for residents of the three towns the board represents, although the board did allow two people from other towns to have their two minutes in the room.
“David Bain is a resident of Wolcott and he has a legal case against the district that is still pending,” Bickford said in an email Wednesday. “Therefore, the board members denied him permission to address the board.”
Bain, for his part, said it wasn’t entirely a surprise he was shut out — Wrend’s lawyer has promised to appeal the jury’s decision, so there is still an active lawsuit.
Still, Bain said “everybody circled the wagons” when it came to his and Wrend’s suit.
“So, good luck with your two minutes,” he told people in the room, who immediately began murmuring, most of the murmurs anti-Wrend.
Parade of people
Jeff Francis, executive director of the Vermont Superintendents Association, said he is familiar with Wrend’s lawsuit. He was not aware of Monday’s meeting, nor were many people, since the original agenda distributed through in the newspaper didn’t mention the public comment period.
“I do not recall ever hearing of a similar process before,” Francis said.
Bickford said he thinks the process went well, particularly with the number of people who wanted to address the board.
“People were candid with their remarks,” Bickford said. “I believe that the Board gained insight into their thinking.”
Loomis said she doesn’t think previous school boards did a consistent enough job of evaluating the superintendent, at least not at the meetings she’d been regularly attending for years before she joined the board.
As a result, she doesn’t think the board has had enough control over Wrend.
Cam Page, the longtime chair of the pre-merger Stowe School Board, offered a counterpoint to what appeared to be a sizable anti-Wrend crowd.
She cautioned the school board against setting a precedent with this kind of superintendent evaluation, saying it will hurt the ability to hire future administrators if they catch wind that the board’s evaluation practice is “so onerous.”
Page thinks Wrend has become “a lightning rod” even for unpopular statewide initiatives like proficiency-based learning and school district consolidation.
“The superintendent is never the most popular person in the school system,” Page said. “You’re either telling someone they have to do something they don’t want to do or telling them they can’t do something they want to do.”
Page thinks the board succumbed to pressure from a loud minority that is upset over those things, one that is able to point to the lawsuit against Wrend as evidence of poor leadership. That all gets amplified by social media posts and leads to more people calling for Wrend’s resignation.
“Basically, the performance review of a professional can’t be done by a mob,” Page said.
Loomis posted on social media that some people were calling Monday’s sessions a “public lynching,” and she asked them to stop.
Page also thinks it was not the best decision to host a cavalcade of executive sessions directly after a normal public school board meeting, where dozens of people gathered, waiting for it to be over so the evaluation sessions could begin.
“What a very cruel thing to do to Tracy,” Page said. “She had to sit there through that meeting knowing that all of those people were going to go into an executive session and talk about her.”
Stowe resident Drew Clymer said he thinks it was “courageous on the part of the board” to listen to anyone who wanted to voice an opinion. He thinks the board sensed that the community felt it was necessary, and “you can only put your head in the sand so long.”
“She has been Teflon, and she needs to know who her boss is,” Clymer said of Wrend. “She works at the pleasure of the board. And it’s now one board, representing three towns.”
Clymer acknowledged, however, that even though he has issues with Wrend’s leadership, Monday’s meeting was a “clunky” affair that might have been better held as a special meeting, one where Wrend didn’t have to be present.
When asked about this, Loomis paused.
“That is food for thought. That’s something I have to digest,” she said. “I think she’s tough and she knew what was going on.”
For the kids
Page said Wrend has a strong work ethic and is highly regarded around the state, and she’s sure people outside of southeastern Lamoille County who hear about discontent over her leadership style “are going, ‘huh?’”
“She cares about this community. Not just Morrisville, not just Elmore, not just Stowe,” Page said. “She is the person you want fighting for your kid.”
The kids. That’s what much of the chatter and concern came down to, whether one is a fan of Wrend or wants her gone.
Some people, like Stowe’s Steve Schleupner, have previously complained that, with all of the static about the Bain lawsuit and the merger and other topics, less attention seems to be given toward things like the new proficiency-based grading system. Schleupner suggested Monday that a new start might be best.
Morristown resident Melissa Leblanc said Monday she thinks school faculty fear retribution from Wrend so much that they are hesitant to make all of the right decisions for students.
“I’ve witnessed teachers who are hesitant to speak their piece in a parent-teacher conference. And I don’t know what the catalyst is for that,” she said. “That’s really concerning to me, as a parent. That the people most directly involved with our kids don’t feel like they can speak their mind.”
She wonders if teachers are uncomfortable going to their superiors, and said “it’s a gag order on teachers.”
“What kind of environment does that create?” Leblanc asked. “No flow of information. No problem solving. No questioning authority. That’s how things get done.”
Loomis said she sees things differently now that she’s on the board, and not in the audience during board meetings.
“Now that I’m on the other side of things, I see the board has really, really tough decisions to make,” she said. “It’s about the kids. And that’s where we keep getting sidetracked.”