A former board member has filed a formal complaint against the Lamoille South school board, which oversees schools in Stowe, Morristown and Elmore.
Leigh Pelletier alleges the board violated Vermont’s open meeting laws.
Pelletier, a Stowe resident and lawyer, wrote to her former colleagues on the Lamoille South board on Monday, saying the board should not have used a closed-door meeting Oct. 7 to discuss crafting a statement of support for Superintendent Tracy Wrend after a federal court jury found she had fired a Peoples Academy teacher in retaliation, and awarded the teacher $150,000.
Pelletier, who resigned from the board the day after that meeting, alleges the board wasn’t actually discussing the lawsuit, but was rather protecting the prior actions of a Morristown School Board that has been extinct for three years.
“It’s the same old, same old,” Pelletier said Tuesday. “This was a chance for the new board to legitimize itself, and it didn’t.”
Former Peoples technology teacher David Bain was fired after Wrend suspected he was acting inappropriately with some students. Bain sued for wrongful termination in federal court, and a jury decided in September that Wrend had retaliated against the teacher for trying to get her fired, and awarded him $150,000 in compensatory and punitive damages. Wrend’s lawyer said she will appeal the verdict.
After the executive session Oct. 7, the Lamoille South board issued this statement: “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.”
Another statement issued after an executive session Oct. 21 reaffirmed that statement.
The board’s chairwoman, Cara Zimmerman, had abruptly resigned just an hour before that second meeting, leaving Stowe with just one person on the seven-member board. And that representative, Tiffany Donza, was not in attendance, barely giving Lamoille South a four-person quorum, and without a Stowe voice.
Pelletier argues that those closed-door discussions were illegal and should have been held in open session. She said “the ‘information at hand’ that the board could have relied on is literally thousands of pages of documents.”
“The average citizen reading the agendas could never surmise that the LSUU Board, a public body, would be meeting in executive session to discuss the ‘process’ taken by another public body, the Morristown School Board, five years ago with regard to the termination of David Bain, particularly given the fact that the Morristown School Board has not existed as a public body for nearly three years,” her complaint reads.
Behind closed doors
Pelletier was present for the Oct. 7 meeting, and its executive session, abstaining from the otherwise unanimous vote to support the old Morristown School Board.
It is rare that a board member, current or former, divulges what goes on behind closed doors, and her complaint doesn’t include many details.
But she does say that what went on during the executive session did not match the board’s stated reasons for meeting in private.
One reason cited was to discuss “pending or probable civil litigation to which the public body is or may be a party.” Pelletier argues that the Lamoille South board, which has been in power only since July 1, is not even involved in the Bain lawsuit, “and there is no ‘pending’ threat that this will occur” because Bain waived his right to sue the school district five years ago.
“For the past five years, the lawsuit has been exclusively against Tracy Wrend. No other public body was ever named as a defendant,” the complaint reads.
Pelletier argues that the Oct. 7 executive session was deliberately crafted ahead of time, “not to evaluate the superintendent but rather to craft a statement of support” for Wrend.
Pelletier said board members engaged in “serial communications” with one another ahead of that meeting, meaning they emailed back and forth about what to discuss in the executive session.
Thus, she said that, prior to the meeting, the board had already “reached consensus.”
“Board members walked into executive session with an understanding that a statement was going to be created supporting the superintendent, and the board walked out of executive session with a support statement written,” Pelletier wrote.
A public records request seeking those emails was sent out Tuesday evening, but was not expected to be filled by press deadline.
Board members Stephanie Craig and David Bickford, both of Morristown, replied to requests for comment on Wednesday morning.
“We have consulted with legal counsel regarding both complaints raised,” Craig said. “Our legal counsel advises that there is no open meeting law violation and no conflict of interest.”
Said Bickford, “I’m sure we will bring this up at Monday night’s meeting.”
Conflict of interest?
In a separate complaint, Pelletier accuses Craig of knowingly engaging in a conflict of interest by voting to ratify the now-extinct Morristown School Board’s handling of the Bain firing. Craig — the board’s current de facto leader following Zimmerman’s departure — was the chair of that Morristown board when Bain was fired.
“It would serve Ms. Craig’s personal self-interest to have the new LSUU Board support her past actions as it relates to a very controversial and questionable termination process, one in which a jury recently found retaliation,” reads the complaint against Craig.
That complaint alleges that “ironically,” Craig also participated in the Oct. 21 reaffirmation of support, despite approving a conflict of interest policy for the new board.
With only four members attending that second meeting, if Craig had recused herself, there wouldn’t have been a quorum available to approve such a statement.
Pelletier: Fix it
Pelletier’s complaint suggests several remedies to the alleged open meeting law violations:
• Publicly acknowledge the violations and state an intent “to cure” them.
• State that some of the “information at hand” was false and relied in part on oral recollections of people who “clearly have conflicts of interest.”
• Retract the Oct. 7 statement of support and the Oct. 21 reaffirmation of that statement, and ratify, update or replace it at a future meeting.
• Commit to having discussion of the former Morristown School Board in public, rather than in executive session, and let people know about it ahead of time.
• Making sure Craig abstains from any future vote that includes a statement of support for the old Morristown board regarding Bain.
• Identify specific steps to “prevent future violations of this nature from ever happening again in the future.”