By Curt Peterson
On Aug. 16, the Windsor Central Unified Union School District board, parents and students learned what the Covid-related requirements will be when campuses open on Sept. 1 and witnessed an open meetings law training session conducted by attorney Dina Atwood of Stitzel, Page & Fletcher, P.C.
A Vermont school board is considered a “municipality,” and must follow the same open meeting rules as select boards.
The training was the suggested remedy following an investigation by the Attorney General’s Office regarding alleged open meeting violations by the WCUUSD board.
Bryce Sammel (Barnard), board chair, told the Mountain Times that most of the allegations against the board were dismissed by the AG’s investigators, and the few that were deemed legitimate were considered “inadvertent.”
Sammel quoted a letter from the AG: “Under the circumstance the [Attorney General’s Office] does not believe an enforcement action is warranted at this time.”
The training session wasn’t considered mandatory, although the board voted to have the training as part of the remedy for the AG’s finding. A quorum did attend, and, Sammel added, “The others will be asked to watch the recording.”
The complainant was Cathy Powers, Pomfret parent of two students at the Woodstock Middle/High School campus.
“State statute requires that the chair and the superintendent attend eight hours of training every calendar year,” Powers told the Mountain Times, “which was not happening.”
Both Sammel and superintendent Sherry Sousa stated they regularly attend group training sessions through organizations such as the Vermont School Board Association. According to the actual statute, open meeting law is only one of six topics covered in the required training.
“The gist of [my] complaint was that, not only do [the district board committees] not post minutes and agendas in a timely fashion, they also held the interviews of the [candidates for] superintendent behind closed doors, which I felt was not appropriate,” Powers explained. There had also been discussions regarding the definitions of “board committees,” whose meetings would require warnings and public sessions, versus “working groups,” which, the board felt, do not.
“Despite their public response that the [search] committee they formed was not a committee, and, therefore, not obligated to follow open meeting law, I felt differently,” Powers said.
Powers feels that part of her complaint was validated by the Attorney General’s investigation in that the board must “change their practices in the future.”
Atwood said the Vermont State Supreme Court is deliberating the definition of a subcommittee. A district board feels the answer is “no open meetings requirement” — the AG disagrees.
Sammel said there is no precedent in law affirming the AG’s position, and the WCUUSD board feels the litigating district is in the right. Atwood also advised board members to use official district email addresses exclusively when referring to board issues.
“The Attorney General’s office was very nice, and responsive, although it took months to complete the investigation as the board and their attorney were unresponsive to them,” Powers wrote.
Sammel took exception to that statement, saying the board performed within 10- and 14-day deadlines for responses to all the AG’s requests.
Atwood mentioned in her presentation that failure of a school board to respond to a complaint to the AG’s office can influence the outcome of an investigation, and result in paying attorney fees and court costs.
Both Sammel and Sousa said the training was valuable.
“It is always worthwhile to participate in this type of refresher training,” Sammel said.
“Any time the board has to develop their skills as a leadership group is well worth it,” Sousa agreed. “I feel that the goal of having a more informed board was achieved.”
“I think it is best practice for everyone on the board to attend open meeting training,” Powers said, “as it is far too easy to think, once you’re elected, to forget the people who put you there, and to forget that everything you do is, and should be, including the public.”