WESTMINSTER — A request from a Westminster man to fill a vacancy on the Bellows Falls Union High School board prompted a lengthy discussion about the potential for conflict of interest.
Ian Sbardellati attended the board’s virtual meeting Monday evening and asked to be appointed to fill a three-year term that has been vacant for more than a year. Sbardellati would need to run for the seat next year if he wants to stay on the board.
Sbardellati said he has one child in the high school and another in the Bellows Falls Middle School, heading for the high school.
But he said that his wife, Andrea Carlson, is one of the guidance counselors at the union high school. He said he would not participate in discussions or votes that concerned teacher contracts. He is a former member of the Westminster School Board.
While the board ultimately voted 4-1-3 in favor of his appointment, it was clear that his wife being an employee made some people uncomfortable.
That, and the fact the position would be appointed by the board, and not elected by the voters, added to the concern.
Director David Clark of Westminster said he is convinced that Sbardellati would be a “spectacular board member ... who would be able to separate those roles.”
He said Sbardellati’s situation is hardly unique in a small state.
Director Priscilla Lambert said it is a “very ticklish situation,” because of ongoing negotiations. And Director Jack Bryar of Grafton said fully one-third of the board’s time in the coming year would be devoted to negotiations and budget planning.
The high school’s budget is over the state limit set for per pupil spending, he said, and the board “will be looking for places to cut.”
BFUHS Director Jason Terry of Bellows Falls, who also serves on the Rockingham School Board, is also in the same position: his wife is an instructional aide at one of the district’s elementary schools. He was elected to both boards, in 2020 and in 2021.
Terry said that they never talk about her students, since it is confidential.
School Director Stephen Fine of Athens was the only director voting against Sbardellati’s appointment. Fine, who is the chief negotiator for the area school boards with the teachers’ union, said he is uncomfortable with the situation, and said negotiating tactics must remain confidential and he doubted under the circumstances they could be. The two sides have not reached a contract, and unfair labor charges have been filed.
Other directors voting to abstain were Jack Bryar of Grafton, Deborah Wright of Rockingham, and Terry.
Last month, Sbardellati spoke out during a board meeting about Terry’s public shouting match with Principal Christopher Hodsden, demanding that Terry resign from both the BFUHS and Rockingham boards.
Terry later apologized, but Sbardellati and some other people in the community demanded he should resign for unprofessional behavior, and said his behavior at the school set a bad example for students.
Voting in favor of Sbardellati’s appointment were Margo Ghia and Priscilla Lambert, both of Rockingham, David Clark of Westminster, and Brenda Farkas of Rockingham.
Board Chairwoman Molly Banik, who didn’t vote, said she would support Sbardellati, but she said the board would need to be vigilant about conflicts of interest.
“I don’t have a huge concern,” she said, but she warned everyone “we’re not going to cross that line.”
On top of that, Banik said, “We need board members.”
Sbardellati currently works for the state of Vermont for the Department of Aging and Disabilities. He said he previously worked for Health Care and Rehabilitative Services, as well as Kindle Farm, a school for troubled youth.
She said she served on the Westminster School Board where there was a constant conflict, when the head of The Compass School also served. He stepped down during any discussion of tuition fees to The Compass School, she said.
The board does have a conflict of interest policy, several board members noted.
Superintendent of Schools Christopher Pratt said that, in small Vermont communities, some degree of conflict was inevitable.
Sbardellati did not participate in the meeting after the vote since he has to be sworn in by the Westminster town clerk.
Contact Susan Smallheer at firstname.lastname@example.org.