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{child_flags:featured}School board meeting grows contentious

{child_byline}By Chris Mays, Brattleboro Reformer{/child_byline}

BRATTLEBORO — Windham Southeast School District Board members at odds over the way in which they were entering executive session became very argumentative during a recent meeting.

Paul Smith, curriculum coordinator for the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union, told the Reformer the board did not vote to go into executive session for an item at last week’s meeting, but the chairwoman said that the board entered executive session.

“It was very contentious,” Smith said in an interview.

Board member Michelle Luetjen Green, trying to point out protocol, explained that in Vermont School Boards Association training it says a finding is needed before the board can enter into executive session, and it is not sufficient just to cite “contracts” or another subject that falls under Vermont’s Open Meeting Law.

Board Chairwoman Kelly Young told Green she was out of order and accused her of challenging her. Board member Liz Adams began raising her voice, shaking her hands, becoming visibly upset with Green and telling her to stop.

“I called point of order multiple times but my concerns weren’t addressed, per Robert’s Rules [of Order], which requires verification and response,” Green told the Reformer after the meeting. She also noted that Young called executive session without a vote, which can be seen in the recording on Brattleboro Community Television.

Green said she does not know if Young understood her question. Green was concerned the board would be discussing a training contract with the VSBA involving all the school districts in the WSESU and felt it should be addressed by the WSESU board.

Young and Adams did not respond to requests to comment.

Smith told the Reformer he believes the exchange became contentious “because there are some very different interpretations” of the law. He has been wanting the WSESD and WSESU boards to get a legal opinion on proper procedures for entering executive session in order to have better clarity on the issue.

“I think it’s really just everyone coming to a common understanding on what the law says,” he said.

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He noted the recent acknowledgement by the Brattleboro Select Board that it had not been adequately explaining its decisions to enter executive session. That involved discussions on contracts for emergency services, a controversial topic after a dispute led to a breakup between the town and Rescue Inc.

The WSESD board and the WSESU board, which Green chairs, received some pushback about properly explaining the need to go into executive session earlier this year when community members and school officials were calling for Superintendent Mark Speno to be given the permanent position after serving as interim superintendent. Smith said he congratulates the two boards for saying they need to make a finding before entering executive sessions.

“Now, I think Michelle understands what the process is and I would expect them to be clearer,” he said.

Ted Brady, executive director of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, referred the Reformer to frequently asked questions on the league’s website that say “the contents of the motion to enter into executive session depend on the reason for entering that executive session.”

“To enter into executive session,” the site states, “the motion merely needs to identify the topic of discussion and the specific statutory provision that gives authority to enter into such session. We also recommend that you provide in your motion sufficient information without giving away the details that necessitate the executive session.”

The league said it is important for meeting minutes to show boards conducted “a careful analysis of the need to enter into executive session before the first motion was made.” According to the website, executive sessions are supposed to be used rarely and can include discussions of contracts when “the public body has made a specific finding that premature general public knowledge would clearly place the state, municipality, other public body, or a person involved at a substantial disadvantage ...”

“I understand that it’s fair and reasonable to explain to the public why you’re going into executive session,” Green said in an interview.

For contracts, she said, the board recently learned it needs to specify a reason to go into executive session.

“Sometimes, it’s easy,” she said, such as when a discussion requires confidentiality for an employee. “Other topics are not so straightforward.”

Following Open Meeting Law is “part of our ethics,” Green said.

“It’s there for appropriate check and balance, and it’s the right thing to do,” she said. “No one [on the board] would intentionally violate Open Meeting Law but that doesn’t mean there’s not room for growth and understanding.”