BRATTLEBORO — Approving or amending meeting minutes is usually pretty uneventful for the Windham Southeast School District Board.
However, the Aug. 9 meeting minutes have proven to be somewhat controversial, as they have come up several times at other meetings; minutes are the approved notes taken from meetings. Last week, the board voted 5-4 to approve amending the minutes as proposed by board member Michelle Luetjen Green to include a contentious exchange.
“The amendment is to reflect the final 4 minutes that was on video from our meeting before we entered executive session,” she said. “I ran this by our recorder Wendy [Levy] for support.”
On Aug. 9, Green questioned the reason for entering into executive session, which is governed by state law. Board Chairwoman Kelly Young asked if Green was challenging her, and board member Liz Adams yelled at Green. That resulted in Young calling for more training at the next meeting, where the board approved purchasing books about Robert’s Rules of Order for board members.
Last week, board member Deborah Stanford raised concerns about setting a precedent. She said meeting minutes should contain actions, not necessarily what was said by individual members, according to Robert’s Rules.
Board member Lana Dever said she wants to know if the board actually went into executive session. It is unclear if a vote was taken to do so, but it is known that no action was taken after the executive session, except to adjourn.
If the board did not properly enter executive session, Dever said a document will no longer be private. It is unclear what the document is, except that it has to do with board training.
“I thought we were in executive session,” Green said.
Board member Tim Maciel questioned why it is so important to add the details requested by Green to the minutes. Green said any action needs to be documented, and she feels “a big chunk” of information was missing.
“We’re 25 minutes into this meeting, which is supposed to be on education, the schools and improving student learning in my mind, and I don’t see this as doing that, and I feel like it’s taking up a lot of time where we could be focused on something that I find to be much more productive,” said board member Emily Murphy Kaur, who called the question and triggered an immediate vote on the proposed amendment.
Jaci Reynolds of Brattleboro, a former board member who is seeking appointment to the board since board member David Schoales resigned, told the Reformer she worries bullying might have been taking place.
She shared notes she has taken on the issue: Green was not acknowledged and then ignored when she went to propose an amendment to the minutes on Aug. 23; Young told her to email the amendment, and Green said she already had emailed it to Young and Maciel before the meeting; an agenda item for amending minutes was postponed at the Sept. 13 meeting chaired by now-resigned Schoales, so the board could further research what needs to be published in meeting minutes under Robert’s Rules; when Maciel chaired the Sept. 27 meeting, there was no mention of the Aug. 9 minutes, and Reynolds received no response when she inquired about it; on Oct. 11, when the topic still was not on the agenda, Reynolds asked again, and Young requested an email, so Reynolds sent the referenced notes; and Stanford noted the situation was confusing.
When the issue finally made the Oct. 25 agenda, Reynolds’ notes state, Young asked for a motion to amend the Aug. 9 minutes, then board member Shaun Murphy moved, but no one seconded. Green told the Reformer she missed about 10 minutes of the meeting, including the vote to amend the minutes, because of poor internet reception since she was joining via Zoom.
“Clarification is needed and deserved for Wendy [Levy] and the public’s sake,” Reynolds said in an interview on Oct. 26.
In an interview a few hours before last week’s meeting, Levy described how she feels a responsibility in taking meeting minutes, similar to her obligation when she was a reporter at the Commons weekly newspaper.
“We are there to let the public know what elected officials are doing, maybe in different ways,” she told the Reformer. “But the goal is the same: to provide transparency.”
Levy said her job is to give an official recording of the meeting guided by Opening Meeting Law and Robert’s Rules of Order.
“No one has asked me in open meeting, what my experience was in taking those minutes and any requests that came to amend them, questions I had, the whole process,” she said. “But that meeting wasn’t a typical meeting for me ... there was a lot of confusion, and from what I heard from other board members ... it was a really confusing meeting.”
On Aug. 9, Levy left before the contentious exchange, as she does when executive sessions are scheduled later into the night, and no action is anticipated. She watched the video from Brattleboro Community Television, like the Reformer did for its reporting on the exchange, to complete the minutes.
Levy said it appears the board went into executive session, came back out and had an argument.
“It was really unclear what was going on, but what I heard was that somebody made a motion,” she said. “It didn’t fail, but it sort of wasn’t completed.”
Levy doesn’t know if the motion was seconded but said it definitely wasn’t voted on. Having taken minutes for other boards, she said, she knows it’s important to record dissent of the governing body.
“That needs to be noted,” she said.
If the board violated Open Meeting Law, which Levy believes might have occurred as an oversight if the board entered into executive session without a proper vote, she worried she would be implicated. She said the minutes she submitted, without Green’s amendment, were the result of a conversation with Maciel, and she asked never to be put in the position of leaving out information again.
After submitting the draft minutes without information about the executive session, Levy no longer had the power to amend them. She expressed concern that no one had been dealing with Green’s attempts to do so.
“It’s OK to make a mistake; it’s OK to be human,” Levy said. “I feel kind of embarrassed.”
Levy said she feels like she is letting people down when she doesn’t speak up, and the public has a right to know and to hold their officials accountable. She views the issue as a learning opportunity for the board.