WSESU board asks chair to step aside

WSESU board asks chair to step aside

Community members upset at surprise move to oust WSESU Chair Michelle Luetjen-Green, who remains in role after school board tables discussion

BRATTLEBORO — Michelle Luetjen-Green remains chair of the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union (WSESU) School Board Chair - for now - but only after a chaotic meeting Sept. 14 where some board members looked to oust her from her role.

The meeting erupted in shocked outcry from community members after Luetjen-Green, reading a statement, announced that she had been asked to relinquish her leadership.

“Today, I received a phone call from [a supervisory union] board member asking me to step down as chair,” the Dummerston representative said at the start of the meeting. “I was told that the board has, collectively, lost faith in my leadership.”

“I'm uncertain how to process this request, as I have no previous communications from any board members referencing or identifying concern of SU practices, or my role as chair, before today,” she continued.

Luetjen-Green went on to say she has used her time as chair to “collaborate with our superintendent and bring forward board development and training workshops that outline effective communication and goal-setting strategies.”

“I have been committed to pursuing ethical, legal process and worked towards seeking clarity on how our supervisory union might be more transparent and accountable - when there has been a clear cry by our constituents that they haven't found those values to be represented,” she continued. “Nor have I.”

The chair voiced concern regarding the “validity” of the call for her to resign.

She said that if the request represented the will of the board, that raises the question of when and how such a consensus was arrived at - and whether the process of coming to that consensus violated open meeting law.

“This would also be a violation of our code of ethics, which mandates that board members 'promptly address any ethical concerns of or with fellow board members first with the board,'” Luetjen-Green said.

“Without prior communication or discussion, I am unclear if this request is coming from an objective outlook of board members seeking to ensure we operate and fulfill our duties effectively,” she said. “Truth be told, it feels like personal retaliation in the face of my efforts to instill and abide by correct process across the SU.”

She went on to note her commitment to her role as board member and chair.

“I will consider this request when clarity of concerns has been provided, and I welcome feedback from the community, our staff, and administrators,” she said. “I would humbly step down if there is a community consensus that another board member could be more effective in this role.”

A move to reconsider

Immediately, representative Liz Adams, who has had heated exchanges with the Chair - as has Vice Chair Kelly Young, notably in a June public meeting when a shouting match erupted over Luetjen-Green's asking for a point of order - asked to amend the agenda and take up a motion to oust Luetjen-Green as Chair, saying she had conferred with the Secretary of State's office and cited Robert's Rules.

Adams moved to “reconsider the results of the March 26, 2022 vote for chair of this body.” Four board members agreed.

There had been no discussion of the motion when WSESU Clerk and Windham Southeast School District School Board Vice Chair David Schoales tried to end discussion - including any further comment from Luetjen-Green herself - by calling the question, a rule generally invoked after debate has gone on for some time.

A motion to call the question - a familiar process on the floor of town meetings - requires a second and a two-thirds majority vote to pass and effectively end discussion. Schoales instructed Luetjen-Green there ought be no further discussion and, in the myriad voices talking, no second was forthcoming or sought.

Next ensued a few minutes of wrangling over process, ultimately resulting in Young, present via Zoom, taking over chairing the meeting temporarily. She announced the public could have two minutes to speak, “and then we will vote.”

Before Luetjen-Green passed the chair to Young, Schoales turned to Curriculum Coordinator Paul Smith and barked at him, “Point of order. You don't get to talk.”

“You're out of order,” Luetjen-Green told him, to which Schoales replied, “I am, absolutely, because you're not doing your job.”

Vague advice from Montpelier

After the meeting, Jenny Prosser, general counsel and director of municipal assistance for the Secretary of State's office, said she had spoken with Adams by phone, but she told The Commons that she “can't give any legal advice.”

“I never weigh in on what a board ought to do or has done in the sense of complying with the law, and I don't give directives about how to do things,” Prosser said. “I am not even terribly expert at Roberts' Rules. All I have to say is I did not go over any of the specifics of how to operate under Roberts' Rules.”

“The question she asked is whether there is a way to remove an officer, and I pointed her to the chapter on discipline - and there are several versions of Roberts' Rules, and I never know under which a school board is operating,” she continued.

Eventually, Prosser said, “I pointed her to chapter 20, which involves dereliction of duty. I also told her to talk to the district's legal counsel.”

Asked when and how a collective loss of faith in Luetjen-Green's leadership came about and what the reasons were, Schoales replied after the meeting that “there was no consensus, or conversation.”

“A member contacted me with information from the Secretary of State and wanted advice on how to word a motion to rescind,” he wrote to The Commons. “No one else was involved in the preparation or presentation of the motion. Any suggestion otherwise is coming from imagination, not reality.”

“The reasons for requesting Michelle resign will be presented when the motion comes up at our next meeting,” Schoales said.

Unless a special meeting is called, the WSESU's next board meeting should be on Wednesday, Oct. 12.

Community members indignant

Several members of the public objected strongly to the board's even thinking to entertain such an action when the topic had not been part of the posted agenda and the public was clueless as to why it was being broached.

Parent and former board member Jaci Reynolds spoke of how “disappointing and upsetting” the situation was, saying there had been no explanation to the public.

“Clearly” the matter had been discussed outside of an open meeting and thus participants had violated the open meeting law, she said.

“I think you need to stop what you're doing right now before it gets worse,” Reynolds said.

Robin Morgan said the motion was “extremely shocking,” as was calling the question before one single comment had been made. Morgan charged that the board was trying to oust the chair “in some process that is extremely opaque.”

“Michelle has been continually asking for more transparency from this board,” said Morgan, who observed that “you are doubling down on doing things without being transparent and public.”

“I really think this is a very bad look for this board, and I'm really concerned about eroding trust in the board in this community at such an extremely important and fragile time for our community,” she said.

Morgan asked the board to discuss any concerns in open meeting.

Former resident and Brattleboro Union High School alum Mindy Haskins Rogers, who exposed allegations of sexual abuse spanning decades at the school a year and a half ago, noted her concern regarding the lack of information being disclosed by the WSESD board to date.

She referenced the June “yelling match.”

“I'm wondering if this is some retaliation from the board on Michelle requesting what the public has been requesting,” Haskins Rogers said. “I feel very concerned by the actions I'm witnessing, [and] I'm very concerned about the integrity of a board that would act in this way.”

Schoales maintained that “two people spoke about this,” clearly referencing him and Adams.

“We were very careful to not engage other people in the conversation about the motion,” he said. Vermont Open Meeting Law kicks in when a majority of members of a public entity discuss board business.

Schoales added that he was “asked to make a judgment about how to go about it” and that the “intention was not to make a long process” about why the loss of confidence in the chair occurred.

Ultimately, he asked that the board put the brakes on the motion to amend the agenda and reconsider ousting Luetjen-Greene.

“Given what I'm hearing from people that I deeply respect in the public, I would like to table the motion until our next meeting, which means that it will be on the agenda and it can be passed by simple majority,” Schoales said.

That was agreed to, but folks weren't finished.

“Really, Liz? Wow. Wow. Wow,” parent Melany Kahn said, addressing Adams. “This is unbelievable. Unbelievable. Take a deep breath.”

“It is unfathomable to me that you would do this to Michelle, who, oh, my God, has just been trying to hold you all accountable for just this type of behavior. Just this type of behavior,” she continued.

“You all are so insular and so un-transparent and so un-evolved that you can't figure this out,” Kahn said, calling the group “a board run amok.”

“This is a mess,” she said. “This is a disaster for our kids and this community, and you all should be ashamed of yourselves.”

Luetjen-Green, who remained composed throughout the discussion, then resumed chairing and continued with the agenda.

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