BRATTLEBORO — Marathon board meetings of the Windham Southeast School District (WSESD) on Tuesday, Oct. 11 and the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union (WSESU) on Wednesday, Oct. 12 ended with one chair intact, the other out of that role, and a call from Superintendent Mark Speno and others to “reset” and board members to “deal with” personality clashes.
On Oct. 11, WSESD Board Chair Kelly Young moved that the board censure, or reprimand, herself, for alleged ethics violations. That move was ultimately defeated, 6–1, with representative Shaun Murphy the sole affirming vote.
On Oct. 12, WSESU Chair Michelle Green, who has alleged mistreatment and ethical violations, was removed as chair by unanimous vote of the Board to rescind her March election to that seat.
Green cites issues
“I appreciate everyone's time tonight to discuss our code of ethics,” Green said on Oct. 11. “They are our baseline agreement of shared values to operate by. I believe we are a board that can demonstrate to our community that if we don't see eye-to-eye, we understand the importance of pausing and checking in, and we move forward with resolution and better understanding.”
Green said that, regarding board operation and understanding of operation, she didn't believe there was any “malicious intent in situations where we may have not operated appropriately” and didn't want addressing protocols to “imply distrust of our board.”
“But if differing outlooks begin to impact our working relationships with one another and then trickle out onto the public floor, we need to pause and get on the same page,” she said.
“We need to demonstrate to our community that we can openly discuss issues of concern, ways in which we might improve, and cultural dynamics that must be addressed that silence a minority voice asking questions,” she continued. “I believe in the integrity of my fellow board members, even when we haven't communicated well.”
Green presented a list of issues, including hiring Burlington attorney Kendall Hoechst without the full board's authorization. Hoechst has been acting as a “firewall” between attorney Aimee Goddard and the board.
Goddard was hired by the WSESD to conduct a sexual abuse investigation after a story by Mindy Haskins Rogers in which she exposed retired teacher Robert Hecker for his alleged abuse of students was published in The Commons in 2021. That investigation remains active.
Regarding Hoechst, Young said her understanding was that the board wanted her to hire an independent lawyer to act in this role but that she would put the hiring on a future agenda for authorization.
Green also alleged that decisions were made without informing all board members; that information was disseminated, but not among all board members; that her “repeated” questions regarding numerous issues were not answered; that “norms” for operating protocols consistent for both WSESD and WSESU boards were not established; that meetings were held outside scheduled board meetings; that executive session was used improperly; and that there has been a general “lack of respect” for other board members and others “both in public and behind closed doors.”
Earlier in the Oct. 11 meeting, the WSESD board agreed to hire Newfane Town Moderator Deborah Lee Luskin to serve as parliamentarian to help the members become more conversant with Robert's Rules of Order.
Green noted the board had just spent several hundred dollars to give each member a copy of Robert's Rules and questioned hiring Luskin at $250 per meeting for perhaps four meetings.
“I'd rather see us not weaponize them [Robert's Rules] [...] and support one another,” said Green.
She said that she's had to “pursue legal process” to have her questions addressed and that it was not explained how the need for a parliamentarian and the choice of Luskin were determined to be the way forward without a posted public meeting to discuss the issue.
Green said she hopes the board will prioritize “appropriate board development training, so that we may formalize our expectations and standards of practice and work cohesively and effectively with every voice having a place at the table.”
Board member Lana Dever read a statement noting she is “deeply concerned” with the discourse and mistaken perceptions in the community regarding board ethics. She noted the district is in the midst of the sexual misconduct investigation.
“I can think of nothing more sensitive or confidential,” she said, noting the need for extreme care in handling all related information.
Young makes surprise move
When the ethics discussion - the last item on a lengthy agenda - came up, Young moved to censure, or reprimand, herself in a surprising move.
With the motion to censure herself on the table, Young responded to Green's claims, acknowledging that although she believed she had been authorized - at least by consensus - to hire Hoechst as independent counsel, she would bring the hiring to the next agenda. She also said believed she had been following the communication plan all along.
“I did not coordinate a strategy for any board members to condemn another board member,” she said. “We should all be mindful of everyone in the room.”
Young said, too, that some mistakes have been made and all should learn from them and move forward cohesively as a board.
Choking up, she offered that if a majority of board members believed she is not leading well, she would step down.
That motion failed 6-1, with Young abstaining.
Murphy was the sole vote in support of censure.
Murphy said after the meeting that since Young moved to censure herself and he had “been aware that at a meeting of the WSESD in August, Kelly had stood up and yelled at a fellow board member, I took the opportunity to vote in favor of the motion to voice my concern.”
Green, who initially said she would support censure, if that was Young's choice, ultimately voted against it.
“I don't think this [censure] is a solution, but no solution isn't a solution either,” Green said. “It's not about shaming anybody, it's about standardizing our operating protocol so we're all on the same page. I think the solution is to understand where we misunderstood [...] so we work well together.”
“I do believe once the misunderstandings can be cleared up, that this board can [...] figure this out and work together [...] .and recognize the whole thing has become somewhat traumatic,” said former board member Jaci Reynolds.
Community member and parent Bethany Ranquist noted the recent propensity for board members to “call the question” after little - and once, no - discussion.
She said removing the possibility for public input in that way “feels pretty off-putting.”
“I'm really hopeful that having some guidance on Robert's Rules will help us be a better board,” Young said.
Before the discussion had started, board member Tim Maciel acknowledged the board has been “very loose with parliamentary procedures.”
He instructed that board members should not even say they had been advised by an attorney, saying board members have been told that even saying they've been counseled breaches “attorney-client privilege.”
Green responded, saying that Maciel's interpretation “doesn't quite jibe with my understanding.”
At the WSESU board's September meeting, members tabled a motion to rescind its vote for Green to serve as chair. On Wednesday, again at the end of the agenda, the topic came up.
Representative Liz Adams said she felt “responsible for this situation,” having nominated Michelle as chair when she herself was a new WSESU board member.
“I deeply regret that I did so,” Adams said. “I did not think that things would go on like this. When it became clear that things would not improve, I had hoped that Michelle would resign the chair so that her behavior and issues she has caused would not have to be aired in public.”
“I am reluctant to do so,” she continued. “However, this is critical to the success of the [WSE]SU, [WSE]SD, and [Superintendent Speno] as well.”
Adams went on to say that “what you generally see about Michelle's behavior in public is not what I have seen in executive sessions of both boards and other forms of communication. It has become more frequent over the last six months or so. Michelle constantly presents herself as promoting ethics, transparency, and [as] some kind of authority on Robert's Rules.”
“That is a red flag for me,” Adams said.
“This implies that the rest of the board is not ethical or transparent, although last night Michelle said that was not her intent,” she continued. “This is against our code of ethics. To the best of my knowledge, we have been as transparent as legally permissible. There are things we cannot legally tell the public, which includes any information about any employee of either board.”
Adams refuted Green's claim that board members violated open meeting law and claimed that Green had not made an important correction to a contract under discussion and committed the board to training sessions without authorization.
Green later told The Commons that the extent of any changes to a contract was correcting a simple typo.
Adams continued, saying Green has “overstepped her role as chair at times and that she “talks for a long time, making the same point over and over in different ways. When asked to get to the point, she gets angry.“
”She has also talked loudly over the person who has the floor, thereby abusing her role as the chair,” Adams said. “This divisive, excluding style has halted our progress and alienated her peers. She needs to step aside.”
Brattleboro Union High School Leadership Council Chair Lisa Ford took issue with Adams' opinion.
“I find it a little ironic, Liz, some of your complaining about Michelle, when I've been at public meetings with you when nobody could talk because you were screaming. Why would you set standards higher for Michelle than for yourself?”
Parent Melany Kahn went so far as to say Adams is “the problem.”
“Nobody in this room disagrees with me,” said Kahn. “This is the most dysfunctional board we've ever seen [...] .trying to unseat each other as a way to solve problems. That's like having a fight in the bathroom. Don't let Liz Adams steer your vote, because that's a ship you don't want to sink on.”
Student Representative Ben Berg also spoke, saying he “can't help but feel disgusted and irritated” by the “actions of our school board,” calling for them to “come together as a community, as a family.”
Ranquist noted “silencing tactics” on both boards and a “power grab and pathetic attempt at continuing the secrecy that this community has been shrouded in for years.”
She said that children she deals with understand the concepts “better than these adults,” calling removing Green as chair a “planned coup” and describing it as “retaliatory” and “underhanded.”
“Some of you don't like each other. Deal with it. Talk with each other. Figure it out. What you're doing is petty [...] and worse than childish,” she said.
“And for Pete's sake, stop copping out from discussion by calling the question,” Ranquist said.
“We need to reset,” said Superintendent Mark Speno. “The cycle we've been in clearly needs to stop. This is a moment to do that because it's not healthy to have multiple meetings like this in a week and for multiple months.”
He counseled focusing “on students and staff,” noting “kids are really invested in development of the school.”
“And we can get there,” the superintendent said, adding that scheduled training sessions “will help solidify expectations of each other.”
Young also spoke, saying Adams was “not alone” and that removing Green as chair was not “a personal thing.”
Young said Green had not been “engaging with the board members,” nor was she “sharing things with us or asking for our participation.”
“The board chair has not been fulfilling her role,” Young said, alleging Green “has not kept order in executive sessions” and has engaged in contract conversations with Speno.
“There are no secret meetings happening,” countered Green. “I have no idea what you're talking about. The last time you spoke to me was in the month of June.”
Saying that she made many efforts to resolve issues and was stonewalled, and that she wanted training sessions as a tool to help the board as a whole, Green added, “I had no one to talk to.”
“I'm a solution seeker, and that's the solution I find - and if you have some, I'd love to know them,” she said.
Vernon District representative and former WSESU Chair Kerry Amidon said she saw no option but to change the chair.
“We clearly have a problem as a board,” Amidon said. “It didn't start in September, when this motion [to replace Green as chair] came forward, it started at the first meeting in March, but one gives people time.”
She said board members have tried to be heard but have not been and that she, personally, has detailed her concerns to Green.
“We are as dysfunctional today as we were at our first meeting,” she said before the unanimous vote to remove Green as chair by rescinding the March vote to instate her.
Green said this week that her efforts to contact the district's attorney, Pietro Lynn, regarding the process of rescinding the vote naming her chair have met with “radio silence.”
“The experience of being stonewalled and having information withheld from me has felt like being bullied out the door into silence,” said Green after the meeting.
“I have reasons to believe my character has been slandered among board members and one-sided misunderstandings gossiped about that, intentional or not, has led to a shift of treatment towards me by the majority of my fellow board members,” she continued.
“I have found myself in an environment that has felt increasingly unwelcoming and disrespectful - at times, it has been threatening and hostile.
“I have been demeaned and belittled. I have experienced ever-growing dread, knowing every email I write, every perspective I share, every step I take either as an [WSE]SD board member or chair of the [WSE]SU would be targeted and excessively criticized to further discredit my voice.
“Although I recognize a board culture that doesn't welcome dissent has been prevalent since I became a board member, I believe what specifically precipitated this treatment was my work as an [WSE]SD delegate on the [WSE]SU board, where our code of ethics carries over.
“Stepping into the chair position carries the responsibility of keeping the board on track to practice within its ethical confines. Ultimately, we began to experience friction when we weren't seeing eye-to-eye on that practice.
“I was pressured, at times effectively manipulated, and even ordered, with a three-person majority vote, to step outside my own ethical commitments to facilitate 'the work of the board.'
“My effort to challenge us to take our time and get it right was meant with distrust and personal attack. Our last regularly scheduled [WSE]SU meeting before summer recess was one such incident.
“My efforts to define appropriate scope, with the support of legal feedback and a contract in hand, resulted in me being yelled and sworn at and needing to leave the room,” Green continued. “This was witnessed by our administrators.”
“From that point on, I was effectively ignored, given the runaround, or blocked from information I requested as an [WSE]SD Board member. Simultaneously, any correspondence in which I communicated in the role of [a WSESU] board member was criticized and attacked. All efforts to seek clarity and resolution were ignored.”
A meeting to elect a new chair has been scheduled for Wednesday, Oct. 19, at 4:30 p.m. It will take place in-person in the conference room at the WSESU Central Office, 53 Green St., Brattleboro, at 4:30 p.m.