Hostile Climate, Public Interests & Requested Actions

  • Published in Letters

To: HUUSD Board

From: Fayston Representatives Heidi Spear & Jill Ellis

Re: Hostile Climate, Public Interests & Requested Actions

Date: June 14, 2017

The Fayston representatives to the HUUSD board submit this memorandum to fellow board members to protest the improper executive session called and led by our superintendent and board chair on May 24th and to seek specific action to address the recurring deflections, misrepresentations, and attacks against elected representatives and the public interests of civic dialogue, transparency and accountability. We observe that their joint actions are consistently undermining our board’s capacity to understand and serve our communities’ interests. Further, we have experienced first hand how their systematic efforts to silence and demonize opposing viewpoints and inquiry is so toxic to representatives that they not only undermine our current effectiveness but our ability to field representatives for the board going forward.

In essence, we conclude that our HUUSD board is operating as a captive board, serving the administration it is elected to oversee. The superintendent and chair have consistently acted to prevent our board from clarifying our communities’ priorities and interests and our administration from being guided by or accountable to them. In our view, they are consistently taking positions and initiating action to obstruct community engagement and dialogue, board education and independence, and district transparency and accountability.

The substance of our May 24th meeting, including but not limited to the executive session, amounted to a marked escalation of their disregard for transparency and a repetition of their tried and true strategy of distracting from matters that concern our communities by launching attacks on anyone who doesn’t follow their lead. The executive session violated Open Meeting Law and in no way abided by our communities’ rights or interests. The substance of that meeting needs to be revisited.

On May 24th we should have been discussing the letter from our local press about our superintendent’s assertions that she has authority to speak on behalf of the board. We should have been briefed on the controversial eviction of a long-time early childhood education partner from Thatcher Brook and community concerns relative to this change. We could have had substantive dialogue about current transformation challenges, strategies and change management to ensure student interests are met and risks are managed. The board could have undertaken the generative work of engaging our community to develop an HUUSD strategic vision and plan. As the board took action at our last meeting to stop the Communication Working Group from exploring existing data and developing a survey plan for board approval, board time must be allocated for this to get done.

Instead of doing any of this important work, our chair and superintendent chose to divert our time and attention to a bogus assertion that Heidi was tasking administrative staff with analysis and forcing items onto the agenda against the will of the board. In fact, administrative staff proposed reviewing and comparing cohort analysis, the superintendent approved it and our chair set our agenda without circulating a draft for review and approval by the remainder of board members– and certainly not Heidi. The Board, as you all know, voted in favor of an amended motion– not Heidi’s– to hear both analyses on the 24th.

Then, instead of a respectful and efficient discussion where we all seek understanding, our chair continuously interrupted and made inaccurate and misleading assertions about Heidi’s analysis. Other members, Garett and Jim, in particular, were disrespectful and dismissive despite the considerable work that went into the analysis, its accuracy and the importance of the data being presented, both in terms of understanding our historical enrollment decline and having a baseline to see and understand any further statistically significant outflow– something considerable public dialogue suggests we may face next year.

It is troubling to us that no board members revisited or seemed concerned with the fact that all analyses contradicted the Superintendent’s prior statements to the Board. It is troubling to us that no discussion ensued regarding the importance of cohort analysis or establishing a practice of reviewing it as one of many performance metrics. Instead of recognizing the value and import of cohort analysis as a meaningful performance metric, the entire dialogue was fixated on attacking Heidi and silencing any questions, theories and discussion that might give the board and our community constructive insight to guide our work to optimize educational opportunities for our students and minimize tax burden for our constituents.

Subsequent to the overtly hostile and exceedingly inefficient open portion of our meeting, our superintendent and chair called the board into an executive session on the pretext of discussing a matter of a personnel contract. What ensued from there was a 2-hour attack led by our superintendent directed at Jill, Heidi and members of the public. This session was not only a violation of Open Meeting Law but it was also a very disturbing display of how bitter those who didn’t get their way during the past budget season seem to remain. Some remain irate that we didn’t immediately cut teachers from a school entirely unfamiliar to them and which operates with lower investment per pupil than our largest school, all their children’s schools, and all HUUSD schools with the exception of Warren, according to state figures. They assert that the Fayston representatives were wrong to engage the public in our budget work. Yet again, some members voiced outrage that we brought public attention to our pending decisions and invited public input. Yet again, we will state clearly that working on behalf of our constituents is our actual job. It is not our job to make our Superintendent’s agenda a fait accompli regardless of what our community values.

We have yet to encounter a member of the public that doesn’t think our communities should be engaged in our work. In large part we all moved here or stay here because of our intimate and engaged communities. Schools are centers of our communities and they fill a vital role in the development of our children, grandchildren and citizens. Our communities’ priorities should matter, as should accountability to them, which is why we have a publicly elected governing board. It is a clear responsibility of our board to engage and serve our constituents. We do our community a tremendous disservice when we buy into the notion that because we have hired experts that we should just follow their lead and community voice is not needed or, worse still, to be avoided!

That is what we are being told. That is how this board is operating. We are told that the administration already has an action plan. We are all set. The superintendent asserts that we are sabotaging her team or overreaching our authority and meddling if we seek input from the public after they have developed a plan. The administration suggests we shouldn’t seek community input as to what the community wants because then the public could conclude that we will give them that. The administration has shown through this position and others a level of disrespect for parents and our broader community that is disturbing and counterproductive in the extreme. Not only should these stakeholders’ voices matter but it is only by listening to them, our customers, that we will retain and grow community confidence, enthusiasm, budget support and enrollment.

The administration also asserts that the board has no role to play with public complaints and should not discuss community concerns with each other or as a board. The superintendent has asserted that the policy of referring complainants up the chain of command is the limit of what we can and should do until she engages the board on any matter. The superintendent even went on to assert that if board members hear any public opinions we are incapable of doing our jobs! Did any board member speak up against this assertion? No. When the superintendent attacked Jill for forwarding a community member’s email that was intended for the entire board there was a massive pile on of shaming and self-righteous indignation from other board members. Given that the administration has to date simply chosen to ignore board members’ requests for an all board email address to be set up for the public’s convenience, this coordinated attack on Jill was both abusive and hypocritical.

We agree with current policy that community complainants work their way up through the chain of command so that our teachers and administrators have an opportunity to resolve issues. That does not mean, however, that we should shut our eyes or ears to community concerns. That does not mean that we do not share the concerns expressed to us with fellow board members. We are elected to represent our constituents. We should listen. We should all listen to everyone. And we should seek to understand what is actually going on and what the impacts of relevant decisions and actions are. And we should work to ensure that our district acts in a manner consistent with our communities’ values and interests. We can’t do that if we are willfully ignorant.

The HUUSD Board has been operating for 10 months. We have not yet engaged the public in developing community priorities, establishing values or goals, we have not invested any HUUSD Board time into getting to know our schools, we have not reviewed data in any substantive way or without significant opposition to this fundamental work, we have not developed criteria for budget decisions or agreed upon the need for performance evaluation. Disturbingly, we have also not once called out our Superintendent when she has misrepresented Board Members work and statements, the HUUSD Board’s purview and responsibilities, and documented, established facts.

It has been the clear position of our superintendent, chair and several other members of our board that it was inappropriate and unethical for Fayston representatives to have engaged stakeholders and the community at large during the budget season. That wasn’t just their position in the heat of frustration of facing opposition to their plan to immediately cut teachers while increasing overall expenditures. It lives on and resurfaces in bitter remarks routinely in our meetings. With no cameras present on the night of May 24th, things got more aggressive still. This has to stop.

Between us, we have over 14 years of board experience. We have served our community through challenging times and we have done hard work and done it well. We do not deserve this treatment, which is both baseless and harassing. If we were employees of this district, rather than elected representatives and volunteers, we would be protected from the hostile and punitive work environment that has become the norm of this board.

To address the current issues that stymie our work and create this hostile and punitive work environment, we seek several actions by the board. We request a formal response by the board to these requests. The actions are as follows:

  1. A public HUUSD board-only meeting led by a professional facilitator to resolve the important matter of our responsibilities, purview and climate.
  2. An executive session, with the facilitator present, to discuss a matter of personnel.
  3. A 360˚ review of our superintendent, who inaccurately asserted that it is district policy that she only be reviewed every 3 years. Our actual policy, consistent with best practice and any and all recommendations, is an annual review. None has been conducted in the past few years and none have ensured anonymity to support adequate transparency and accountability.

We have grave concerns about the HUUSD board's current capacity to balance the power of an administration that demonstrates no intention to be guided by or be accountable to our community.  Short of immediate board action on the items above, we do not see a constructive path forward that puts community priorities and interests in their rightful place. To not take action would be to condone behavior that effectively undermines current and future governance of our district.

In closing, we will note that the disregard for public engagement, voice and accountability are not just the stuff of political philosophy. Public trust, engagement and support come to bear in both budget votes and our escalating tax burden. If we aim to ensure adequate resources and tax containment, we must be committed to ensuring that we serve all our potential students and their families in a manner consistent with their needs, values and priorities. Otherwise, education resources will diminish along with enrollment and the vice grip of rising property taxes will continue to undermine affordability and opportunity in our communities.

This memorandum is intended to be part of the public record. We look forward to the board’s response.

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