BENNINGTON — The Mount Anthony Union School District Board heard an outpouring of frustration Wednesday over the board’s inability to remove member Ed Letourneau for social media comments considered racist or otherwise offensive.
Nearly 70 people participated in the videoconference board meeting, during which residents, board members, state and town officials and others followed one another in expressing abhorrence over some of Letourneau’s comments about topics involving race and other issues, primarily on Facebook sites.
The public comment portion of the meeting followed a brief board executive session likely concerning Letourneau and lasted for nearly two hours.
Following a public outcry on social media and in letters to the editor, MAU Chairman Tim Holbrook called on Letourneau to resign, but he has not.
The Southwest Vermont Regional Technical School Board, on which Letourneau also serves, voted Monday to call for his resignation, and to consult the State Board of Education and Attorney General’s Office about options for removing him.
Contacted after the MAU meeting Wednesday, Letourneau responded to the Banner via email, saying, “No comments tonight.”
NO EASY OPTIONHowever, as Holbrook and board attorney Dina Atwood stated and restated several times Wednesday, there is no legal provision for removing an MAU board member. This touched off bursts of frustration among many meeting participants.
Shawn Pratt, who ran unsuccessfully against Letourneau for the MAU Board in 2019, said the issues involved are not new.
“There were complaints way before this,” he told board members. “When is anybody going to get serious about removing him? He has to go.”
Boards have found “a legal workaround when it comes to removing Black and brown people for years,” said Mia Schultz. “You guys can find a way around this.”
The MAU district could change its governmental charter to include a recall provision for elected officials, Atwood said, but that would require, not only approval of Bennington voters, but also of voters in all of the MAU member districts, including Pownal, Shaftsbury and Woodford — along with a review and approval by the Legislature of the charter change language.
That would likely take longer than the timeframe until the end of Letourneau’s current board term, in March 2022, officials said, but several speakers said they want to make the effort anyway, if only to address similar situations in the future.
‘DO SOMETHING’Despite the explanations of Holbrook, Atwood and others, the calls to “do something” immediately to remove Letourneau continued to come.
Speakers decried a situation they see as harmful to students, the school district and its reputation.
The idea of the board censuring Letourneau was raised by former board and State Board of Education member Sean-Marie Oller, who said that had been done in the past. However, she said censure, which Atwood said was “basically a public reprimand,” was not a way to remove an elected board member.
Mary Gerisch suggested using a provision in Roberts Rules of Order for boards to punish Letourneau over what she termed “clear public abhorrence” of his comments.
“Hang your hat on that,” she said. “Make an example of yourselves [for local youth].”
Letourneau “might sue you, but so be it,” Gerisch added. “You would have plenty of defenders.”
“I absolutely embrace that idea,” said state Rep. Jim Carroll, D-Bennington. “That is thinking outside the box. It would send a message to the entire community.”
Carroll termed Letourneau’s comments “a terrible influence” on the district.
Sarah Perrin, a Select Board member, asked whether the board could approach the State Board of Education about what steps might be taken. But Atwood said there is no legal provision that would allow the state board to remove a local board member.
MAU Board member Amy Dobson was one of those who advocated moving ahead on a charter change.
“I will focus on the charter moving forward, so this doesn’t happen again,” she said.
Laura Payne, of Pownal, said, “To us, this is just unacceptable,” that the board has no legal method of removing Letourneau.
“I urge the board to take care of this as soon as possible,” she said.
Dave Payne commented that “this has been going on for years,” referring to Letourneau’s comments.
He said board members have been “compliant,” adding, “There has to be something that can be done about it. It’s not right. ... Where there’s a will there’s a way.”
“Be creative,” Laura Payne said.
With the board’s hands tied legally, said Judy Murphy, community members should write to Letourneau to urge his resignation.
“That’s an excellent idea,” Holbrook said.
Bennington Select Board member Jeanne Conner said that was her idea as well. “Just put unrelenting pressure on him to solve this,” she said.
Jeannie Jenkins, another Select Board member, asked the MAU Board to look at Letourneau’s failing to attend recent meetings and into a recall provision for the school district.
STATEMENTSHolbrook said about his recent conversations with Letourneau, “the bottom line is, he’ll let the rest of us know if he will resign, if he feels like it.”
Holbrook later added that Letourneau has “a complete misunderstanding of the world we live in,” and his membership on the board is “detrimental to our schools.”
MAU Board member and state Rep. David Durfee, D-Shaftsbury, read a vision statement promoting diversity and tolerance that the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union administration placed on its website in June, amid protests nationally following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.
The board then voted unanimously to formally adopt the statement.
Durfee also urged the board to fully consider all of the ideas offered Wednesday for removing Letourneau from the board.
SVSU Superintendent Jim Culkeen said during the meeting that “Ed is not an effective board member … If you are listening, I’m asking you to resign … to consider our students and step down.”