mau board meet

Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union Superintendent James Culkeen reported Wednesday that the high school is at 57 percent vaccinated, with an additional 200 vaccinations needed to reach the 80 percent threshold; he gave the report during the Mount Anthony Union School District Board meeting Wednesday night at the SVSU’s central office. 

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BENNINGTON — The Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union Board of Directors voted unanimously to extend the contract of Superintendent James Culkeen for three years during a meeting last May. However, the action was taken without public notification that Culkeen’s contract was up for consideration at the meeting.

The board voted 7-0 in favor of the extension on May 26. No mention was made of the issue on the board’s public agenda. Discussion of the contract took place in executive session — behind closed doors — and only the vote for approval was taken in public session.

Board Chair Dick Frantz defended the decision to use vague wording on the agenda, not making the issue clear to the public, saying the matter was handled “in good faith according to the law.”

Frantz said the board handled it that way because it was, in essence, a personnel matter.

“I guess my thought is it’s much the same position as voting on a contract for teachers or anybody else. The public is not necessarily included because it’s a task that to some degree has to be held in confidence,” Frantz said. “It’s an administrative deal and not for public approval. The public has knowledge once we take the vote.”

The state’s open meeting law says boards may enter executive session for appointment or employment decisions, provided that it make a final decision in public and explain its actions, Frantz said. “I consider that statement a performative,” he said. “It requires us to do something as a result of it or say we take no action.”

“It was a board choice based on all the work we did putting that together, not a public choice,” he said. “It was not an attempt to keep the public out.”

{div}While it may have met the letter of the law, state experts said, the spirit calls for more specificity than the May 26 agenda offered.

The Secretary of State’s office has neither the authority nor the personnel to enforce the open meeting law, spokesman Eric Covey said. He also said that the open meeting law “doesn’t define ‘agenda’ or specify what information an agenda must contain.”

“Quite generally speaking, and in keeping with the [open meeting law’s] intent, we think that an agenda should be crafted to allow interested members of the public to be reasonably informed about what specific topics will be discussed, and, to the extent foreseeable, what actions may be taken in relation to these topics,” Covey said.

The May 26 agenda called for an executive session in item No. 9, and stipulated the reasons why under applicable state law: “The appointment or employment or evaluation of a public officer or employee, provided that the public body shall make a final decision to hire or appoint a public officer or employee in an open meeting and shall explain the reasons for its final decision during the open meeting.”

Other civic and education groups in Vermont agreed that even though the law does not require specificity, it’s a best practice in keeping with the spirit of the law.

“An agenda should be drafted so that it provides actual notice of the specific topics to be addressed and the actions that may be taken at the meeting,” said Sue Ceglowski, executive director of the Vermont School Boards Association. “Although the law allows additions to the agenda to be made as the first act of business at meetings, it is not best practice to add items to a meeting agenda at the last minute.”

The Vermont League of Cities and Towns, on its website, advises that “It is clear from the intent of the law that an agenda must be drafted so that it provides actual notice of the specific topics to be addressed and the actions that may be taken at that meeting. An agenda should include specific topics such as ‘proposed contract with ambulance service,’ or “discussion of speed limit on town highway 7’ rather than general terms such as ‘contract,’ or ‘speed limits’ which do not provide notice to the public about what will be discussed and decided.”

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In its 2020-21 evaluation of Culkeen, delivered at its April 28 meeting, the board said he had successfully shepherded the creation of the SVSU Elementary District and facilitated a state-mandated merger with the Battenkill Valley Supervisory Union. While noting his goals for school culture and climate “benchmarks and action steps” were still in progress, it credited his advocacy for hiring an equity coordinator for the 2020-21 school year.

“The evaluation committee finds that Mr. Culkeen has addressed his goals, is facilitating a complicated merger with another supervisory union, and is providing sound and thoughtful leadership through a most difficult year,” the committee said.

It also noted Culkeen’s public outreach in the office: “[He] is focused and thoughtful, communicates well, and provides transparency on issues, such as budgets, equity issues, and town support). He has included the information officer as part of community engagement.”

According to the {a}minutes{/a} for the May 26 meeting, board member Fran Kinney moved and Ray Mullineaux seconded that the board enter executive session “to discuss employment or evaluation of a public officer or employee as per 1 V.S.A. §313(a)(3).” When it returned to open session, Mullineaux moved and Leon Johnson seconded a motion to offer an employment contract to William Bazyk as assistant superintendent “with language discussed during Executive Session,” which passed unanimously. Then, “Mullineaux moved and Johnson seconded a motion to offer the SVSU Superintendent a three-year contract extension, and the motion passed [seven] in favor, [Nicol] Whalen abstained.”

Bazyk came to the SVSU through a state-mandated merger between SVSU and the Battenkill Valley Supervisory Union, of which he was superintendent.

More recently, the annual process of evaluating Culkeen’s performance has begun anew.

The meeting of the Superintendent Evaluation Committee was called to order a week ago Thursday, with Frantz and Culkeen attending in person at the supervisory union’s South Stream Road offices, and SVSU board member Jackie Kelly attending via Zoom.

With no public comments offered in person or on Zoom, Kelly moved and Frantz seconded that the committee enter into executive session to begin the process of hearing a presentation from Culkeen. Johnson arrived several minutes later in person.

The SVSU website lists Frantz, Johnson, Mullineaux and Chaila Sekora as members of the Superintendent Evaluation Committee. Mullineaux and Sekora did not attend the meeting, Frantz said.

Frantz said the process of evaluating Culkeen, now in his seventh year as SVSU superintendent, will take months.

According to SVSU Policy 2600, adopted in March of 2018, the SVSU superintendent is evaluated yearly, using the position’s job description and pre-established goals, as well as Vermont standards for administrators (also used by the superintendent for self-evaluation). The SVSU board chair’s role is the “to implement and oversee the evaluation and review of the superintendent’s job performance.”

Under the policy, the evaluation is due to be completed “prior to March 1st or adjusted contract evaluation date.”

Culkeen was first hired by the SVSU 2014 after the retirement of Catherine McClure. He came to Bennington County in 2011 as superintendent of the Southwestern Vermont Regional Technical School District, which operates Southwest Tech (formerly the Southwestern Vermont Career Development Center).{/div}

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Greg Sukiennik covers government and politics for Vermont News & Media. Reach him at gsukiennik@benningtonbanner.com.

Greg Sukiennik has worked at all three Vermont News & Media newspapers and was their managing editor from 2017-19. He previously worked for ESPN.com, for the AP in Boston, and at The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, Mass.


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