CHESTER, Vt. – A well-attended and confrontational online meeting of the Green Mountain Unified School District board unraveled, going from emotional pleas, to questionable board conduct, threats of quitting, and accusations of bullying, during a 2-plus hour, two-vote process to approve Keith Hill as Green Mountain Union High School’s new principal.
The April 15 meeting was the second time the board met to discuss the issue. The first was a special April 6 meeting during which a board majority rejected Hill’s principal appointment by a vote of 4 to 3, despite an enthusiastic recommendation from Two Rivers Supervisory Union Superintendent Lauren Fierman.
During that vote, Vice Chair Deb Brown made the motion to approve and voted “yes” along with board members Lois Perlah and Josh Schroeder. Board members Mike Studin, Rick Alexander, Dennis Reilly, and Jeannie Wade all voted “no” with Wayne Wheelock abstaining. Board Chair Joe Fromberger, initially thinking he needed to vote to avert a tie, also voted “no.” His vote, however, was not needed in the final tally since there was already a majority.
Between meetings, Brown, Fromberger, and Fierman met to discuss next steps; and two days after the April 6 meeting, educators and staff from Green Mountain and Cavendish Town Elementary showed solidarity for Hill by wearing red as well as encouraging parents and community members to reach out to the board to voice their support of Hill.
At the start of the April 15 online meeting, which included over 165 participants, board members who voted “no,” all spoke of their reasons for their vote; all four citing Hill’s lack of experience in leadership and administrative roles, although praising his qualities as an educator.
Brown countered with her own reasons for supporting Hill’s nomination, but in addition to praising his attributes, largely focusing on the need to support the superintendent’s recommendation, accusing board members of “not respecting Lauren’s experience and skill set.” Perlah and Schroeder both spoke in agreement of Brown’s position with Schroeder also praising Hill’s passion for the school and community.
Brown then made a motion to rescind the “no” vote from the last meeting, the decision apparently reached when Brown, Fromberger, and Fierman met before this meeting and was promptly criticized by Studin for trying to “avoid the will of the board.”
The meeting then proceeded with public comments from community member attendees, many of which spoke in support of Hill and the superintendent.
To begin that process, Brown read a statement from long-serving and well-respected Green Mountain board chair Allison Delauriers, which echoed Brown’s position that it is not for the board to judge whether a candidate is qualified but up to the superintendent, especially in hiring a principal. Former board member Kate Lamphere also weighed in in support of the superintendent.
Green Mountain staffer Sue Willis, who directed individual statements to all of the board members who voted no, urged them to support the superintendent and search committee and reconsider their vote in favor of Hill. Sharon Jonynas, another Green Mountain teacher, noted that Hill was valedictorian of his class, left, and came back to the community. She also urged Wheelock to cast a vote.
Several former students also spoke on Hill’s behalf, including 2011 graduate Anna Martel who, as the only “out lesbian” student at Green Mountain at that time, contemplated suicide before Hill stepped forward to help support her, encourage that she was not alone, and guide her to helpful resources. Noting how disconnected the principal at the time, Tom Ferenc, was, Martel theorized how wonderful it would have been to have had Hill’s empathy, care, and attentiveness at the helm.
Patrick Spurlock, a parent of a LGBTQ+ youth, also shared his support of Hill, fearing that if Hill were not there, “support for my child is gone.”
Cavendish resident and parent Denise Reilly Hughes, and daughter of board member Dennis Hughes, spoke in support of the board’s first decision, saying that a principal should be hired because they’re capable of doing a job. She asked that the community stop making it personal.
Several parents also spoke in support of Hill, Fierman, or both. Finally, Fierman questioned how the board could support her in building the district and the SU and, at the same time, not support her position on Hill, urging them to do so.
The board vote was then taken, mirroring that of the last meeting with four “no” votes by Alexander, Reilly, Studin, and Wade, and Wheelock again abstaining; and Brown, Perlah, and Schroeder voting “yes.”
With an initial vote by the board of 4 to 3 to defeat the measure, Fromberger as chair did not need to cast a vote, and began to explain that point. However, as chaos erupted, he did cast his vote for “yes;” however, that was still not enough for a majority and he clarified that the motion did not pass.
What followed was a quick succession of outbursts including a threat to quit by Fierman. “You’re going to lose your superintendent. You’re telling me that you don’t have confidence in me,” she said. Brown also rang in, saying she would quit, and Willis also suggested that faculty would follow.
Fromberger attempted to wrest back control of the meeting, confirming that the decision was up to the board and not up to public opinion. However, he then made a statement saying he was disappointed the board didn’t support the superintendent and became increasingly flustered when he talked about next steps.
Interim Green Mountain Principal Mike Ripley spoke briefly in support of Hill, saying the staff would support him.
Schroeder then pleaded directly to fellow board member Wheelock, essentially begging him to vote either way.
Brown capitalized on Fromberger’s hesitancy and said that she could make the motion again, and the board could revote.
Flustered, Fromberger agreed and the vote was retaken, this time with Wheelock voting and acquiescing “yes,” and the motion was approved – the previous votes being overturned.
Brown then quickly called for approval of Keith Hill as Green Mountain principal for one year. That motion was approved by the same margin, with Wheelock again voting “yes.”
After other business was discussed, Studin again returned to the contentious vote, saying he was disgusted with the process although he would support Hill as principal. “What we witnessed tonight was bullying – something we would never allow in any other setting.” He also said that the superintendent threatening to quit during a public meeting was unprofessional as was the threat by Vice Chair Brown. “This process turned into a circus, and it’s embarrassing,” he said.
Wade and Reilly both spoke about many negative comments and threats they had received over the last several weeks by community members. Reilly said he was extremely disappointed with the leadership of the board as well as being disappointed that Fierman had threatened to quit.
Fierman defended her statement saying she felt the board should know of her intention upfront, not “after the fact.” Her statement was not made lightly but her recommendation for GM principal was a special issue, particularly since she became their superintendent after serving as GM principal, and because of this, her recommendation, she felt, deserved their support.
Fromberger apologized if anyone was disappointed on how he handled the meeting but said he attempted to be equitable and somewhat harmonious to come up with a solution the board could live with.
As a follow up to the meeting, Studin provided a statement denouncing the bullying and intimidation he witnessed at the meeting. “Green Mountain Union High School has a new principal because the Superintendent and Vice Chairwoman threatened and bullied two of the board members into voting to hire him. That was not a vote made of admiration or support, it was a vote made under duress and intimidation.”
Keith Hill has accepted the one-year Green Mountain principal position.
Next regular GMUSD board meeting is scheduled for Thursday, May 20 at 6 p.m. via Zoom.