NORTH CLARENDON — In response to a March 11 letter from parents, the Mill River school district officials said Thursday they couldn’t disclose whether Superintendent David Younce had been disciplined for what parents called “threatening language” against staff members in a recording.
“The information and voice tape of Mr. Younce provided to and published by the Rutland Herald is disturbing at best,” the parents wrote in their letter.
The March 11 letter is signed by Mark and Kristine Billings, Jeffery and Tiffany Dayton, Michael Spafford, Kirsten Ericksen, Eric Ritter and another individual who wished not to be named.
The School Board’s letter opens with a reminder that the board consists of community members who dedicate their time to the School Board because they care.
“We have made the choice to be a board member because we believe in serving our community,” wrote Chairwoman Tammy Heffernan on behalf of the board.
She wrote the board is often “able to have a much larger understanding of factors surrounding an incident or behavior because of this confidential information that the public does not know and by law is not allowed to know.”
The recording was published in the Rutland Herald and confirmed to be Younce by himself and others. It includes Younce telling his staff, during a meeting he called in October to address rumors about him being inappropriately involved with a staff member, that they “will be found” if they undermined the efforts of the school district, relating staff spreading rumors to “critters” and “bugs.”
“We do not feel it is ethical to allow the faculty to be berated in such a way,” parents wrote. “We know for a fact that many faculty members are too scared to talk in fear of employment or retribution.”
In response, the School Board said the district had not received a grievance from the National Education Association, the faculty and staff’s union, regarding concerns.
“I can assure you this union effectively represents the faculty and support staff, and does not fail to file a grievance when it believes there has been a violation of contract or district policies,” Heffernan wrote.
The response said the School Board is not allowed to inform the public of certain information, citing statute 1 VSA 317 ©(2).
“While the board shares as much information with the public as we are permitted by law to do so, the board is legally unable to provide any information as to the existence or non-existence of any disciplinary action for a District employee, including the Superintendent,” Heffernan wrote.
“That’s what our attorneys have told us,” Heffernan said in a phone interview Thursday, before saying she had no further comment.
Matt Byrne, shareholder at Gravel & Shea Attorneys at Law in Burlington, said although the board may cite statute, it isn’t prevented from divulging the information.
“It’s not an absolute exemption,” Byrne said. “The public records act defines the power of an individual to demand the government produce documents. It does not prohibit a school board from producing the documents if it has an otherwise valid reason to do so.”
But the Agency of Education doesn’t step in regarding district personnel, said agency spokesman Ted Fisher.
“The school board is responsible for governing the school district ... in this particular case, they have the decision-making power,” Fisher said.
Parents alleged that some children had been pulled from their individualized education plans without parental permission, resulting in a disruption of their learning curve and a need for reassessment, which sometimes does not happen.
“We feel that not addressing the public record of these behaviors is a disservice to the community, the children and puts the district at a liability risk,” parents wrote.
“This is not correct,” Heffernan wrote. “IEPs require a team approach. By law, parents are mandated to be part of the students’ team.
“The fact is, no services were delayed or denied.”
Heffernan said the district conducted an audit of parental requests and evaluations, and found no requests had been improperly denied. She said the district also found no Due Process or Administrative Complaint proceedings in the past seven years, and is not aware of any current or ongoing disputes relating to special education services.
“Apparently, Vermont Legal Aid is satisfied as it has not made any further requests or demands,” Heffernan wrote.
In an Oct. 4 email, Younce specifically instructed staff members that an instruction by Coral Stone had Younce’s backing.
In an email to staff by Stone on Dec. 7, she asked recipients “not to share beyond this group,” before explaining that the district didn’t have enough staff to conduct all special education evaluations.
So, she wrote, teachers ought to convince parents not to ask for them, at least for awhile.
“I bring this situation to your attention because, as EST Coordinators and as building-leaders who often interface with parents who make requests for special education testing, I’d like you to please make every effort to curtail evaluation requests coming from your ESTs for the time-being,” Stone wrote. “I expect this moratorium to last perhaps through mid-February. ... Please do not make any kind of formal announcement to your EST or to your staff that we aren’t accepting requests for any new evaluations (as this would violate the law in a number of ways), but it would be great if you could help teams and teachers devise interim supports that students can receive until such time that we get ahead of our backlog.”
In a Feb. 12 email to the group, Stone said the district had been contacted by the Vermont Disability Law Project, and she did not intend, in her previous emails, to “depart from our Child Find Obligations.”
“I wished to address the backlog of evaluations,” Stone wrote. “I write to affirm that any request for evaluation, either internal or from a parent, shall be pursued consistent with our obligations under Vermont and Federal Law.”