Milton School Board leadership denied skirting Vermont’s open meeting law despite documents showing the board chairman issued a directive to district leadership about the pre-kindergarten classroom move last week, outside the public’s view.
Public records obtained by the Milton Independent show board chairman Mike Joseph directed outgoing superintendent Ann Bradshaw to keep the pre-K program at Milton Elementary School after he sought feedback from his fellow trustees electronically.
At Monday night’s board meeting, Joseph said he contacted trustees individually and shared their consensus with Bradshaw in the interest of saving time. Trustees defended the move, saying it was not only legal but in the community’s best interest.
Joseph sent the directive days after a May 2 public forum planned to gather input on a proposal to move pre-K classrooms to the high school or to another space within MES.
Administration has said the elementary/middle school campus is too crowded and suggested the rear wing of Milton High School to house the district’s youngest students.
Board members told the public they would vote on the issue at the May 14 meeting but actually formed consensus on it nine days prior, documents show.
“The board is unanimous in not wanting to move the pre-K to the high school,” Joseph wrote to Bradshaw on May 6, obtained emails show. “We need to find a short term, workable solution in the elementary or middle school.”
Public bodies are required to make all decisions in publicly warned meetings, the open meeting law says. Board members can only schedule a meeting, organize an agenda or distribute board materials outside a physical meeting, the law says.
Monday night, board leadership said their communications don’t violate the spirit of the open meeting law. Joseph said in retrospect, he would have used different wording to convey to Bradshaw she needed to come up with other options.
“There’s a time element to this, and we need to get it done quickly,” Joseph said. “It wasn’t to profess that we have a decision.”
Trustees were previously criticized for attending the forum without warning it as a legal board meeting. Members defended that decision, saying the quorum of trustees present didn’t engage in the discussion.
Joseph was the only trustee who didn’t attend, but text message transcripts show he maintained a conversation with board vice-chairman Rick Dooley throughout the forum.
A screenshot of a group chat between all five board members also shows Joseph warning his boardmates, “Please don’t sit together.”
The transcript shows Dooley tell Joseph the crowd disagreed with the high school proposal. At one point, he posits Bradshaw “is on the verge of losing control of the room” and disparages former board chairwoman Lori Donna’s feedback on the matter as “antagonizing,” “bitchy” and “confrontational.”
Two days later, on May 4, board member Emily Hecker emailed Joseph and Bradshaw with her concerns about moving pre-K to MHS. On May 6, Joseph forwarded this email exchange to trustee Jeremy Metcalf to discuss the board’s consensus.
“I am planning on sending Ann an email later this afternoon stating that the board doesn’t support the move to the high school,” the email reads.
The exchanges also show Bradshaw attempted to convince Joseph the board didn’t need to vote on the issue, calling it “an administrative decision.” Further emails show Joseph disagreeing and giving her an ultimatum.
“Option 1: You come to the [May 14] meeting and make the statement that moving the pre-K to the high school is no longer an option, in the short term, based on public feedback,” he wrote on May 6.
“Option 2: We discuss this as a board and explain to you and the rest of the community why each of us doesn’t support the move, we make a motion to memorialize the decision,” he wrote.
Bradshaw responded the next morning saying, “I will get started on other options at MES.”
She didn’t show up to Monday night’s meeting.
Other correspondence shows school administration immediately took action following Joseph’s directive.
Bradshaw’s assistant, Jen Saunders, emailed incoming superintendent Amy Rex on May 7, saying the pre-K high school scenario “is no longer an option.” That same day, Bradshaw informed MHS principals Anne Blake and MJ Stinson “pre-K will not be moving to the high school.”
Monday night, the board walked back that definitive language, instead quizzing school leaders in attendance on other options at the elementary school. They also proposed a possible space study, an option the board facilities committee will discuss next week.
The majority of trustees are new to the board and campaigned on a platform of transparency, a topic the Indy asked about in a Q&A prior to Town Meeting elections.
“Transparency is simply the ability to demonstrate to the community what the rationale or process was to arrive at a decision,” Dooley wrote.
The entire board recently participated in an open meeting and records training. That gathering was not publicly warned.