As I step down from the Lamoille South school board, I would like to share my reasoning behind this difficult decision. I would have continued to serve this community if I felt it was possible.
In these times, however, I feel it is more important than ever to follow one’s moral compass — and I must follow mine.
First, I would like to note that I have had a positive working relationship with our superintendent, Tracy Wrend, and I have been impressed with her depth of knowledge on a variety of educational issues. My perception of Ms. Wrend, however, is irrelevant when determining how best to move forward after the Bain v. Wrend verdict.
Jury charged with being “the sole and exclusive judges of the fact.”
The court instructed the jury:
“The plaintiff David Bain has the burden of proof by a preponderance of the evidence for each of his claims.” The jury could rule in Bain’s favor only if evidence presented met the standard of “more likely true than not.”
After three full days of testimony, the jury was asked the following and responded unanimously:
“Was retaliation by defendant a substantial motivating factor in causing the disciplinary action which led to his suspension and the ‘last chance’ agreement?” Answer: Yes.
“Would plaintiff’s conduct at work have led to his investigation in any event?” Answer: No.
Board’s opinion should not trump the findings of the jury.
I have found the board’s lack of deference to the jury verdict in Bain v. Wrend to be disturbing. I did not, nor did any other board member, sit through the three days of testimony. We were not assigned the role of being the judges of fact, and it is wrong to unilaterally assume that role now.
People’s personal feelings have no place when assessing how to adequately respond to a jury’s finding of retaliation. Any transgressor in a place of power will have some who vehemently support them, attesting to the person’s integrity based on personal experience. Actions of school district leaders must always be held to the highest standard — safeguards should be in place to protect against abuses of power, since there is the potential of huge economic and social harm to the communities being served.
Yes, sometimes juries and even the U.S. Supreme Court get it wrong. Yet, our civilized society would be fractured if those in authority chose not to respect and abide by court decisions. We cannot allow “false jury verdicts” to stand alongside “fake news” and “alternative facts.”
Board is now on notice and must act responsibly.
At the very least, the jury verdict has put the board on notice that there may be an issue of retaliation in our schools. The board has a duty to be proactive in its response to the verdict. The board should:
1. Independently verify that the climate of our schools is healthy.
2. If any concerns are found, make sure that appropriate safeguards are in place to protect against any possible future actions, including but not limited to retaliation.
A responsible board would be working on a plan to minimize our supervisory union’s potential liability from future lawsuits, which are inevitable at this point.
Board must seek objective measures.
In response to the jury verdict, I did not feel that termination or paid administrative leave was appropriate, given the advice of the board’s legal counsel. All I wanted was a confidential school climate survey to be administered to all students, staff and parents of our schools by an independent third party. We would be following the best practice set by thousands of school districts throughout the U.S., and this would help us identify problems or areas in need of improvement within our school system.
At the very least, this would have given all stakeholders a voice and an opportunity to be heard. This small step could help our community move forward in a positive direction, and the information would provide insight into each of the schools in our newly merged district.
We should want an objective measure of how our schools’ operations are perceived by students, staff and parents. The board does not think it is necessary or important, but I firmly believe that following this best practice is paramount to fostering healthy dialogue and collaboration in our schools and community.
Board speaking as one voice.
The main lesson that school board members are taught is that “we must all speak as one voice once a decision has been made.” I have always been willing to abide by this and lend my voice even when I have not been in full agreement.
In this case, however, I am completely opposed to the board’s unconditional support of our superintendent and refusal to acknowledge the validity of the jury’s verdict. As a former assistant district attorney who believes in the important role juries play in our society, I cannot be part of that singular voice.
I believe that the board’s stance will have negative repercussions, and I refuse to be complicit. At a time when the board should be gathering as much information as possible about our newly merged district, it is instead building a protective wall around the superintendent.
For that reason, I am stepping down from the school board effective immediately.
Leigh Pelletier was an elected member of the Stowe School Board and, after the merger with Elmore-Morristown, was a member of the Lamoille South school board.