After public records request, school board releases names of candidates 

By Mike Donoghue, Standard Correspondent

WINDSOR — The Mount Ascutney School Board, after saying earlier it would use a mostly secretive process for filling a vacant board seat, agreed this week to at least make public the names of three Windsor taxpayers that applied.

Kaitlyn Gould, Megan M. Reed, and May Paquin were the only people to submit letters of interest by the deadline at noon April 14, according to Elizabeth Burrows, chair of the Mount Ascutney School Board.

Burrows released the names to the Vermont Standard on Monday evening in response to a Vermont Public Records request. The newspaper filed the request hours after the filing deadline on Friday. The newspaper asked for copies of the letters for all people that filed, including any that might have pulled out before interviews were held.

Paquin and Gould were interviewed in a closed-door session during a special meeting on Monday evening.

Reed is due for her private interview on Thursday evening, April 20. The board is scheduled to have another special meeting that night. It begins with an open session and after the mandatory chance for additions or deletions to the agenda, a closed-door session is planned to conduct the interview.

The board has said it also plans to have a special meeting at 6:30 p.m. on Friday but expects to move quickly into a secret session to discuss selecting the new board member. The board can make its decision behind closed doors, but it is not binding until the appointment is approved in open session under Vermont’s Open Meeting Law.

The board plans to come back into open session later on Friday evening to have a discussion about filling the position, the agenda states. It is unclear if the discussion will include taxpayers. The plan is to appoint the new member that night before adjourning, according to the agenda.

Burrows had said during a school board meeting on April 3 that the letters of interest submitted by Windsor residents for the empty seat would not be disclosed to the public and even the names would be kept a secret. Even after a 45-minute closed-door session that night, the board reaffirmed it would use a confidential process in filling the seat, according to the draft minutes.

The school board, which is authorized to include three members each from both Windsor and West Windsor, later learned that Vermont law requires the release of the names and letters.

Gould, 36, said in her letter she has been active in school board meetings, is a former school employee and that her children will be fourth-generation Windsor High graduates.

Reed, 39, said she has lived in the district since 2009, has one child in the school, has been involved in fundraising and volunteering in the community and is seeking her degree at Colby-Sawyer College.

Paquin did not provide in her letter her age, which the board told candidates to include. She said she was a lifelong resident of Windsor and is the mother of six with half of them in the school system now. 

During the meeting Monday evening, one resident asked the full school board to at least consider conducting the interviews in public so the taxpayers could hear the stances of each candidate.

David Taft made a plea to the five board members to be fully transparent.

“For a board that says that they are the most transparent, the most inclusive, to do this the way you are doing it is only going to create more division in a situation that could be handled openly and in the public so that no matter what the decision is made, the public could support it,” he said.

He said he was making the plea to the entire board to rethink the secrecy decision.

Vice Chairman Bill Yates did not support the request.

“I don’t believe any of us have ever had the hubris to claim that we are the most transparent,” Yates said. 

“We have claimed that we work at our best at being transparent, but I don’t have any recollection of anyone on this board saying that we are the most transparent board,” Yates said.

“We try,” Burrows said.

“We try,” Yates echoed.

The board then moved into a secret session to start the interviews online.

Nobody from the school board at any of the recent meetings pushed back about using the secret process. Some clearly favored it being behind closed doors, where candidates can be privately eliminated. Yates had said he preferred not to do them online, but that was how they were handled on Monday night.

Some school district taxpayers had said earlier the secrecy plan goes against the idea of having a transparent system when filling local government seats.

The board is seeking to replace Amy McMullen on both the Mount Ascutney School Board and the Windsor Southeast Supervisory Union Board.

McMullen of Windsor was re-elected to a 3-year term on Town Meeting Day, but quit all her school posts and as the Windsor town clerk after ongoing concerns were raised about the election. McMullen, while not the school district clerk, has admitted she stood over the school ballot box as voters attempted to file their ballots.

McMullen also was among four people to help count school ballots and tally the results, according to residents, including Town Manager Thomas Marsh and Selectboard member Ryan Palmer, who is also the Windsor County sheriff. McMullen has disputed those claims and also questions about ballot security. 

McMullen, who had served on the board 15 years, defeated Gould, who was making her first run on Town Meeting Day 252-234. A subsequent recount changed it to 255-222. The jump from 18 to 33 votes has never been explained.

McMullen, who also served on the Vermont State School Board Association Board, was praised for her past work by members of the Mount Ascutney board.

One school board member, Nancy Pedrick, also has acknowledged in an email made public that past elections have “always been sort of Loosy goosy.”

Some residents had earlier maintained candidates for public office should make themselves and their positions on issues known to voters. But Burrows had insisted the appointment was not an election and secrecy had been done in the past.

The board has agreed that the appointment would last only until Town Meeting Day 2024. The final two years of McMullen’s term would be up for grabs during that election to anybody from Windsor wanting to run a public race by filing nominating petitions.