Recount requested in school board race following multiple concerns

By Mike Donoghue, Standard Correspondent

WINDSOR — A recount has been requested in a school board race in the Mount Ascutney School District and local residents are asking questions about why a political candidate was allowed to stand next to the ballot box and later possibly help tally the votes on Town Meeting Day.

Mount Ascutney School District Chair Elizabeth Burrows also announced this week that the board is considering hosting three public discussions in the wake of recently completing a $650,000 out-of-court settlement after a federal judge ruled the district mishandled the removal of a high school principal in June 2020.

Much of the discussion during the school board meeting on Monday night centered on Town Meeting Day voting with a major focus on Windsor Town Clerk Amy McMullen, who was also running for the Mount Ascutney School Board.

Several voters raised questions during the meeting about the procedures and rules used for voting in the two-town school district. Several talked about the integrity of the election.

McMullen admitted Monday night that she now realizes that her actions on Town Meeting Day may have given voters a wrong impression.

“In hindsight, I see the poor judgment of being present for the duration of the day. And if I find myself in a similar situation in the future, I will assign someone to serve in my place,” she said during her comments.

McMullen acknowledged she was present during vote tallying, “but did not participate in the counting of ballots.” 

McMullen insisted that she did not consider it campaigning and said she never coerced anybody to vote for her while doing her town clerk duties. 

Candidate Kaitlyn Gould, who apparently lost to McMullen, 252-234 on Town Meeting Day, has now asked for a recount.

McMullen said she received the formal recount request on Monday afternoon and by law the district had between 2 and 5 days.

She said the Board of Civil Authority needs to appoint somebody to perform the duties of the clerk during the recount.

Burrows said it was during Town Meeting Day that she learned the designated school district clerk could not be present to run and monitor the election as required by the law. McMullen, who is the town clerk of Windsor, stepped in.

Town clerks are under no obligation to oversee school elections, unless they hold both posts.

Burrows said she believed there was nothing wrong with McMullen being by the ballot box when she was in a contested race.

Burrows, who also is a state legislator, said she has frequently stood inside polling places when her name was on the ballot, and she thought that kind of election conduct was common across Vermont towns. That claim sparked discussion about the laws that prohibit campaigning in and near polling places.

Several speakers in the audience both at the meeting and on Zoom talked about how they were uncomfortable — or friends had been — while putting their ballots in the box with McMullen standing there watching. 

As the days passed after the election, additional concerns were raised. Speakers cited concerns that:

  • The annual School District meeting notice was never posted in advance as required by law;
  • Sample ballots were not posted in advance as required by law;  
  • The chain of custody of ballots was faulty. The ballots — both completed and blank — arrived in Windsor from West Windsor, but had not been secured. There were questions about whether the ballots leaving West Windsor had arrived in Windsor unchanged.
  • Without the school district clerk, there were no school staff or volunteers assigned to count the ballots.

None of the speakers made any claims of election fraud, but several raised concerns about the public perception of how the voting was carried out.

Misty Boutin, a local resident, asked about the required security for the ballots when transported from West Windsor to Windsor. Burrows said she did not know the answer, but she believed state law was followed. 

“The integrity of the election is very questionable right now,” Boutin said.

McMullen sent a message over Zoom at the start of the meeting that she thought she could not participate until after the recount. That didn’t stop the rest of the board from electing her to serve as the school district clerk for the coming year.

Burrows explained the district clerk position, which oversees setting up and running elections, has been hard to fill for many years. She noted the board set the stipend at $50 a year.

Interim Superintendent Christine Bourne noted that the town Hartland provides a $4,000 annual stipend for its school district clerk. Hartland has about the same population as Windsor and is part of the supervisory school union. 

Bourne said she consulted with both the Secretary of State’s Office, which helps oversee elections, and the school district’s lawyer. A plan was drafted for possible validation of the Town Meeting Day vote.

She said the board could warn a meeting to vote on validating the Town Meeting outcomes even if the election laws, including warnings and postings were not fully followed. Bourne said they also recommended McMullen should come to a board meeting and outline her involvement in the election.

Bourne read the proposed wording for an election validation resolution, but the board, which needed two-thirds support, did not take any action on Monday.

The resolution said the board intended to conduct the election in compliance with state law, but some residents believed some statutes were not followed. The resolution seeks to cure any errors, omissions or other problems that were caused by “oversight, inadvertence or mistakes” with the March 7 election.

“It is just acknowledging publicly that there were some missteps in the election process, but wasn’t anything egregious and that none of it was purposeful and it was just some errors and definitely some miscommunications,” Burrows said. 

“That’s what you would be attesting to by signing it,” she said.

After more discussion and more concerns from voters, the board moved forward with the agenda and did not say what corrective steps would be taken.

In other action, the board re-elected Burrows as chair of the six-member board.

Other School Board members filling seats were: Bill Yates as vice chair, Davis McGraw as board clerk and Nancy Pedrick as district treasurer 

Windsor Police Sgt. Paul Favreau was selected as the truant officer. 

The board voted to continue to use the Valley News, the Eagle Times and the Vermont Standard as the official newspapers of record to alert the community through Public Notices about elections, changes in school policies and other issues. The board said the school district is well served by buying Public Notices, also known as Legal Notices, in the three newspapers. McGraw said some overlap is better and Burrows said the more notice the better.

By law, each year local governing boards for schools and towns are expected to designate at least one newspaper of record so voters know where to read Public Notices about the official acts of local government.

The board also agreed to continue to hold its regular meetings for the next year on the second Monday of each month at 6:30 p.m. at school. 

Lawsuit aftermath

The school board has been under a self-imposed gag order about the firing and lawsuit brought by former High School Principal Tiffany Riley over her unlawful discharge. The case split the community.

But Burrows said Monday night the board silence will soon end. 

She said the board is thinking of hosting three public discussions, each for a different focus group: students, faculty and community.

Burrows said the board needs to find a facilitator and it has possible leads. She said Tabitha Moore, the founding president of the NAACP in Rutland County, and Steffen Gillom, also a founding member and president with the NAACP in Windham County, have agreed to do it for $2,500.

Burrow said the Vermont School Boards Association also was asked about helping find names of possible neutral facilitators to consider.

The dates of the sessions won’t be known until after the board selects the facilitators.

One resident, Daniel Worts, told the board that since a majority of the current members were in office when the Riley dismissal happened that it was perhaps time for them to consider admitting they were wrong in light of the legal outcome.

He said the board likes to talk about restorative justice and he asked the board to consider it for themselves in light of coming out on the short end of the legal case.

Riley sued the individual Mount Ascutney School Board members and the district after she said she was improperly fired for a comment she posted about Black Lives Matter on her personal Facebook page.

She has said the unjustified firing was devastating and essentially ended a successful 20-year education career. She had noted in her lawsuit that comments made by the Mount Ascutney School Board and other officials had hampered her job search in education.

Riley said after her firing she applied for nearly 50 school jobs and never got one response.

As part of the settlement the Mount Ascutney School Board agreed to provide Riley with a positive recommendation letter. It said in part that while principal, “Ms. Riley worked diligently with staff to change the school’s culture. Under Principal Riley, students were held accountable for their attendance, behavior and academic achievements.”

Riley, a 1989 Woodstock Union High School graduate, has said her Facebook posting was taken out of context or misinterpreted by some residents and the board. The board announced it was removing her, but a judge noted she had not been given a chance to defend herself.