When Vermonters attend their respective school district and town meetings, they are presented with annual budgets to approve. Well, that is fair enough and they get the opportunity to vote their tax dollars for road salt and pencils and other line items. But where do they have the opportunity to vote on the hundreds of thousands of dollars that are dispersed each year by towns and school districts in connection with personnel who are terminated abruptly?
While I have no hard data on how much in dollars is paid each year, a casual reading of our newspapers makes me believe that annually, the amount paid out in settlements by municipalities and school districts and nonprofit organizations) can be in the low seven figure amounts – all of which is done without the approval of the town's or school district's voters.
A case in point occurred in the Bennington Southwest Supervisory School District. Close to $100,000 had been agreed to be paid to the district's former and long-serving Chief Financial Officer, Richard Pembroke. The financial officer had been accused of allegedly harassing a fellow employee and, in February, was placed on paid leave. Recently, it was reported in the Rutland Herald that Pembroke had submitted his resignation and was given a severance package that amounted to the compensation remaining under his employment contract, in addition to other perks.
For weeks, the district's residents were puzzled and left to wonder as to why the CFO was put on paid administrative leave. "No comment" was the response from the district's board of trustees and then came the news of the $100,000 pay-off. And all along the district's leaders noted that the situation was "a personnel matter" and that the negotiations and settlement were to be kept confidential.
This type of response is not solely limited to Bennington, but is pervasive throughout Vermont. And in many similar cases, the amounts paid out in so-called "settlements" far exceed the Bennington pay-off. What compounds this issue is the fact that municipal and school district officials are ordered by their attorneys and insurance carriers to maintain secrecy via a document euphemistically described as a Non-Disclosure Agreement. And this practice needs to come to an end.
And it must end not only at the municipal and school district (and state government) levels, but also with the state's nonprofit organizations. Here as well, we often read that a former executive director was "terminated" and a financial settlement reached between the employee and the NPO.
In connection to the above and reported in VTDigger, was the Burlington College settlement with Jane O'Meara Sanders, the college's former president. It is alleged that Sanders steered the college into a poorly conceived $10 million real estate deal with the Catholic Diocese of Burlington by having purchased the Diocese's lakefront Burlington headquarters. The purchase was accomplished with borrowed funds that were to be paid back from millions of dollars of received and to-be-received financial pledges to the college. Pledges barely materialized, but what did was a "secret settlement" to Sanders in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
It is not an unreasonable suggestion that, when an employee is hired by a government agency or a nonprofit organization, and is terminated for cause with a corresponding financial settlement, full disclosure should be made to the public. In effect, the employee and the employer waive their rights to privacy by having accepted/filled a position that is funded with taxpayers' dollars. And in the case of a nonprofit, the justification is that it is funded by the government, through the tax laws.
It is insulting to the voters of Bennington to have asked them at town meeting to approve pencils and other supplies. Meanwhile, the district's board of trustees had no faith in the voters by affording them the opportunity to vote on a $100,000 settlement to a dismissed employee.
Don Keelan writes a bi-weekly column and lives in Arlington.