Katz sues South Burlington for open meeting law compliance

Man sues school district over superintendent deal

April 1, 2006
By Sky Barsch
Free Press Staff Writer

April 1, 2006

A South Burlington resident is suing the South Burlington School District and former superintendent Gail Durckel over the “goodbye package” that sent Durckel out of her job with $104,000 and a written promise not to reapply to the district.

Sheldon Katz filed suit in Chittenden Superior Court on behalf of himself this week. The suit alleges that the School Board violated Vermont’s open-meeting law because it did not have grounds to call an emergency meeting on Feb. 5, when the board and Durckel negotiated a separation agreement; that some of the events that took place in that meeting should have been conducted in a public, and not a closed-door session; and that the non-disparagement and non-disclosure causes in the separation agreement violate public policy.

The suit asks the court to rule that the meetings did not comply with Vermont’s open-meeting law, to declare the separation agreement void because it goes against public policy, and for compensation for filing the suit, plus any other compensation that the court sees fit.

Durckel resigned in February after 15 months on the job and nearly a year-and-a-half before her contract expired. In exchange for her resignation, her keys to the school and a promise that she never apply to the district again, the school district is giving her $104,000 and a letter of recommendation. The School Board has refused to explain why the district is paying her for her resignation.

“It’s unfortunate that residents have to take time away from their families and incur the expense of a lawsuit just to find out what their local government is up to, but the school board has circled the wagons and left residents with no choice,” Katz said in a written statement. “The school board’s position is ‘trust us.’ Given the number of serious questions raised and the secret expenditure of public funds, that position is indefensible.”

School Board Chairwoman Leslie Williams dismissed the suit as an attack on public education.

“The South Burlington School District will respond to Sheldon Katz’s lawsuit in court and not in the press,” Williams said in a prepared statement Friday afternoon. “In his press release, Katz purports to speak for South Burlington residents. In fact, he speaks only for himself. In evaluating his statements, the public should know what his real agenda is. Mr. Katz is an avowed opponent of public education. He is on record as publicly saying that, ‘I favor ending government involvement in education.’ The school district will vigorously defend this frivolous lawsuit.”

“I don’t think this lawsuit has anything to do with opposition to public education,” Katz said Friday afternoon. “It has to do with conducting public business and official business in a way that comports with the statute in our state Constitution.”

Joe McNeil, the school district’s attorney, said he has received notice of the suit and is looking into it.

“Our view is the South Burlington School Board acted in accordance with Vermont’s open-meeting law,” McNeil said. “We will file an answer in court.”

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