A Town Divided | Education | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

Published April 14, 1999 at 1:00 a.m.

There were no striking teachers in Sweetheart’s Dance, filmed on location a decade ago in the small Vermont village of Hyde Park. The 100-year-old elementary school played a major role in the Hollywood movie starring Don Johnson and Susan Sarandon. At the end of the town road, with a stunning view of Mount Elmore, the red brick building symbolized innocence in a story about lost, and recovered, romance.

Lately the school has been the staging ground for something more malevolent — a divisive teachers’ strike that kept local children out of school for six days. Although the issues have been resolved on the surface — in the form of a new three-year contract — a deep schism remains. In fact, it predates the walk-out. Hyde Park’s picture-postcard image belies a division created not from a battle over salaries and benefits, but from what residents in this seemingly sleepy hollow say is a bare-knuckled abuse of power in the hands of a few.

“All they have to do is flex their muscles, and they can pass or defeat a local budget,” former Hyde Park Elementary principal Dave Potter says of a small group of people who control the town through boards, commissions and local law enforcement. “They can even silence their critics,” he adds. Potter, now an educational consultant, is referring specifically to the unusual practice on the part of school board Chair Larry LaClair of calling armed, uniformed deputies to meetings to “keep the peace.”

Parent Bob Stein reports being escorted out of a school board meeting by an officer of the law. His offense? Speaking out of turn. “I disagreed with the process,” says Stein, a 42-year-old computer specialist. The chairman had a policy of refusing non-residents the right to speak, he says. “I kept saying, ‘This is illegal, Mr. Chairman. This is not the law.’”

After the sheriff’s deputy asked if he was willing to behave, Stein was let back into the meeting, and he didn’t say another word. “It was a clear effort to silence those who disagreed with the chair,” Stein says.

“It sort of gives credence to that poster, ‘Just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean everyone is not out to get me,”’ says Lamoille County Senator Susan Bartlett. “I certainly appreciate the deep emotions on both sides of the issue, but having armed sheriff deputies at public meetings puts out a very strong signal, and it’s not a positive one.”

The turmoil that now plagues Hyde Park began to surface five years ago. Until then there had been a balance of power between the land-owning native Vermont “old guard,” who ruled the town selectboard, and the “new guard” — generally younger, civic-minded parents who oversaw the finances of the school. The balance was upset as state aid to education dried up and school budgets and tax rates soared. Concerned about budget shortfalls on the school board side, the old guard decided to step in.

As Potter notes, a handful of people control things in Hyde Park. Made up of some of the largest landholders in town, the selectboard is run by Chairman Ken Harvey, Rene Marcoux and Robert Jones. School board Chairman LaClair is married to Marcoux’s daughter, and Lisa Fernald, also on the school board, is Jones’ daughter.

“It’s like ‘Peyton Place,”’ says another resident who spoke on condition of anonymity — “without the sex.”

“Think of ‘The Dukes of Hazard,”’ adds Jim McLean-Lipinski, recalling the popular 1970s television show about a cozy little ring of Southern good old boys who ran whatever racket they wanted in their town.

Populated by young professionals, landholders, farmers, well-drillers and small-business people, Hyde Park is just 10 miles north of Stowe. Financially, though, the two towns are worlds apart. With about 2,500 residents, Hyde Park has a median income of $20,971, as compared to the state average of $22,470, according to Vermont tax statistics. Before Act 60, which has lowered the Hyde Park school tax rate from $1.50 to $1.17, residents paid twice as much in school taxes as did residents of Stowe.

Who is responsible for the current windfall? Depends who you ask. Old-guard members — mostly Republican — chalk it up to much-needed fiscal discipline imposed by the school board prior to the passage of Act 60. School board member Walter Anderson says tighter controls ended an “era of debt and mismanagement.”

Detractors see it differently. “The beauty of this ideological cabal,” maintains another resident who spoke on condition of anonymity, “is they take credit for reducing people’s taxes when it came more from Act 60, something they all oppose.”

The cost-cutting at Hyde Park Elementary came at a price, too — the principal, guidance counselor and school librarian were edged out over the last three years. After repeatedly challenging the school board on its cuts, Mary Johnson, who has two daughters in the school and runs a small business in Stowe, was told her views weren’t welcome at school board meetings anymore. “Three years ago, a calculated power shift began to replace school board members with people who care more about their positions of power in the community than they do about our children and the staff who work with our children,” Johnson claims.

“It’s like they’ve had this agenda,” adds Maryval Palumbo, who also has two kids at Hyde Park Elementary and works for the Fletcher Allen Women’s Health Department in Williston. “They systematically took the school apart, first the principal, then the librarian and guidance counselor, who were the heart of the school.”

Quality was of such concern two years ago that the Department of Education fired off a letter warning the school could be closed down. “If programs and services required to meet Public School Approval standards have been intentionally cut,” wrote then-Deputy Education Commissioner William Reedy, “the approval of the school could be terminated.”

The heavy hand of the school board may not be entirely responsible for this spring’s six-day walkout, which was in part about the escalating cost of health insurance and whether teachers should have to pay a portion of that cost. But the school board’s tactics did not help to improve relations with union-friendly parents, especially when Jim McLean-Lipinski — Parent Volunteer of the Year at the school last year — was arrested for trying to question a school board member in the parking lot during the strike.

McLean-Lipinski, a 40-year-old employee of the Department of Public Safety, along with his wife Rita and resident Ahmad Malik, became the “Hyde Park Three” after they were arrested for “disorderly conduct” while picketing. McLean-Lipinski says he tried to have a word with Lisa Fernald as she was leaving the school. Fernald called the sheriff, claiming McLean-Lipinski had been blocking her way out. He was taken into custody; his wife and Malik were charged later that day.

When pressed, Fernard admits Malik might not have been blocking her way, “but he was standing so I couldn’t get out” of the parking lot, she says.

Malik, a self-employed African American musician and producer with one daughter at Hyde Park Elementary, says he has been a direct target of harassment and intimidation as a result of his outspokenness. After speaking up for the teachers at recent public meetings and walking the picket line with them, he says someone drove up to his home in North Hyde Park and shouted verbal and racial threats. When he reported it to the police, one deputy came to his house. But when he was cited for disorderly conduct, two deputies showed up. “It’s about control,” Malik offers.

The man controlling Hyde Park’s school board, Larry LaClair, is the fortysomething son of former long-time Morrisville police chief Bud LaClair. He doesn’t apologize for his unorthodox use of law enforcement at public meetings. “I’m not going to win any battle with this group and try and justify what’s happened,” he says of the citizens who disagree with his strong-arm tactics. Lean and tense, LaClair holds a part-time job at Cady’s Falls Nursery in Morrisville. On the days leading up to and during the strike, he was especially authoritarian, according to residents.

“During the strike the school was like a prison camp,” asserts former principal Potter, “with a uniformed police officer standing outside and ‘warden’ LaClair coming out and determining who would be allowed in.”

Three years ago, things got so bad in meetings that a group of parents hired a lawyer to explore their rights. Plainfield attorney Stephanie Kaplan issued a report detailing numerous violations by LaClair of Vermont’s Open Meeting Law. Serious conflict-of-interest issues arose, too, from the fact that LaClair’s wife, Diane, was a teacher at the school — one of only two non-union instructors who crossed the picket line during the strike.

Kaplan wrote that LaClair did not run meetings consistent with the spirit and intent of the Open Meeting Law. An important provision in the law states, “At an open meeting the public shall be given a reasonable opportunity to express its opinion on matters considered by the public body during the meeting as long as order is maintained. Public comment shall be subject to reasonable rules established by the chairperson.”

In the report Kaplan further detailed that LaClair “was hostile toward the public and made it clear that he was not interested in hearing what they had to say, and was only letting them speak because he knew he had to. He treated people rudely and disrespectfully and in general exhibited an abuse of his power.”

At the school board meetings Kaplan attended, LaClair refused to recognize her because she wasn’t a resident of the town. That breach in the process, and the law, is what led to Bob Stein’s outburst and his eventual scolding by the deputy sheriff. “It was unbelievable what I saw then,” Kaplan recalls, adding, “I thought they would have cleaned up their act.”

The same group of parents also sent a letter of concern to the Attorney General’s office, which responded by issuing a warning to LaClair. Assistant Attorney General Geoffrey Yudien suggested that LaClair give a close read to the Open Meeting Law, especially “the provision pertaining to penalties and enforcement in instances of noncompliance.” Responding to the charge of selectivity, LaClair wrote back to the AG, “It is very possible that I, as chair, erred in assuming this could be done.” The issue of armed guards never came up.

Neither Kaplan’s nor Yudien’s admonitions seemed to have had an effect. Just a few weeks ago this reporter attended a school board meeting in which a woman rose to criticize LaClair for his leadership skills. With the room packed to capacity, the chairman stood up and asked, “Excuse me, do we have a deputy sheriff in the room?” While the crowd buzzed, the deputy sheriff made his way to the front. He stood behind LaClair for the rest of the meeting, an ever-present reminder that dissent would not be tolerated.

That, according to residents, has been business as usual in Hyde Park for years.

Asked whether his responsibility as the leader of a public body obligates him to recognize all citizens, even the ones he disagrees with, LaClair argues, “I don’t think that’s why they created agendas.” Suggesting the intent of the disruptions was to dominate and extend the length of the meetings, he adds, “We have lives, too.”

When it became apparent, at that same meeting, that teachers were going to strike, LaClair gave the crowd of more than 100 people a total of 35 additional minutes to speak about their concerns, an extension of the scheduled 15 minutes. Right on time, he shut down public comment, saying he had been more than generous, while dozens of angry parents shouted in the crowded room.

“Why not gives folks more time, not just to placate a hostile crowd but to avert a crisis?” LaClair was asked. “Crisis is a state of mind,” he replied, and then declared that if a crisis were coming, it was the fault of the union. Noting that the town had been divided before, LaClair said it was the previous school board that had been irresponsible, and that the problems began when the teachers and staff organized into a union three years ago.

Fellow school board member Walter Anderson concurs with LaClair’s view. As head of the negotiating team with the union, he derides the previous board for mismanagement. “We’ve brought fiscal accountability to the school and the voters have rewarded us by reelecting us,” he asserts. “If we act so bad, if we have this crisis with people here, then why are we reelected?”

Parent Maryval Palumbo has an answer for that. They keep getting reelected because, she says, “they are networked throughout the boards and local community ... and can turn out the vote.” At the last town meeting, parents and other community members did try to get fresh faces elected to the school board — people they believed would be more responsive to the new guard. They won one position on the board, and lost the other by fewer than 50 votes.

It seems that not everyone in Hyde Park has lost faith in democracy. This Friday, the Vermont Labor Board will hold a public hearing on two allegations of unfair labor practices lodged by the teachers’ union against the school board. The board dismissed the school board’s countercharges that the union’s charges were unfair. The action is consistent with the apparent modus operandi in Hyde Park, in which residents and teachers have had to ask state officials to protect them from those in their own town.

Last week, Hyde Park Elementary teachers went back to work, but the divisions that have torn this town apart are far from healed. “I knew that there were efforts by various groups in our country to control the actions and words and even thoughts of people,” former principal Potter says of the town’s painful lesson in democracy, “but I never thought it would happen in independent Vermont."