By Jack Deming
READSBORO- Last month, former Readsboro Central School principal Michael Heller was ordered by Bennington Criminal Court to pay back $4,500 he admitted to stealing from school grants.
At Monday night’s school board meeting, WSSU superintendent Christopher Pratt presented the board with a letter from the state’s restitution unit, detailing that the school would receive the monetary paybacks in bimonthly increments. Pratt also told the board that they should seek more money than Heller was court-ordered to return.
“I propose that when the board sends this in (the restitution agreement), you send it in with the actual amount of $4,797.72,” said Pratt. “When the audit was done, the monetary value was brought up to that amount.” Pratt hopes that asking for the increased amount might spur the state to amend the document.
Members of the community and school staff still voiced dissatisfaction with the result of the case, which gave the former principal no jail time in lieu of probation, 100 hours of community service, and required therapy, but did not take away his teaching or administrative licenses.
School custodian Teddy Hopkins called the restitution agreement a “kick in the teeth,” as it only covered what the former principal took from the grants.
“If there was a victims advocate, who signed off on behalf of the victim?” asked Hopkins. “We have a new superintendent, a new principal, and a new school board director, so who signed off saying ‘OK’ on the restitution agreement that he has to repay just what he took?”
Hopkins suggested the board pursue further legal action as well. “That’s (the restitution deal) criminal court, let’s pursue the civil course. There’s been other things found in costs that the school has had to absorb that are public record we can pursue in small claims court. I’d like to see some of that done, and I can provide some of it, without getting into a long thing here tonight.” Hopkins gave the example of the school having to change the locks following the arrest of Heller, which Hopkins said cost the school approximately $800. Hopkins said he could provide a list of issues that he was “positive” the school could make a case for.
As previously reported in The Deerfield Valley News, before Heller’s plea deal was accepted, his attorney Michael Silver, collected verbal depositions from members of the school board as well as former WSSU superintendent Dr. Richard McClements. In court, Silver said that based on these depositions, Heller was universally admired and was a transformative figure for the school community. Only one member of the board from that time period is still on the board, Karen Boisvert. When asked, it was former school board member Larry Hopkins who spoke to the nature of these statements, saying that he and Boisvert gave depositions, but he could not recall what either of them had said.
Resident Nick Zammuto added that these statements did not reflect the feelings of the community. “If they (the board) had talked to people in the community they would have gotten a very different picture of Mr. Heller,” said Zammuto. “We’re hoping now we can turn things around. I’m here to voice disappointment because we were completely misrepresented by these statements (made by Silver) to the court.”
Zammuto also asked if the monetary award could be labeled as a gift and used as a line item aside from the general fund. Chair Cherrie Giddings said that money would be put in the general fund, while Heller’s salary from the period following his firing was used to extend new principal Christopher Smith’s employment by five days, as well as pay interim principal Tom Boudreau’s stipend. The remainder of this money will go into a reserve fund until after this fiscal year.
In other business, Pratt said that he and Smith would be evaluating the guidance counselor position at the school, which was allotted $4,000 through a health and wellness grant. This is half the amount allotted last year, and Pratt said Smith would need to figure out the hours per week that he feels appropriate for the position. Pratt also said that school counselor Christine Levy would be given rights of first refusal to the job before it is posted.
David Malcolm from Vermont Telecommunications asked the board to consider the installation of a small antenna at the school as part of a network of Wi-Fi and cellular service hotspots along Route 100. The five-watt transmitter would have a three-quarters of a mile radius and would be solar powered. Malcolm said the school was a perfect location due to its slight elevation and proximity to Route 100, and because VTel is trying to set up a network of hotspots without entering into commercial lease agreements. Giddings moved that the board hold another meeting on the matter in order to gauge the concerns and opinions of building staff, parents, and residents.