BRATTLEBORO—The topic of about 70 minutes of public comment at a recent Windham Southeast School District school board meeting was the future career of Interim Superintendent Mark Speno, who attended the meeting but said nothing.
On March 16 — the night after 300 people jammed Zoom for the WSESD school board public forum to discuss masking [story, A5] — 175 people were again on Zoom. Approximately 50 people — mostly students and school officials — attended in person.
Public comment took up more than a hour of the meeting after Michelle Green was appointed as chair.
Dozens of students, teachers, principals and other administrators spoke glowingly of Speno, who has been in the running for the permanent superintendency, urging the school board to hire him.
Whether he still even remains a candidate is unclear, as school board members continue to cite a “code of ethics” precluding their speaking about a final, five-hour March 1 executive session.
It is widely held in the community that, after initial disagreement about hiring Speno by the five-member committee, the interim school leader was offered a one-year contract for the permanent position contingent on specific training — and that he rejected it.
The Commons has reached out to Speno for comment several times but has not heard back from him.
The posted March 1 meeting minutes note the executive session started at 3:15 p.m. and returned to open session at 7:49 p.m. “with no action taken.”
That means that if Speno was offered a contract, it wasn’t voted upon in open session, per the open meeting law.
At every executive session, the WSESU board has cited state statute about executive sessions — allowing “the appointment or employment of public officer or employee, provided that the public body shall make a final decision to hire or appoint a public officer or employee in an open meeting and shall explain the reasons for its final decision during open meeting.”
A remote meeting via Zoom is now set for Wednesday, March 23, at 6 p.m., with another executive session for the above reason as the only agenda item.
Praise and one naysayer
Brattleboro Union High School student Eva Gould kicked off the commentary, saying Speno should be allowed to continue as permanent superintendent and that he has created “a stable, compassionate and just school environment,” prioritizing student well-being.
Student Allie Ford presented a petition and said Speno has been “a great leader.”
Beth Bristol, chair of the Guilford Leadership Council, said “our district is in dire need of stability,” and pointed out that Speno offers what’s needed, having been successful at “navigating unprecedented times” during the pandemic “while earning the trust and respect of the community.”
Bristol called the district’s not having hired a permanent superintendent before the former committee’s term ran out on March 1 “confusing, peculiar, and detrimental to our district’s ability to provide quality education to our students.”
Guilford Central School teacher Karen Duggan shared a letter signed by all her school’s teachers. “We were surprised to learn Mark Speno was not hired,” the said, noting the potential for “loss of staff” and “alienated families” if “this goes on.”
Several school principals spoke, often reading letters signed by their site-specific teachers, including Kate Margaitas, principal of Green Street School, where Speno taught before taking the interim job.
Margaitas read a letter from 45 staff members noting “surprise and disappointment” that Speno wasn’t hired and said the staff is “deeply concerned that you are asking us to sit in uneasy limbo.”
She called Speno “fair-minded, considerate, and collaborative” and said that the district’s need for “clear, direct effective leadership” informed by sensitivity to our “unique community” is something Speno offers.
Kelly Dias, Academy School principal and parent, reading a letter from the Leadership Council of that school, noted “serious concerns” over the apparent inability to hire a superintendent and “lack of transparency and meaningful communication.”
She said “overuse of executive session only sows doubt,” noting that not talking about how many candidates applied — which has never been made public — as an example of overusing closed-door sessions.
Dias said a lack of “clear communication” to the public has led to a “marked level of concern, distrust, and confusion.”
The new committee was urged not to “reset the process” but rather to work from where the previous iteration left off March 1 — and to keep to the promised timeline to hire in March.
Mary Kaufman, Oak Grove School principal and former BUHS assistant principal, called Speno a “proven leader” of 10 schools and early childhood programs.
“We cannot afford another year of transition with a superintendent who is not invested in our community,” said Kaufman, adding Speno has been “transparent in his decision-making” and that he is a well-respected member of the community who is “always prepared with an action plan.”
On the flip side, Putney parent Ruby McAdoo, said she has sent a letter to the board supporting their “decision and process.”
“It is very difficult to stand up in this room to an enormous amount of support,” she said, adding that she was likely the only one to publicly dissent to hiring Speno — but that she believes she is not alone.
Noting the amount of “vitriol” from the community, McAdoo said she felt Speno was not helpful in the process of deciding whether to lift the mask mandate and that she “respectfully disagrees” with many of the statements in his support and “honors the decision of the board.”
District Business Administrator Frank Rucker spoke in support of Speno, saying that on the operational side of the $60 million budget district and $30 million supervisory union with 700 employment contracts, Speno has been “exemplary” and “very present” in the budget process as well as all other aspects of the work.
Mentor, coach, educational consultant, former Academy School Principal and 2013 Vermont National Distinguished Elementary Principal of the Year Andy Paciulli told the board if they wanted to know whom they should hire, they should ask the people who are working with the candidate.
“If you want to know how Mark is doing, then ask,” Paciulli said. “Ask the teachers, ask the students, ask the parents, ask the staff, ask the custodians, and please, ask the administrators. They’ll tell you how he’s doing. He’s providing excellent leadership and they want him to remain.”
Chair responds to Speno support
Green thanked those gathered and agreed that “you’re correct, things weren’t put on the website in an ideal way.”
“I sympathize with people looking for information,” she said after the meeting. “Our website is outdated and difficult to navigate. I have been advocating for a more user-friendly website and am happy that the Supervisory Union committed funding for website update in our next fiscal year.”
“Currently, the burden of being informed falls on the shoulders of the individual to navigate board agendas, minutes, press releases, and information tabs,” she continued, calling the website “not ideal” and saying that it “speaks to larger systematic communication efforts that need improvement.”
“We are aligned with the requirements of statute and policy, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep working toward improving our practices,” she said.
As to the meeting schedule, Green pointed out that the WSESU schedule was altered when the board moved voting day to align with Town Meeting Day.
“This, essentially, ended the terms of board members weeks ahead of schedule,” she said.
“For this reason, the former WSESU board was not able to conclude our work and share a final overview of our efforts before our time as a board ended,” Green said. “My understanding was that we would outline and share a more detailed account, including the objective and work of the steering committee and relevant details that could be shared about the interview process — minding confidentiality — when that work had concluded.”
In the meeting, she thanked Speno, saying it “means a lot” to have so many folks speak up for him and all school board members appreciate his work.
Green said the process “has been complicated” and said a “transparent protocol” would still be needed.
She answered Paciulli, saying that yes, “parents, staff, and students should decide, but we need time to develop that.” Before she could finish, someone called out, “At the expense of the district and our children,” and a general rumbling echoed through the room.
“I’m going to be accountable to all the people, not just the people in this room who came with an agenda,” Green said. “We’re going to do our best [...] we haven’t made any decisions [...] this board hasn’t even begun our business.”
The meeting then moved to executive session in a separate room.
Green seeks ‘fair process’ as duty to all stakeholders
After the meeting, Green clarified that she agrees “wholeheartedly” with Paciulli when he said that those affected should have a say in who the new superintendent will be.
But, “despite the value of public voice and opinion and certainly the personal testimony from our administrators and members of staff, being petitioned by a select group of stakeholders coming forward with subjective experiences and a desired outcome does not honor our duty to represent all stakeholders, oversee a fair process, nor does it provide appropriate information to make a responsible assessment,” Green said.
She said that to be accountable in the process of internal hires and to implement appropriate measures, something like an anonymous 360-degree evaluation system would “allow us to review appropriate systemwide feedback on overall performance and monitor areas in need of support and subsequent growth.”
“The WSESU does not currently have any implemented evaluation system in place for the superintendent’s office,” Green said.