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WSESU board pressed on supt. search

A member of the public claims at meeting that Speno was offered job as an interim and turned it down, as new chair says the new board is correcting a process that had turned inequitable to some candidates

BRATTLEBORO—At her second meeting since formation of a new Windham Southeast Supervisory Union school board, Chair Michelle Luetjen Green admitted that the hiring process to select a new superintendent raised “concerns that we did not secure a fair process for all applicants to be reviewed, assessed, and deliberated on.”

She told The Commons that her words are a “personal statement that I felt should be acknowledged sooner than later.”

Her comment came at the same March 30 meeting where parent Melany Kahn shared that current Interim Superintendent Mark Speno, who has received much vocal support for his permanent hiring, was offered the job, but with a caveat.

“He was offered a position and he said ‘no’ because it had the word ‘interim’ before it,” she said, as Speno sat silently listening.

“Take the word ‘interim’ away. Offer the guy a position,” Kahn continued. “That’s what everybody is begging you to do at this point. . .we’re liked mired in process where you have to have private conversations and the rest of us are really frustrated.”

For 45 minutes, Luetjen Green allowed questions and comments, bookended by executive sessions.

How the superintendent search unfolded

Despite a five-hour executive session on March 1, the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union (WSESU) Board did not reach a consensus in its Superintendent search before annual elections [“WSESU hiring process murky after marathon executive session,” News, March 16].

Now, a new board has been seated. Three of its members were part of the search committee; two are new to the board.

WSESU is comprised of the Vernon School District and the Windham Southeast School District. Vernon has a five-member board with one seat on the WSESU. The WSESD has a 10-member board and four seats on the WSESU (from Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford, and Putney).

On June 10, 2021, former Superintendent Andy Skarzynski announced he would step down as of June 30. The process to replace him started in earnest that August. Speno has been serving since then. His contract expires June 30 of this year.

On Jan. 24, 2022, the Supervisory Union board issued a press release that announced a new superintendent would be chosen “no later than early March 2022.”

Nine applications were presented to the Search Committee for review. The committee was advised on best practices to review them by a hired consultant.

Applicants were reviewed and analyzed in nine categories. Members used a “pro/con” method to share feedback. All members participated before the committee voted. Candidates were moved forward throughout the process by winning a majority vote.

Was the process fair?

Luetjen Green opened the meeting by entering into a short executive session to “review the superintendent’s search process and return to open session to share some of the information publicly.”

Board member Kerry Amidon and Leutjen Green both served on the previous board and shared an overview of the search process that proceeded for nine months, when the former board had to stop due to a new board being elected.

“We are still very much reviewing the process,” said Luetjen Green, explaining that “we were still in interviews on the last day the board met.”

Despite that meeting running for five hours, “there was no conclusion,” she said. “This is us trying to get enough information to find out what we can do next.”

Saying the meeting was “just a work session” and that she had been “urged to share what I can,” she also iterated “some of the process was complicated.”

“This is just where I am,” she said, reading her full statement. “As the work of the steering committee concluded, it became apparent in both practice and confidential reporting that there were concerns that we did not secure a fair process for all applicants to be reviewed, assessed, and deliberated on.”

From her perspective, Luetjen Green said, “this board is charged with a responsibility to oversee an independent evaluation to assess these concerns. These concerns did not immediately impact the assessment of final candidates or influence the decision of the last sitting WSESU board.”

Regional Food Service Director Ali West asked for clarification.

“You’re saying for the last nine months we have been doing this research, but the little 16 days between the two boards is what caused no decision to be made?” she asked. “In nine months, Mark Speno hasn’t proved he’s the perfect candidate? Wow.”

Leutjen Green said steering committee members had raised concerns about the process being fair, so a review of the process was “in order.”

“It’s important if you find out you can do better to correct course,” she said.

Asked if the search were being opened again, the chair said, “that’s to be determined.”

“I understand that it’s frustrating to the public,” said Vice Chair Kelly Young. “We recognize that.”

Young cited the need to bring the two new board members into the search process. “We are taking this seriously,” she said.

Sense of urgency

Lisa Ford, a member of the Brattleboro Union High School Leadership Council and chair of the Boys & Girls Club of Brattleboro’s board of directors, said that while she “definitely” felt for the new board, the old one was “irresponsible” in not making a decision.

Former Academy School Principal Andy Paciulli, a district mentor, said it would be “easy to start ripping the boards and have a lot of blame, but that’s not going to get us very far. I think it’s safe to say we’re at the beginning of a crisis. It’s safe to assume there isn’t going to be adequate time to conduct a search as we would like and come up with a qualified candidate.”

Paciulli said there is a “sense of panic” on the part of community and staff members, students, and parents.

“The way forward is to figure out how to facilitate that this is a community effort to get the best superintendent to move us forward for the next few years in this very important work,” he said, adding the last two searches were failures, so “let’s do it differently.”

“Let’s get as much involvement as we can and not let it fall on the five of you,” he said.

“I’m hoping tonight one of the aims is to develop a timeline when we can have those answers as to what the next steps will be,” said Hannah Rosinski via Zoom, noting that having firm dates for the process “holds everyone accountable.”

Peggy Maxfield, district math teacher and president of the Windham Southeast Education Association, the union representing 400 district employees, said a consultant for the superintendent search process “never recommended contacting the Association for representation in this process, nor did any of the board members.”

She asked that the Association, administration, and school communities be included “in an expedited process.”

Brattleboro Union High School Principal Steve Perrin also addressed a sense of urgency, as did district Business Administrator Frank Rucker.

“Not only is a lack of a superintendent hurting the district as a whole, it’s greatly impacting Green Street School and BUHS,” Perrin said, noting there are positions to be filled, including assistant principal, which can’t be advertised until a superintendent is named. “That means good, young candidates are finding positions elsewhere.”

Rucker also noted urgency around creating master schedules and making decisions with vendors.

“These are things that are [happening] today, tomorrow, and next week and if we don’t execute [them], we won’t be in as good shape as we should be come September,” he said.

“Mark is widely respected and he’s ready to go,” Rucker said.

A question of leadership

When Gilbert Green asked via Zoom whether Speno would be here next year and Luetjen Green replied that the board couldn’t “acknowledge or speak to” the question, Kahn spoke up.

“You can’t, but I can,” she said.

“I want to talk about how awkward this is for Mark Speno. The guy is so professional, so stand-up, and he’s been put through the wringer by a board we’re being asked to support, but he had a million people giving him so much support,” she said, referencing a meeting earlier in March at which hundreds turned out to lobby for Speno’s hiring.

“For whatever reasons — and to the public at this point [these reasons] look quite personal, to be honest — we have no information,” she added.

“It looks like you, David, and you, you, you have little vendettas,” she said, pointing to David Schoales and other board members. “And it’s really uncomfortable.”

Kahn then turned to the meetings themselves.

“You have got to read Robert’s Rules,” she said, addressing Luetjen Green. “You have got to learn how to run a board meeting, lady.”

“It’s my second meeting,” the chair replied.

“Exactly,” said Kahn, throwing up her hands. “And that’s the thing that you guys you love to say: ‘I’m so new here.’ Did Mr. Speno ever say that on his first day? ‘Oh, I’m so new here, I just stepped in for Andy who just, like, ditched us, but I’m so new here I don’t know what I’m doing.’”

“Like, stop saying that,” Kahn continued. “It’s embarrassing. Stop saying you’re new. Read the minutes, get up to speed. You ran for a position, do it.”

She then urged the five board members to “thank Mr. Speno for everything he’s done.”

Speno, who was present at the meeting, did not speak or otherwise dispute Kahn’s characterization of the negotiations. The interim superintendent has not responded to multiple emails from The Commons asking if he had been offered the job permanently.

“I hear everyone in this space, I respect everyone’s opinions,” said Luetjen Green, adding she’s had many emails from others who don’t support hiring Speno and who don’t “feel they can show their face” or who work in the district.

“You are dismissing 25,000 other people,” she said. “We’re taking opinions out of it. We’re going to continue to go forward and do the best we can and communicate with applicants and see where we are.”

As the meeting dissolved momentarily into many speaking at once, parent Robin Morgan said via Zoom that it was deteriorating into another “vitriol-filled mob,” referencing two earlier forums in March, one about mask wearing and the other when Speno supporters spoke by the dozens.

Morgan asked that the “mood” of the meeting return to a constructive conversation, adding “a very specific point of view feels empowering in these meetings” and saying that “creates an illusion” and results in “some [who] don’t feel safe to speak in this meeting.”

After about 45 minutes, Luetjen Green closed the question period and the board entered executive session “to review applicants and candidates and viable information.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #658 (Wednesday, April 6, 2022). This story appeared on page A1.

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