School board ponders role of principal mentor — and if the district needs more than one

Vote to abolish the current job and reconsider tabled to next meeting

BRATTLEBORO — Whether the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union (WSESU) should keep the current one-person principal mentor position or eliminate it and study the situation saw support from administrators from most schools in the Union at the Jan. 11 board meeting.

In the current model, former Academy School Principal Andy Paciulli has been serving as sole mentor to district administrators.

“The question for me is: How do we invest in leadership and support growth in leadership?” said Superintendent Mark Speno, who had been asked by the board to talk with administrators about the current model and report back.

Speno said principals are given support through professional development money, developing collaborative team and administrative meetings, and the mentoring/coaching position.

He also noted a state requirement that mandates new principals be mentored for at least the first two years of their tenure in that role and said six new administrators are currently in the mentoring process in the district.

Speno said the position is “so important” because it affords administrators the chance to “be vulnerable without judgment” — opportunities to be open about their challenges with someone who has a great deal of experience in their jobs.

“I think investing in leadership is extremely wise,” Speno said. “If we have really good principals and directors in place, we will develop really good schools and programs.”

At the meeting, WSESU board member Tim Maciel moved that the post be abolished and that money for it be redirected to peer-to-peer mentoring activities and Vermont Principals’ Association (VPA)-sponsored mentoring and coaching.

The proposal came with the caveat: that such a post be more thoroughly developed and presented to the board, perhaps for two or three part-time positions.

“There’s no doubt that principals — particularly new ones — need and benefit from mentoring and professional development,” Maciel said, noting that every site-specific principal has been dealing with myriad issues, chief among them “COVID learning gaps and sexual assault prevention.”

“It is an incredibly difficult job,” he said. “In my opinion, the mentoring needs of new principals are just far too demanding to be handled by one, locally hired, full-time mentor.”

Could there be another way?

Maciel said he looked into, among other things, state resources — including the VPA, which he said, “offers broad resources,” including coaching.

“What VPA provides just cannot be underestimated,” said Maciel, adding that the district here has a strong core of principals and a collaborative superintendent who is highly praised and always supports administration.

Maciel also questioned whether the current post of principal mentor, which he said is “really [a] principal administrator,” were ever approved or vetted by the board, which it would require under district policy.

He also asked if so, whether the Windham Southeast School District (WSESD), which is under the WSESU umbrella and of which he is a member, had ever weighed in. If so, Maciel said, perhaps both boards would “not just agree the district needs a principal mentor but principal mentors.”

Noting the current full-time, 40-hour-per-week position was created six years ago “for a district that was very different than it is now,” Maciel said the needs of each school are different, the district has diversity needs, and “we’re putting our eggs in one basket.”

The position is paid for through Title 2 federal professional development money and comes through a grant approved at the state level.

Business Manager Frank Rucker told The Commons after the meeting that the current line item for the post is $39,800, funded entirely through the grant.

What is “a little unusual,” he said, is that this discussion came almost a month after the WSESU board voted to adopt a budget that includes this post. (All federal grants are, by law, required to be administered through the SU.)

Input from so many principals, both in-person and via Zoom, was the largest presence of administrators since the meeting in March 2022, when they showed up to support then-Interim Superintendent Speno’s hiring as full superintendent.

“We’ve got some work to do at the high school; we have some habits to break,” said Brattleboro Union High School Principal Cassie Damkoehler, adding that things are “moving in the right direction” but “it’s daily work.”

She supported the current model, saying while she is “very student-centered,” at time she needs to “ask questions” about process and other matters.

Damkoehler said she appreciates that the current delineation may not work “perfectly,” but that she believes the support in place is “important to stay on a positive trajectory.”

Speno noted nuances between mentoring and coaching, saying while both offer coaching and support, there’s “a little heat” that comes with mentoring due to “the expectation for follow-through and evaluation” whereas coaching is “just total support. . .and that is so lovely to have.”

Both relationships, he said, are confidential between the principal and the mentor/coach.

Curriculum Coordinator Paul Smith offered caution, saying, “this is professional development and those decisions should be happening at the SU level. A motion like this takes us out of the realm of the board assuring the Supervisory Union is well run and into the realm of running the Supervisory Union, and that’s a slippery slope.”

Smith said he would be concerned with “straying into what is the Superintendent’s purview,” but former board member David Schoales spoke up, saying the principal mentor post is an employee post, and only the board can create and remove positions — not the Superintendent.

Toward the end of the discussion, WSESD board member Deborah Stanford asked, “Why not consider another model?”

“Because it’s working right now,” answered Speno quickly. “It’s working well. And it’s one slice of the pie. And relationships are really important. It would be my recommendation not to eliminate this position at this time.”

He went on to say that was not to say the post isn’t worthy of annual review or that it may prove wise to eliminate it at some point.

Ultimately the board voted to table the motion to its next meeting, a move with which Maciel agreed, saying he’d bring it also to the Windham Southeast School District board.

“I believe in the collective wisdom of the [school district] and [supervisory union] — and Vernon — boards [...] .and the position deserves discussion at the [S.D.] level,” he said.

As Maciel looked at Speno, he addressed the superintendent.

“You’ve convinced me that maybe abolishing it right now is not a good idea,” he said, “but I really do feel this is an employee position and it has to be approved by the board, as all employee positions do.”

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