BELLOWS FALLS — Residents, teachers, and students turned out in recent weeks to persuade the Bellows Falls Union High School and Windham Northeast Supervisory Union (WNESU) boards to reinstate Principal John Broadley, who in a letter last month announced that he will not seek to renew his contract.
The larger-than-normal turnouts at the board meetings on Jan. 31 and Feb. 1 saw parents express concern about interruptions and continuity for their children as Broadley joins a number of employees leaving the district since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Departures include a superintendent, principals at both the high-school and middle-school levels, and a math teacher, on top of a persistent lack of substitutes.
Parent Amanda Demaris has three children who have gone through the district system, two of whom could be returning to schools with no principal in the fall.
“If he has any shortcomings, I think it would be better to work with a person that is involved in this community,” she said of Broadley at the meeting on Jan. 31.
That sentiment was echoed at both meetings by numerous other members of the community, including Bellows Falls High School math teacher Susan Swan and Bellows Falls Middle School student Dawn Stewart, both of whom strongly support Broadley’s reinstatement.
The community response stems from feeling blindsided by the BFUHS board’s decision to accept Broadley’s retirement letter and a perceived lack of transparency by the board in the process. The agenda for the meeting at which Broadley’s letter was read makes minimal reference to the retirement, even though it was included in the meeting minutes.
Next steps in hiring
A quiet murmur broke out among attendees when WNESU Superintendent Andy Haas revealed a proposal for how the district would go about hiring a new principal. The proposal includes an “aggressive campaign for advertisement, then doing e-surveys and focus groups,” Haas said the plan would cost the district $8,000.
Other officials cautioned attendees on the price tag.
“We haven’t agreed to spend anything — he was just doing his homework,” said high school board chair Molly Banik. “We’re not going to spend $8,000 to try to find somebody. The board can a la carte from there and choose different pieces.”
Former BFUHS board member Colin James confronted Haas about the number at the Jan. 31 meeting and requested further clarification about where the money would come from. “We voted on a budget [...] you don’t even have [principal search] as a line item,” James said.
Former BFUHS Principal Christopher Hodsden said at the Jan 25 meeting that members of the board “might see the opportunity” presented by Broadley’s letter, but he made it clear that he thinks it’s “not at all” likely that the board will be able to find a replacement with the same level of commitment to the community and school.
The criticism of the district and Haas continued into the WNESU board meeting the following evening, at which more than 50 people showed up online and in person to comment on the district’s funding priorities.
Most comments were critical of the superintendent, and many people said the board wasn’t focusing its priorities on the school.
“You’re hearing about students with broken desks, and there’s no tissues in the classroom, and we can’t supply certain things to our students,” said Samantha Simonds, mother of a current BFUHS junior.
Shawn Gailey, a stepparent to a student in the elementary school, complained of bullying and a lack of disciplinary enforcement within the district.
“When enforcement isn’t being done, what do we do at that point?” he asked. “They’re coming home with different attitudes and taking it out on us.”
In addition to disciplinary concerns, Gailey echoed many of those in attendance in questioning the district’s decision to increase Haas’s compensation when “there’s numerous teachers in the school system who work their butts off that barely make ends meet themselves.”
His concerns were echoed by fellow parent Jeremy Haskins, who said he noticed “a few concerning things evolving over the last year and a half in how the administration has been [run].”
“On a family issue we’ve dealt with multiple problems in the school district at the middle school. We still have a lot of things unsolved and are still working through that,” he said. He feels a lack of support from the district and is “still awaiting communications.”
WNESU board chair Jack Bryar also took a moment to clear up what he called misinformation surrounding the compensation of Haas, disputing a rumor that Haas would receive a $70,000 raise.
“The average salary for a superintendent of schools, for a district of about 1,000 people, ranges from 146 [thousand] to 157 [thousand],” he told the board. He did not directly comment on how much the school was paying Haas, but he said he wanted to clarify that any adjustment to Haas’s salary would not be so extreme.
Despite the complaints leveled against Haas, for whom the board approved a $152,000 contract in 2021, members voted unanimously in their confidence in him and his ability to perform his role.
The matter of his compensation wasn’t addressed at the closed session, and the board expects it to be on the agenda at their next meeting.