Wednesday February 13, 2013

WESTMINSTER -- The Bellows Falls Union High School Board voted in executive session Monday to authorize its chairman and the district’s superintendent to negotiate a contract with Principal Chris Hodsden, who had expressed interest in pursuing other goals before deciding to reconsider.

Chairman David M. Clark said he will within the next two weeks sit down with Windham Northeast Supervisory Union Superintendent Chris Kibbe to drum up a new contract and will then bring Hodsden into the discussion.

Roughly 80 people -- parents, staff members and students -- showed up at the BFUHS library Monday night to offer their support for Hodsden and asked board members to do everything in their power to keep him at the high school. Many also were in attendance to hear the latest news regarding stadium lights made possible by a gift from the late Alvin L. Southwick.

Kibbe told the Reformer Tuesday that Hodsden had approached him earlier in the school year and mentioned he might leave once his contract expires in the spring. Kibbe said, however, Hodsden later expressed some interest in returning as principal and this is the time of year when recommendations for renewal of contracts are made.

The superintendent credited "a state of confusion" for the big turnout Monday, adding that Hodsden had announced to his staff his initial intent to leave.

Social studies teacher Craig Divis read a prepared statement to the board Monday, explaining the staff’s support of Hodsden.


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"He prepares a budget that is important to all students’ needs ... He’s a strong leader who leads by example. While we may not agree with every decision that Chris makes, we completely understand that it is made with the students’ best interests at heart," Divis said, adding that the principal knows each student by name. "Over his years as Bellows Falls Union High School principal, the school has become a better, safer, and more desirable place for its students and its staff. He has turned BFUHS into a place where we are proud to send our children."

Divis also said being a high school principal is a thankless job but Hodsden does it with grace, dignity and humility.

Some members of the crowd spoke out to voice their displeasure, mentioning they have heard Hodsden’s initial reluctance to come back was fueled by personality issues within the board. Some also said they dislike what they perceive as hidden agendas of some members.

While she did not mention having a feeling of underhanded motives, Lynn Raymond-Empey said she and her husband have had two sons go through BFUHS and have known no other principal than Hodsden. She said it would be almost impossible to find a principal as dedicated as he is.

Annie Guyon said she was publicly educated her entire life and wanted her children to have the same experience she did. She said she spoke with parents in the area before enrolling her children and "just got a sense before we even stepped foot in this school that it was under quite phenomenal leadership."

She said she was impressed with Hodsden and could not ask for a better principal.

"I know most people here feel this way but I just want to encourage the board to look around this room, especially over there," she said, pointing to a group of approximately 20 students who had gathered in a show of support for Hodsden, "and take a minute to really appreciate how much support is here for this man."

It was then that Stewart Johnson, representing the collection of students, addressed the board.

"I just want to say that for this whole group behind me and this whole school, Mr. Hodsden’s probably been the best principal we’ve ever had," he said.

Once public comments had ceased, Hodsden thanked everyone for their support before delivering his principal’s report.

Hodsden, who both graduated from and taught mathematics at BFUHS, spoke with reporters briefly before heading into executive session and elaborated on his thoughts of leaving.

"Without getting into too much detail, it was predominately a personal decision. Granted, there are probably 100 things that go into that and there’s no doubt some of it is related to work and some of it is related to home and personal things," he said. "I can’t tell you how appreciative I am about the folks that came out (to support me). It certainly hit home for me and I have no doubt that it was heartfelt. I’ve received a lot of e-mails and a lot of letters in my box saying similar things. So I’ll say I’ll certainly keep an open mind with regard to what next year might hold for me."

Kibbe could not comment much on the alleged personality issues among the board but said "all school administrators run afoul with a board member" every now and then. He said, however, relationships are pretty "congenial in the district."

Clark told the Reformer that Hodsden has previously expressed unhappiness that the board has passed austerity budgets the past five years.

Before the board entered executive session, Kibbe gave everyone an update on the situation involving the stadium lights at Hadley Field.

The lights -- the first in school history -- were funded by the financial holdings of Alvin Southwick, who died in August 2011. Leading up to his death, Southwick asked long-time friend Frederick Yates to help him put together his final will and testament. Yates, who had known Southwick for more than 50 years, agreed and as a result BFUHS became one of about a dozen entities to benefit from Southwick’s gift and was soon equipped with stadium lights.

A problem arose when it was realized that the contractor hired to do the installation did not make sure all necessary permits were in order before the project began. This information came to light in December, when the Westminster Development Review Board cited a deviation as cause to revoke the town-issued permit after one resident complained about the glare. It appears the one permit received was not enough for the project.

Yates, the executor of Southwick’s financial holdings, said he followed proper procedures and requested a permit from the town’s Development Review Board to install lights at the baseball and football facilities at Hadley Field. But Westminster Zoning Administrator Bill Jewell told the Reformer that though only one permit is needed from the town, others are necessary from the state level.

Kibbe told the audience Monday that BFUHS board still has time to challenge the revocation to the state’s environmental board. A special meeting has been warned for 5 p.m. on Thursday to discuss whether appealing the decision is worth the time and cost. He told the Reformer he believes the appeal dateline is Monday, Feb. 18.

The superintendent said he believes the Westminster Zoning Board would be happy to entertain a re-application of the lights once all the necessary permits have been obtained.

Some people in attendance spoke in favor of the lights and said if this situation is not rectified quickly the school and the town of Westminster will never see a gift as generous as Southwick’s ever again.

"Everyone in this room was 100 percent behind those lights," Yates said.

Domenic Poli can be reached at dpoli@reformer.com, or 802-254-2311. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoli_reformer.