Critics question Windham Southeast superintendent search

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BRATTLEBORO >> For the first time in 14 years, Windham Southeast Supervisory Union is headed for a change in leadership.

But Wednesday's decision to name Lyle Holiday as the pending successor to retiring Superintendent Ron Stahley was overshadowed by intense debate about the way officials had searched for a new top administrator.

That search did not include any external candidates, and Holiday – a Windham Southeast curriculum coordinator – was the only candidate put forth for board consideration. That led some to complain of a lack of transparency and a sense that the outcome had been preordained.

"In my mind, and for others that I've talked to, this search has not been a process, but an orchestration," said Jody Normandeau, a Dummerston resident who was among several who expressed concern about the search at a Wednesday night meeting.

The debate also divided the Windham Southeast board. But a majority ended up supporting Holiday's hiring, with many board members saying they had pursued a rigorous, inclusive evaluation of the union's superintendent options.

"Ultimately, I think everybody is looking for the best candidate and there are different ways of doing that," said Russell Janis, a board member who helped lead the search.

Windham Southeast covers Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford, Putney and Vernon, and it is one of the state's largest supervisory unions in terms of enrollment. Stahley has been at the helm since July 2002, having previously been employed in neighboring Windham Central as an assistant superintendent and principal of Leland & Gray Union Middle and High School.

More than two years ago, documents show, Stahley told the Windham Southeast board's Finance Committee in an executive session that he was planning to retire when the 2016-17 school year concluded. That committee was tasked with heading the search for a new superintendent.

Janis, the Finance Committee's chairman, issued both a written and oral explanation of the process Wednesday. In a letter distributed at the meeting, he and supervisory union board Chairwoman Amy Wall wrote that "there was much discussion that successful districts such as WSESU function best when they develop potential leaders from within their ranks."

Windham Southeast officials say they also consulted with the Vermont Superintendents Association and the Vermont School Boards Association. In June of this year, Janis said, committee members decided to conduct an exclusively internal search as an initial step toward finding a new leader.

In part, the rationale in looking internally was "having somebody inside who can hit the ground running – there's not a lot of transition time," Janis said. That's especially true, some said, as the union ponders big governance changes under the auspices of Act 46.

Officials also are hoping that, by picking a home-grown candidate, they can enhance a "growth culture" within the supervisory union and possibly find another long-term superintendent. Janis' letter said the average superintendent in Vermont stays put for just over three years.

"Such disruptive changes in this key leadership position make it challenging to ensure continuity of successful initiatives and programs, risks sending a message that things are not going well and could deflate the morale of leadership teams, teachers, students and community members," the letter said.

Supporters of the search also point to a lengthy review of Holiday's qualifications. Multiple interviews were conducted by "focus groups" that included principals, office personnel, community members, parents and teachers – 56 people in all.

"What we put this particular candidate through was significantly more than what we would have put someone from the outside through," said Richard Glejzer, a member of the Finance Committee.

Also, according to a timeline circulated Wednesday, each of the union's school boards were updated multiple times on the status of the search. But some said those updates often were conducted in closed-door executive sessions and were not of sufficient substance.

"That, I think, adds to the general feeling in the community that this is a very closed process and not very transparent," said Mike Hebert, Vernon School Board chairman.

"That puts boards in a very difficult position," Hebert added. "People in our community want to know."

Stahley said discussions about the search were held, when possible, in open session. But he said any specifics about candidate evaluations needed to be confidential and discussed in executive session.

Hebert was not alone, though, in questioning the process. Windham Southeast board member Dan Normandeau – Jody Normandeau's son – said he was "flabbergasted" that the board had not voted as a whole to authorize an internal search before a hiring was recommended.

And, while no one criticized Holiday's credentials, some wondered how supervisory union officials could be sure they had the best candidate without considering others. It was noted at Wednesday's meeting that Stahley himself had been an external candidate in 2002.

"This is an opportunity to look beyond our own staff, to have a public conversation and to find the best leadership possible to tackle the awesome challenges coming our way over the next few years," Andy Davis, a Brattleboro town meeting representative and school employee, wrote in a letter penned before Wednesday's decision.

Late Wednesday, after hearing such objections and after a lengthy executive session discussion, the Windham Southeast board on a 13-5 vote named Holiday as the union's next superintendent as of July 1.

Holiday brings a long resume to the job. In addition to her current duties, officials said Holiday "has been an educator in the district for the last 37 years" with titles including classroom teacher, teaching assistant principal, literacy teacher and literacy coordinator.

"We are very fortunate to have someone of Lyle's abilities supporting the students, families and staff of our district," Stahley said Thursday.

He added that, after the hiring vote late Wednesday, several dissenting board members said they "disagreed with the process of (considering only) the internal candidate but spoke highly of Lyle and look forward to working with her."

Mike Faher reports for the Reformer, VTDigger, and The Commons. He can be contacted at mfaher@vtdigger.org.


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