WESTMINSTER — Kelly O’Ryan has only worked at Bellows Falls Union High School for a year, but she has serious opinions about what needs to happen to improve the school.
O’Ryan, 43, of Putney, the school district’s current diversity and Title IX coordinator, has applied for the vacant principal’s position, and she is the last remaining candidate, as the search committee withdrew its invitation to a Littleton, N.H., educator at the last minute on Monday.
O’Ryan told about two dozen community members Wednesday night — along with the 10-member school board — that while she doesn’t have a lot of experience in public education and budgets and lacks a principal’s license and certification, she had worked in private school administration for more than 10 years.
O’Ryan said she was dean of students for five years at two Putney schools — first The Greenwood School and second, Landmark College. She said at The Greenwood School she was on a small team that helped the school make the transition from a middle school to a high school.
And at Landmark, as dean of students, she handled many challenging issues similar to a principal’s position.
O’Ryan, who handles many complaints dealing with bullying and harassment, painted an at-times grim picture of the atmosphere at the 320-student school, saying based on the students and staff she talked to, that both groups felt they weren’t listened to and their concerns and complaints were ignored. Many people don’t feel that they “belong,” she said.
“There’s not a lot of trust in the community,” she said, mentioning both the school board and the administration.
O’Ryan noted that several staff are leaving BFUHS. “There’s no doubt there’s been harm and people have left,” she said.
Later, O’Ryan told board members that if they decide to reopen the principal search, she likely would no longer be a candidate. And during the community meet-and-greet, she said she had been offered another job a few weeks ago, but decided she liked the challenge at BFUHS. But she also admitted that on Tuesday afternoon, she almost pulled out of the interview process.
The board and its search committee have been looking for a new principal since current Principal John Broadley announced he wouldn’t be seeking another contract. His decision came after several board meetings where he had been criticized for lack of action on several issues.
Broadley’s departure, and the board’s lack of effort to change his mind, prompted community protest, including a public meeting where dozens of students, teachers and parents praised Broadley for his compassion and caring.
While Broadley’s name was never mentioned during Wednesday’s marathon session, both O’Ryan and different board members said there were deep-seated problems at the school, with both staff and students. Broadley has since been offered a principal’s job at Green Mountain Union High School in Chester.
Some staff are regularly late getting to school, or arrive with the students, said School Director June Streeter of Westminster, and they leave with the students as well, with no consequences from the administration. Streeter said there were many very dedicated teachers at the school, and some who didn’t seem to want to put in the extra effort.
Accountability was definitely a theme in several school directors’ questions to O’Ryan. And School Director Mike Stack of Rockingham said there was no doubt O’Ryan had the “soft skills” to run the school, but he asked about her “hard skills,” such as formulating a budget and making hard choices.
“Ever had to cut a budget?” he asked.
Community members asked O’Ryan how she would tackle a perceived prejudice in favor of sports and student athletes and a lack of attention to music and drama, which once were strong offerings at the school. O’Ryan said she’s a strong supporter of sports, and that sports are important to her personally
One parent, Kim Keefe of Rockingham, said she didn’t know O’Ryan but she felt the board should reopen the principal’s search on principle. “In a democracy, we’re given more than one candidate,” said Keefe, adding that it’s “the right thing to do.”
Mark Gebo, one of the guidance counselors at BFUHS, spoke in strong support of O’Ryan, and said at first he was really nervous about her appointment.
“I don’t like change,” said Gebo, but he praised O’Ryan’s intelligence and insight.
“Our community needs what Kelly can bring. Trust me, trust the other faculty. Kelly is what we need,” said Gebo.
During a break between the community meeting and the board meeting, O’Ryan said she and her husband, Sergio Simurovic, who is a co-principal at Windsor’s elementary school, have three children. They had first come to this area to attend the School for International Training, where O’Ryan has a master’s degree. She is a native of Michigan. She received her bachelor’s at St. Lawrence College, in upstate New York, and she has completed all her course work toward a doctorate in education leadership at New England College.
She told the gathering on Wednesday that if she gets the job she would attend the Upper Valley Educator Institute in Lebanon, N.H., to get her principal’s certification.
The BFUHS board did not make a decision Wednesday night, but Director Jason Terry said he was in favor of offering O’Ryan an interim principal’s position.
Terry said he believes O’Ryan would help bring the change needed at the school. Earlier, Terry had said that many things had been “swept under the rug” at the school.
Molly Banik, chairwoman of the BFUHS board, asked O’Ryan how much time she could devote to the school, given that she is a mother with three young children.
Banik said she expected the principal to spend a lot of extra time at the school. O’Ryan said she lives 15 minutes away, in Putney.
The search committee needs to review the feedback information it received from the people who attended the community session. The board is expected to hold a special meeting to address the principal situation, rather than wait for its next regular meeting.
After the meeting, Haas said that eight members of the BFUHS are leaving, but he said they are leaving for better paying jobs at other school districts, such as Brattleboro, or Leland and Gray, or jobs closer to their homes.