Green Street School maintains traditions despite pandemic

Mark Speno working on his computer when he was principal of Green Street School.

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BRATTLEBORO — After successful contract negotiations, Mark Speno will be leading schools again next year.

“I’m happy to move forward and I’m excited to continue the work as we focus on school improvement as an entire school system,” he said in an interview.

In a news release issued Wednesday, the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union Board of Directors said it is pleased to announce the appointment of Speno as superintendent for the 2022-2023 school year. He has served as interim superintendent for the current school year.

“The Board is looking forward to collaborating with Mr. Speno, expanding on his excellent work supporting students and staff and extending it into effective implementation of policies and continuous improvement,” the news release states.

Following a short executive session last Wednesday, the supervisory union board voted to authorize its chairwoman to “sign a contract for the continued employment of an administrator.” A news release would be issued soon, Board Chairwoman Michelle Luetjen Green told the Reformer at the meeting.

“I do not believe this contract will best serve the needs of our students,” board member Kerry Amidon said at the meeting, casting the lone dissenting vote.

Amidon told the Reformer she voted against the contract because she believes the needs of the two districts — Windham Southeast School District and Vernon School District — “are better served when our superintendent has the tenure to enact long range plans.”

“I will continue to support Superintendent Speno in his work to serve the needs of all our students,” she said.

Former board member Jaci Reynolds said she doesn’t think the one-year contract means board members don’t want Speno to be superintendent for years and years.

“We just missed an opportunity in his interim year to give him the training he was entitled to,” she said in an interview, describing how the board had been overwhelmed during the COVID-19 pandemic. “I think everyone wants Mark to succeed. This is kind of a do over to give him the training that we really should have. And most likely, knowing and seeing what he does, he’s going to lean right into all the training that is offered and he’s going to do well and will probably succeed in that position for a long time.”

Recognized in 2020 as a National Distinguished Principal by the National Association of Elementary School Principals, Speno spent eight years at Green Street School. He started his career at the school as a teacher from 1999 through 2008, and also served as principal of Vernon Elementary School for five years and a school administrator in the Chesterfield, N.H., Elementary School.

His one-year contract for interim superintendent was set to end at June 30.

As the clock ticked, loud calls for him to get the permanent job came from students, families and school staff.

A petition created by three Brattleboro Union High School students currently has more than 860 signatures at change.org/p/wsesu-school-board-support-speno-for-long-term-superintendent. At one meeting in March, standing ovations and thunderous applause came after a long line of speakers — including many school administrators — urged the supervisory union board to give Speno the permanent job of superintendent.

Principals from every school in the supervisory union signed a statement in support of Speno. Dummerston School Principal Julianne Eagan penned a letter to the Search Committee in December in support of Speno’s candidacy at his request.

“Mark’s demonstrated excellence as an administrator is rooted in his unwavering commitment to the students and the families of our district,” she wrote in the letter, which she read at a public meeting. “Mark believes deeply in public education and in the capacity of highly skilled educators to promote high levels of learning for all students.”

Reynolds said she’s very happy the board came to an agreement with Speno.

“This wasn’t a situation of people winning, like people coming to the board and slamming the board,” she said. “It was open conversations between the board and Mark to work toward their mutual goals.”

Reynolds was disappointed to see students taking part in the public criticism of the board over the situation. They didn’t have any private information and were being guided by adults, she said, adding that it was “not the right example.”

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“But Mark and the board are now setting the right example,” she said. Even if there were disagreements, she said, they ironed out their differences.

Since the fall, the board has been working on hiring a superintendent. Former Superintendent Andy Skarzynski stepped down from the position at the end of June to be with his family in Connecticut after one year on the job, and Speno, principal of Green Street School in Brattleboro at the time, was named interim superintendent in July.

In an announcement made March 4, the board said it “did not reach a consensus in its superintendent search.”

“As our time as a duly constituted board is running short, it will fall to the next board to deliberate and consider what steps to take going forward,” the board said.

When the new board was reorganized with two new members, executive sessions with Speno began right away. The new board held its first meeting a day after a contentious forum over making masking optional.

Community members expressed disappointment in the way Speno handled concerns at the forum. In a letter to families afterwards, he apologized for speaking with “a defensive tone in my voice,” acknowledging the division among attendees at the meeting as strong opinions were shared.

“As we move forward as a community I urge us all to offer each other the grace that is needed when having difficult conversations and acceptance of differing opinions,” he wrote. “It is likely that we will continue to engage in difficult conversations in the near future and I know that as a community we can and will do this in the caring way that is needed to move forward. We do have so much to be proud of and as long as we move forward with best intentions in mind and with a 100 percent focus on what is most important; our children.”

During an administrative update at the Windham Southeast School District meeting on May 17, Speno said schools are wrapping up and traditional end-of-the-year activities are happening again since COVID-19 put things on hold.

“That’s been really inspiring to see,” he said. “I think it’s been healthy for all.”

Speno described focusing on hiring for many open positions, schools recovering from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and expanding diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. Making master schedules for schools “really sets the tone for how we go about meeting our student needs and utilizing our resources in the most efficient way as possible,” he added.

Also, Speno said he’s proud of the way the supervisory union has developed common protocols among the schools to help students with transitions and learning. WSESU includes public schools in Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford, Putney and Vermont.

Noting at the meeting last week that June was coming up quick, Speno said, “It’s been a heck of a year.”

Speno told the Reformer he’s excited to work with the board, administrators and school staff.

“It’s been a long three years especially with the element of COVID but I’m proud of the work we’ve done and the way we’ve been able to continue to stick together as a school system,” he said.

Speno said he has a license to be superintendent and will engage in professional development through the Vermont Superintendents Association. Becoming superintendent has been an “evolving goal” for him.

“An opportunity came about last year and I was willing to put my name in there and give it a shot on behalf of our school,” he said. “As the year developed, like anything new, you give all of yourself to it. As I did that, I began to develop a goal of moving on in the position.”

Speno said he really cares about the school district he has been part of for the past 24 years. His goals involve continuing to build strong systems and structures to support students in their academics, social emotional health and behavior.

“I very much believe in distributed leadership so I look forward to continuing that work in this role,” he said. “It’s an honor to work for this school district and I don’t take that responsibility lightly.”