EAST MONTPELIER — The Washington Central School Board filled three key administrative vacancies Wednesday night — one with one of its members — but was told a fourth will take more time and, at least in the interim, some creativity.
On a night that began and ended with teachers and some parents bashing a board-sanctioned curriculum management review and some, by extension, Superintendent Bryan Olkowski, board members were told the search for a replacement for retiring Business Administrator Lori Bibeau came up empty again.
The soon-to-be-vacant administrative position was first posted in December as part of a search that ended when the candidate recommended by an in interview committee chose not to take the job offer in March. A subsequent search, led by a private recruitment firm ended in similar fashion last month when the candidate recommended by the interview committee opted not to take the job.
With Bibeau set to retire at the end of the month, and the recruitment firm still looking for viable candidates, Olkowski pitched a backup plan that would, at least temporarily, rely on existing staff to fill the business administrator’s functions.
Board members stopped just short of blessing that plan, which would involve redefining the roles of Virginia Breer, the district’s senior payroll accountant, and financial accountant Matthew Kittredge while the search continues. Members agreed they would like more information — including what role if any Bibeau might play in the interim arrangement — before acting on Olkowski’s request later this month.
Though the district is struggling to find a replacement for Bibeau, it filled three other administrative vacancies — two the result of recent resignations and the third a newly created position — on Wednesday night.
Filling one of those vacancies created another open seat on the 15-member board.
Karoline May, one of three representatives from Middlesex on the board, was hired to replace Casey Provost as principal of Rumney Memorial School starting July 1.
A former teacher, May has nine years of school leadership experience in central Vermont having served as an assistant principal, principal, and curriculum director.
May is the second board member in less than a month to be hired to work for the district. Last month, School Director Christina Pollard was hired as a pre-school teacher at Doty Memorial School in Worcester where she was elected as a write-in candidate for an open board seat in March.
The board also hired a replacement for U-32 Assistant Principal Jody Emerson who is leaving to take over as director of the Barre-based Central Vermont Career Center and filled a newly created facilities director’s position.
Jessica Wills, who is currently employed as a consulting teacher at People’s Academy in Morrisville and working on her doctoral degree, was hired as Emerson’s replacement and Christopher O’Brien was tapped to fill the facilities director’s job. A 15-year veteran of the Vermont Army National Guard, O’Brien worked for Green Mountain Coffee Roasters in a variety of roles for 20 years.
The newly filled administrative positions come on the heels of last month’s hiring of Mark Kline, who will take over as the district’s technology director on July 1 after spending more than 20 years as a classroom teacher.
Most of the rest of Wednesday’s virtual meeting was spent on a controversial curriculum management review that was commissioned by the board earlier this year.
An update on the consultant-led project was sandwiched between mostly critical comments about the initiative teachers said they objected to at the time and some community members said they weren’t aware was happening.
A parade of speakers — most of them employed at one of the district’s six schools — complained about a comprehensive review process they said was ill-conceived, less-than-transparent and poorly timed.
Many pinned the latter objection on the pandemic, which they argued wasn’t an optimal time to launch a process designed to narrow wide and persistent performance gaps experienced by students who are economically disadvantaged or have special needs. Even if that wasn’t an issue, some maintained the local teachers union overwhelming “no-confidence” vote in the district’s first-year superintendent was cause for pause at the start of a multi-year initiative.
Board members were told staff morale is “fragile,” their trust in Olkowski is next to nonexistent and several — including area resident Holly Lane — suggested that is a big problem.
“If there is no confidence (in Olkowski) there is no buy-in. If there is no buy-in, how is this going to be successful?” Lane asked.
Largely ignored in the unrelenting assault on what several described as a “deficit-based curriculum review” they feared would lead to unnecessary “top-down changes” in how students are educated in the pre-K-12 district, was the fact that the board supported and freed up funding for the study.
Marylynne Strachan, who got the last word Wednesday night, said it was about time.
Strachan, a former board member from Middlesex whose last meeting nearly a year ago was Olkowski’s first as superintendent, said the review now underway had been discussed by the board for a number of years and her parting plea was that they actually do it.
Strachan uprooted her family and moved to Massachusetts because her special-needs children weren’t being adequately served and there was no sign that would change soon.
“This was well beyond the time that it needed to happen and if you look at the data you will see that,” she said. “It is time to move forward and engage in a curriculum review, professional development and conversations of how we can … close this equity gap.”
Strachan said she appreciated the arguments advanced by those who believe the review is being undertaken at “the worst possible time.” However, she disagreed with that assessment.
“Honestly, this data wouldn’t have been any different this year, five years ago, three years ago,” she said. “Open your mind and look at the data.”
Strachan said her children are now thriving in a school system that has done the work Washington Central is just starting.
“It is time to move forward,” she said. “No one should have to leave the state because it’s not happening.”