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Burlington Schools' Interim Leaders Quit, Blame Board

Taylor Dobbs
Burlington School Board leaders Liz Curry and Patrick Halladay said the public should remain confident in elected officials despite the district leadership's resignation.

The interim administrative team that was in place to right the troubled Burlington Public School system earlier this year resigned suddenly Friday morning, citing conflicts with the city’s school board.

A letter signed by the three-member administrative team says that some members of the school board “have little understanding, concern or respect for the work the interim administrative team has faced in a very short time under very difficult circumstances.”

Update 5:25 p.m. Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger and Vermont Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe have both called on the school board to resolve what Holcombe called a “crisis” in the district. Both Weinberger and Holcombe offered their help with the process of finding new leadership for the district, though Weinberger acknowledged that he has little official power over the independently elected board.

At a news conference Friday afternoon, Board Chair Patrick Halladay refuted the departing administrators’ claims that the board was dismissive of their input and needs, but indicated that his control of the 15-member board is limited.

“As board leadership, we were attempting as much as possible to make their tenure in these interim roles fully supported,” he said. “We’re disappointed that they felt the situation was otherwise and that they also felt it necessary to take such drastic action.”

Halladay seemed to acknowledge that there were tensions between the board and the administration, but seemed to cast the blame on others on the board and distance himself from their behavior.

“The board is comprised of 14 different individuals,” he said, “and they come to their work from different priorities, philosophies and values and different ways of interaction … and while individual board members’ comments may have been construed one way or at times may have acted in ways that were less than constructive, individual board members need to be responsible for their own actions.”

When asked if it was his responsibility as board chair to help smooth interactions between board members and administrators, Halladay said he does bear some responsibility for the situation.

“I will absolutely take a substantial share of that responsibility,” he said. “It has been difficult in a difficult climate for the board to come together in a consistent and cooperative way, and I have been frustrated at times when there’s been disagreement … and we haven’t been able to come together as a whole as consistently as I would’ve hoped.”

Halladay said he plans to move forward in a search for an interim leadership team for the district as well as a permanent replacement.

“We’ll be doing this in close cooperation with Vermont’s Secretary of Education, the entire school board, the Burlington mayor and the City Council,” Halladay said. Weinberger’s chief of staff, Mike Kanarick, said after the news conference that the mayor hadn’t heard from the board since he extended the offer.

After a troubled year in the district, Halladay sought to ease voters’ concerns about the city’s school system.

“The public should be assured that their elected officials will act expeditiously but judiciously to ensure that our wonderful school district’s educational mission continues to operate in the best interests of our students from kindergarten through high school seniors,” he said.

Update 4:08 p.m. At a press conference held Friday afternoon, Burlington Mayor MiroWeinberger expressed dismay with what he called a "failure in leadership" in Burlington schools.

As the mayor's press conference concluded, Burlington school board chair Patrick Halladay called a second press conference at 4:30 p.m.

Original post 1:08 p.m. Oct. 24, 2014 The interim administrators came on after then-Superintendent Jeanne Collins resigned in May along with then-Finance Director David Larcombe. The district faced financial problems after a budget audit revealed a faulty budgeting process that left schools chronically underfunded. A new budget passed this summer began to address this issue, but the fallout led to the departure of district leadership and a loss of public confidence in the district's management.

The interim administrators were tasked with cleaning up the mess, but apparently could no longer deal with the board.

The letter also said that board members “regularly make email and public meeting comments that malign central office administrators.”

The three-member team was made up of Interim Superintendent Stephanie Phillips, Interim Assistant Superintendent Paul Irish and Chief Administrative Officer Nikki Fuller. The three will finish their interim jobs on Nov. 10 and then go back to their permanent jobs in district management.

The group included a note to principals and staff in the district that said they “do not make this decision hastily.” But the group said they are “refusing to be enablers of the divisive and caustic environment that is being created.”

The letter was addressed to Patrick Halladay, the chair of Burlington’s Board of School Commissioners. Halladay said in an email Friday morning that he was “trying to gather information” and would comment on the situation when he has “a clearer picture of the situation.”