Burlington School Board Admonished Over Resignations | Off Message

Burlington School Board Admonished Over Resignations


Bob Abbey speaks at Sunday's emergency board meeting. - ALICIA FREESE
  • Alicia Freese
  • Bob Abbey speaks at Sunday's emergency board meeting.
On Friday, the Burlington school district's three top administrators unexpectedly resigned their positions out of frustration with the school board, which they described as disrespectful and distrusting. At an emergency board meeting Sunday, it quickly became clear they weren't the only ones fed up.

Superintendent Stephanie Phillips, assistant superintendent Paul Irish and chief administrative officer Nikki Fuller announced in a public letter that they will leave their interim positions effective November 10. Approximately 70 people showed up at Sunday's meeting, and nearly all of the roughly two dozen people who spoke expressed support for what one resident called a "courageous step."  The crowd included parents, teachers, city councilors and former school board members. 

Bob Abbey, president of the teachers' union, Burlington Education Association, accused the board of fostering a "culture of fear and intimidation" and engaging in a "relentless campaign to silence the experts." He continued, "This board is plagued by the following: unprofessional behavior during public and private meetings, questionable decisions around personnel decisions, a continued lack of transparency and simply a lack of understanding for the work we do."

Residents called for everything from a public apology from the offending board members — it remains unclear whether the outgoing administrators were upset with individuals or the entire board — to an investigation and to resignations of specific board members. The 14-member volunteer board includes nine first-term members. The previous board was also on the receiving end of widespread criticism after failing to address repeated deficits or catch the budgeting errors that contributed. 

"I have no idea what the underlying dynamics are, but it is clear to me that things are devolving and it's gotten ugly," said Rita Markley, who has three children in Burlington schools.
From left, school board members Alan Matson, David Kirk and Kyle Dodson consider a motion at Sunday's emergency meeting. - ALICIA FREESE
  • Alicia Freese
  • From left, school board members Alan Matson, David Kirk and Kyle Dodson consider a motion at Sunday's emergency meeting.

Rich Nadworny suggested, "I think you need outside help in learning how to be a board."

The board authorized its chair, Patrick Halladay, and its clerk, Liz Curry, to meet with the outgoing administrators to address their grievances. It also assigned three board members — Mark Porter, Stephanie Seguino and Kyle Dodson — the task of developing a plan to find a new interim superintendent. Members also agreed to spend time addressing their shortcomings as a board, signing onto a statement that read, "We can disagree on policy decisions, but it is not acceptable for us to be 'disagreeable' or to be disrespectful of one another or of our administrators. We have to establish a culture of respect, while effectively performing our role."

Soon after Friday's announcement, both Mayor Miro Weinberger and Vermont Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe offered to help the district find temporary and permanent leaders. At Sunday's meeting, Dawn Moskowitz gave the board a petition with 150 signatures urging them to accept Holcombe's offer. 

During his closing remarks, Halladay told fellow board members, "This makes the permanent superintendent search all the more urgent."

He also acknowledged that it could make it more challenging. Halladay told his fellow board members, "A quality superintendent is going to be asking questions about how his or her board is working together and if he or she sees a board that’s working at cross purposes, a smart superintendent is probably not going to be looking at Burlington."