Burlington School Board Picks New Superintendent | Off Message

Burlington School Board Picks New Superintendent


School board members and members of the search committee congratulate Yaw Obeng on Skype. - ALICIA FREESE
  • Alicia Freese
  • School board members and members of the search committee congratulate Yaw Obeng on Skype.
After more than seven months without a permanent superintendent, the Burlington school district appointed a new leader Thursday evening. Yaw (pronounced Yow) Obeng, a Ghana-born educator who’s currently a superintendent in Ontario, Canada, will start a three-year contract on July 1.

School board members cheered and hugged after voting to appoint Obeng — one of two finalists who came to Burlington weeks ago for interviews with the board, teachers, students and community members. Obeng emerged as the strongly favored candidate after those sessions, according to board chair Patrick Halladay.

He comes from Burlington, Ontario, where he oversees 12 schools in a 100-school Halton district. 

Former superintendent Jeanne Collins signed a buyout agreement last spring after significant financial problems came to light. The board then appointed an interim leadership team of administrators. They resigned en masse several months later, citing an untenable working relationship with the board. 

Since then, the board has worked on its self-governance and to improve the district's budgeting procedures. Howard Smith, who was hired as an interim superintendent in the fall, has received high praise from the board and will continue to lead the district through June.

On Thursday, the board introduced Obeng to reporters via a spotty Skype connection. He emphasized his experience working in very diverse school districts and his ability to stick to a budget. Burlington has suffered repeated deficits in recent years. In Ontario, the law prohibits superintendents from running a deficit, Obeng noted.

Obeng came to the United States when he was 6 and began school as an "English language learner." In light of that, Halladay predicted, "His personal narrative will resonate very strongly with the needs and changing demographics of the district." The board chair also emphasized that their pick had demonstrated "fiscal prudence."

Because he hails from Canada, there are a couple of complications: Obeng needs a work visa and a Vermont superintendent's license. "We're confident that will be able to be achieved," said Halladay, who also noted that Obeng is already working with immigration lawyers. 

He'll receive a salary of $153,000, not including benefits. That's more than Collins made, and it will make him the second-highest paid superintendent in Chittenden County, according to school board member Liz Curry.

Scot Shumski was the sole board member to vote against the hiring. He immediately emailed a statement explaining that he fully supported the candidate but objected to the compensation. “At a time when the mayor of Burlington earns roughly $90,000, the governor of Vermont earns roughly $130,000, and the salaries of average Burlingtonians have stagnated for years, I cannot approve the precedence of municipal salary spending at this level. It in no way reflects the skill set Dr. Obeng will bring to his position but rather the economic reality of our city and our state."

The board carried out an extensive search process, with input from a large group of community members and a private firm retained to advise them. It received roughly 60 applications, according to Halladay. 

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