Burlington Schools Superintendent Weighs In on Race Controversy | Off Message

Burlington Schools Superintendent Weighs In on Race Controversy

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Yaw Obeng - FILE: MOLLY WALSH
  • File: Molly Walsh
  • Yaw Obeng
Burlington Superintendent of Schools Yaw Obeng commented publicly for the first time Thursday on a widening controversy involving alleged discrimination directed at him by a school board member.

Obeng said in a statement that he never filed a formal complaint but asked the board to investigate former chair Mark Porter's claims of racism involving board member Jeff Wick, who has repeatedly refuted Porter's allegations.

"I inquired as to if and how [the board] intended to respond to these statements and reminded them of their responsibility to ensure that they administered their board role within fair practices and principles," Obeng wrote.

The board responded by "trying to be fair to all parties" with an impartial investigation, he added.

Obeng said little else about the investigation itself. Seven Days has filed a public records request for the document, the tab for the investigation and any complaint written by Obeng.

In his statement Thursday, Obeng explained that "no such formal complaint has been filed by me at this time. The investigation is a result of the former board taking a proactive approach to alleged discrimination."

The district has not formally responded to the other requests yet.

The board called an emergency meeting Sunday night to discuss the investigation. The session, held on Easter and the weekend of Passover, was warned publicly just a few hours ahead of its start time.

School district attorney Joe McNeil advised the board that the meeting might not meet the grounds for an emergency and could thus be a violation of Vermont's public meeting law, which requires 24 hours notice ahead of a special meeting.

Some board members, including Mark Barlow, refused to attend because of the possible violation. Wick attended but said he did so in protest. Some city residents complained that it was unfairly called.

But the acting chair at the time, Stephanie Seguino, insisted that it met the standard for an emergency meeting and defended the session. Under the law, boards can meet without 24 hours notice to respond to an "unforeseen occurrence or condition requiring immediate attention.”

The meeting took place hours before Seguino, Porter and several other board members were legally set to conclude their terms and make way for a new slate of board members.

The outgoing board members wanted to review the just-completed investigation before their terms were up, Seguino told the Burlington Free Press and other media.

The board went into executive session and afterward, Seguino announced that the board had agreed to training sessions around implicit bias.

Wick declined to comment and referred calls to his attorney, Brooks McArthur, who did not immediately respond to a message.

Thus far, both the former and current board, which was sworn in Tuesday, have declined to release the investigation.

Obeng apparently wants to see the matter move to a conclusion.

"The report regarding the former board’s investigation has been completed, and it is up to our new board to decide what steps to take going forward," he wrote Thursday. "I am looking forward to seeing the new board resolve this process in order for us to focus on the actions we need to take as a district to support students and close the achievement gap."


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