The superintendent of Burlington schools will step down when the current fiscal year ends on June 30, 2020.
In a brief interview, Yaw Obeng told Seven Days that he had been thinking about career options last year, and he'd had "some opportunities." But he stayed to see some initiatives through, including a bond vote.
He wanted to give the school system ample notice, Obeng said: "I wanted to be fair to our staff and the board, and not to all of a sudden say, 'See ya, here's two weeks,' or something like that. Just to be upfront and fair with them."
Obeng announced his decision Wednesday morning in an email to parents and teachers, calling it a privilege to serve as leader of the city's schools. He was hired in 2015.
"I am writing today because these last few months of conversations and reflections have also led me to believe that the systemic foundation has been laid to allow me to explore other personal and professional opportunities," Obeng wrote.
He explained further that he'd submitted his resignation, effective the end of the fiscal year.
"I had contemplated waiting to make this announcement until January but ultimately decided that by informing the board, staff, and community now, Burlington School District will have the best opportunity for a successful transition," Obeng wrote.
He said the decision had not been an easy one, but that he felt he would leave the district on a stronger financial footing and with a capital plan in place to address the district's space constraints and aging infrastructure.
Tuesday, the day before Obeng’s announcement, the board warned a special meeting with an executive session to discuss “personnel matters.” The board met with legal counsel to go over the details related to Obeng’s decision to step out of his contract early, according to Keith Pillsbury, school board member for Ward 8. The superintendent's contract was to expire in 2021.
Asked if Obeng did a good job, Pillsbury responded: “I don’t think it’s fair for me to comment, to answer that question with the limited experience I’ve had in working with him. I certainly wish him well.”
Pillsbury said he respects the superintendent and added that five years is a good run in the job. “That’s sort of the time that people think about changing.”
Board chair Clare Wool did not respond to messages but released a statement on behalf of the board thanking Obeng for “his many accomplishments” including leaving the district with stronger finances “than they have been in many years.” The board will start a national search for his successor, the statement said.
Obeng stepped into turbulent waters when he was hired. An interim superintendent was in place after longtime superintendent Jeanne Collins resigned after controversy about deficits and handling of diversity in the district.
Obeng, a Canadian citizen, became the first black school superintendent in Burlington.
Critics complained about the cost of the visa process required to hire him. (He is now a permanent resident of the United States, he told Seven Days.) Obeng also took heat for his decision to live in South Burlington, which required a special exemption from a city rule that its key executives must reside in Burlington. Labor problems blew up with a four-day teachers strike in 2017.
The makeup of the school board shifted dramatically during Obeng’s tenure, and so did its direction.
The board that hired Obeng adopted a hands-off managerial approach known as policy governance. It dissolved most board subcommittees and measured the superintendent’s performance via attainment of specific broad goals, deliberately eschewing a micromanagement approach.
But that too, proved controversial. Obeng surprised and upset many parents with a plan in the spring of 2018 to build two new preschool buildings, one near Champlain School in the city’s south end, and another near C.P. Smith school in the north end.
Critics spotted stakes marking the site of the planned construction and said the buildings came out of nowhere, without sufficient public notice or input. The plans had been approved by the school board earlier that year, but in March more than half the slots on the board turned over and the new majority put the preschool proposal on a back burner.
The new majority also re-established board subcommittees and took a much more hands-on management approach. Multiple board members were critical of the way Obeng handled a major personnel flap involving former Burlington High School guidance director Mario Macias, whose educator license was eventually revoked by the Vermont Education Agency in February 2019.
This fall, board members continued to question some of Obeng’s hiring decisions. The board also continued to shift to a closer oversight philosophy and in October adopted policies spelling out the superintendent’s obligations, tasks and reporting requirements.
Read the full text of Obeng's letter below:
Dear BSD Community,
Throughout the last few months, I have met with many of you to talk about the future of Burlington School District and how the community and District can support each other for the betterment of our students and staff. These conversations have helped me reflect and realize what a personal and professional privilege it has been to lead this District as I enter my fifth year as Superintendent.
I am writing today because these last few months of conversations and reflections have also led me to believe that the systemic foundation has been laid to allow me to explore other personal and professional opportunities. I want to let the BSD staff and community know I have informed the Burlington Board of School Commissioners of my intention to step down as Superintendent of Burlington Schools at the end of this fiscal year. I had contemplated waiting to make this announcement until January but ultimately decided that by informing the board, staff, and community now, Burlington School District will have the best opportunity for a successful transition.
This decision has not been an easy one, but the rebuilt structures and stability will allow for a pathway of continuous progress. Our students have been recognized nationally each year for their creativity and scholarship. The finances in BSD are stronger than have been in more than a decade. We have a capital plan in place to address most of our District’s space constraints and aging infrastructure, and we’ve secured a bond to bring our High School into the 21st century. Our department leaders and Principals have fully embraced the quest for equity in all they do. The restructuring of Central Office has already improved HR and business office relationships, communication, and service. Restorative Practices work is gaining momentum in the District, and our staff is focused intensely on closing the achievement gap while raising the bar for all our students.
Most importantly though, I am excited about the level to which I have seen student voice elevated. Last year we saw Edmunds Middle School students receive more than 2,000 signatures on a petition to support eliminating the taxation of feminine hygiene products, students working for the BHS Register led the charge in support of free speech, middle schoolers investigated implicit racial biases within dress code regulations, and elementary students at Flynn rallied their community to build accessible playground equipment. More recently, BHS junior Kawther Hashim has become a force of nature for activism, and the BHS Varsity Girls’ Soccer Team has gone international with their message in support of equal pay for gender equality. These are only a few of the amazing things our students are doing.
Being that Thanksgiving is approaching, I have also been reflecting on how personally thankful I am for the support of community members and staff who have often reached out to offer words of encouragement or provide insight, feedback, and volunteer time. I am thankful for the past and current Board Members who have volunteered countless hours to support our youth. And I am thankful to the students who are leading the way. At the beginning of my tenure, we established a new Vision Statement in hopes to inspire excellence. I have seen the realization of the vision in our students, and to show my thankfulness and appreciation before the year is over, I will be working to establish a scholarship for a graduating student who exemplifies the vision of Burlington School District. “Cultivating Caring, Creative, and Courageous People- Join the Journey!”
Thank you for your time and for letting me “Join the Journey.”