As Controversies Swirl, What’s Next for Burlington Schools’ Beleaguered Superintendent? | Education | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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As Controversies Swirl, What’s Next for Burlington Schools’ Beleaguered Superintendent?

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Yaw Obeng - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Yaw Obeng

The Burlington School Board recited a greeting that offered peace, friendship and love before the public comment period began at its regular meeting on September 13.

The message failed to pacify the audience. Instead, a crowd of parents, residents and students drubbed the board and Superintendent Yaw Obeng for their handling of complaints against Burlington High School guidance director Mario Macias and a related student newspaper censorship case.

Throughout the barrage, Obeng listened attentively. He wore a business suit and something else, too: a calm expression that betrayed no indication that the blistering critique was getting to him.

Obeng has been given ample opportunity to practice grace under fire in his three years on the job. As soon as one controversy sputters out, another seems to ignite in this public school system that educates about 3,700 students.

"If you're not someone who can deal with conflict on a daily basis, this is not the role for you," Obeng told Seven Days during an interview Monday.

But the superintendent is now facing one of his biggest challenges yet, from critics who say he has bungled the Macias situation and flunked an important leadership test. And it isn't just angry parents complaining. Some board members are also deeply critical of the superintendent's performance, according to emails obtained by Seven Days through a public records request.  

One email refers to the Macias "debacle," which led the district to put the guidance director, who earns $96,788 annually, on paid administrative leave on September 14. Another blasts Obeng for failing to remove Macias sooner, saying "you are accountable for his performance and the Board should hold you accountable."   

Obeng declined to comment on Macias, saying it was a personnel matter. "I hope that people know that we are listening," he said. Despite the current upheaval, Obeng feels he's made a difference for the better in Burlington. "I do enjoy my job," he said. "I do enjoy challenges."

They began to surface as soon as Obeng accepted the job. The school board went through lengthy machinations in 2015 to obtain a visa to allow Obeng, a Canadian citizen, to serve as the first black superintendent of schools in Burlington. Newly hired, Obeng successfully sought an exemption from a local ordinance that requires department heads to live within city limits, so he could buy a house in South Burlington. Even though the city council has granted numerous exemptions, critics were incensed by the highly paid super's decision to live in the burbs.

Then, in the summer of 2017, four members of the high school's guidance department resigned, blaming Macias for creating a hostile work environment. When school began, teachers went on a four-day strike over pay and scheduling.

Months later, the board authorized a new, three-year contract that started July 1 and pays Obeng $161,019 this year. Then-board chair Mark Porter praised Obeng's budgeting skills and his focus on improvements in special education and services to English language learners.

But the controversies continued. In January, Porter accused fellow board member Jeff Wick of racial bias for allegedly stating in a private conversation that the board had gone "too far in hiring district leadership of color." Wick strongly denied the charge, and a private investigator did not substantiate bias.

In May, parents staged a mini-rebellion and claimed Obeng was pushing construction of two new preschool buildings without voter approval. The board ordered that the projects be put on hold.

The latest conflagration, involving Macias, is still raging. On September 10, BHS' student newspaper, the Register, broke the news that the Vermont Agency of Education had cited Macias for alleged licensing violations, including faking a student transcript, behaving inappropriately with a substitute teacher and failing to understand the basic operations of the department.

The publication fought back, creating more district turmoil, after interim BHS principal Noel Green censored the story. Meanwhile, Macias denied the allegations and will make his case at an October 11 licensing panel hearing. His lawyer declined to comment.

But Burlington parents are talking.

"I was stunned at the brazenness of the behavior described and the seeming impunity under which it operated," said David Lines, who read the education agency's Macias affidavit.

Lines said he couldn't be happier about his son's experience at Burlington's Sustainability Academy, but he's less satisfied with Obeng's performance. "I just think it's been one controversy after another," Lines said. "To me, it's this overall attitude of arrogance."

Others say the superintendent is dedicated, passionate about educating kids and tough enough to weather this latest storm.

"I think he's faced worse adversity than this," said former board chair Porter, who did not run for reelection in March. "He's done a good job. He's done a good job listening to the community."

While Porter remains a staunch supporter of the superintendent, board turnover means most of the people who hired Obeng are gone. Eight of the 12 current board members were not serving last year when complaints about Macias hit the media.

Porter said it's unfair to suggest the board in its former incarnation did nothing about Macias. "The public can only see one side of this" due to privacy rules, he said.

Liz Curry, a current board member who has served for five years, echoed that. "Nobody has the full story," she said.

She and other board members contacted for this story declined to discuss Obeng's performance, saying it would violate personnel rules. The board is charged with hiring and firing the district superintendent.

But the emails obtained by Seven Days show that sharp disagreement over the handling of the Macias issue dates back at least a year. In August 2017, after the guidance counselors spoke out against their director, Obeng issued a statement that read, in part: "The Board, District and High School Administration stand strongly behind Director Macias."

Wick emailed the superintendent on August 11 to say he objected to the statement, writing that he hadn't been consulted before it went out.

"I do not support it because it is too one-sided, simply appears to 'circle the wagons', and is dismissive of the comments we heard from the former guidance counselors," he wrote.

The board similarly rejected Obeng's other attempts to quell concerns about Macias as the discussion continued over the next eight months.

In May, the superintendent sent board members an email about actions being taken with Macias, writing that "the Board Chair informed me that some Board Members may feel the district is not doing enough to respond to the questions raised about the guidance director." The actions were redacted in the email obtained by this newspaper.

It was board member Keith Pillsbury who responded with the scathing email telling Obeng that he is accountable for Macias' performance.

"The concerns voiced in the community are centered around his perceived inappropriate personal interaction with girls and women, his lack of skills in scheduling, his knowledge of special ed law, and his inattention to deadlines for student college applications," Pillsbury wrote in the same email. "All of these accusations, if true, are serious and would have been dealt with expeditiously by past superintendents ... Poor performance that is allowed, perceived to be supported or overlooked at BHS or any school has a negative [effect] on the school's climate and the staff's morale. The community loses confidence in the leadership of the district also."

A few weeks later, on June 14, board member Stephen Carey chimed in with an email to Pillsbury that made note of the "continuing Mario debacle."

Seven Days wasn't the only party interested in emails about the guidance director. Obeng offered a "heads up" in a June email to the board that Macias and his lawyer had filed a public records request for the messages.

Out in the community, meanwhile, some saw what seemed to be a passive attitude toward Macias' conduct.

"That it was left to the Vermont education agency to have to step in, I think, is pretty alarming," said Jennifer Tomczak, a BHS alumna and mother of two children who graduated from the school. The superintendent should have addressed the matter, she said, "because he's the one in charge."

Dealing with difficult personnel issues isn't the superintendent's only job.

The school board has set out a number of priorities for Obeng. One of them is to narrow the academic achievement gap among different student demographic groups, a deep-rooted problem across the nation. There's little evidence of progress so far under Obeng's leadership. The district's most recent Equity & Inclusion Data Report, published last October, included data from Obeng's first two years on the job.

It showed a decline in overall proficiency and the continuation of large gaps in standardized testing results, for example, between students who qualify for free and reduced lunch, and those who don't.

Large disparities also remain among racial groups and between students who receive English language learner services and those who don't, the report noted.

But data show significant progress when it comes to reducing suspensions, another priority set by the school board and by parents who have lobbied for less punitive discipline. Suspensions in the district fell from 409 to 368 between 2016 and 2017, according to the report.

Obeng described the drop as one of his accomplishments. He also cited his work to erase "a silo effect'' in the system by encouraging school principals to think about what is best for the district, not just for the schools they lead.

So far, Obeng has managed to avoid the deficit problem that plagued former superintendent Jeanne Collins, who resigned under pressure in 2014 after she was blamed for allowing school finances to spiral out of control.

It's not that Obeng hasn't stewarded spending projects. Last year, he helped persuade voters to approve $19 million in bonds for school upgrades. This fall, he backed a $70 million bondwhich will appear on the November ballot — to renovate the high school.

The superintendent also finds himself forced to respond to changes in direction set by the school board. The current board is considering proposals that would put the superintendent under closer scrutiny. Earlier this month, a board subcommittee reviewed proposed policies to require the superintendent to provide the board with a stack of information when he recommends hiring a permanent or interim principal, as well as other senior positions.

The proposals also instruct the superintendent not to initiate legal action on behalf of the district without informing the board and to maintain an organizational chart of employees.

The ideas are preliminary and were discussed but not voted on, according to Wick, cochair of the subcommittee and vice chair of the board.

Several of the ideas, which Wick and board member Mike Fisher drafted, appear to move away from a philosophy of board management called policy governance that the board, in its former composition, adopted last year. That model calls for results-oriented monitoring but not close involvement in day-to-day operations.

Under the policy governance model, the old board abolished subcommittees. The new board voted to restore them earlier this year, but not without debate. Some of the longer-term board members, including Mark Barlow, opposed the move.

He's wary of some of the board's recent decisions, because they "represent a retreat back to board micro-management of district operations that have been delegated to the superintendent," Barlow said via email.

Some observers, such as Tomczak, give Obeng credit for responding to what she sees as a new and better direction being set by the board. How Obeng will lead in the future, and how he will resolve the controversies at Burlington High School, is a matter of speculation.

The superintendent says he has more work to do and hopes to move forward, with the board's support, for another three years. "That's my intention," Obeng said. "I signed a contract."

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