After months of harsh criticism, Burlington School District superintendent Jeanne Collins can breathe a sigh of relief: The BSD school board voted 9-5 late last night to extend her contract until 2014.
Board commissioners Keith Pillsbury, Haik Bedrosian, Ben Truman, Alan Matson, Kathy Chasan, Dave Davidson, Ed Scott and Bernie O'Rourke all gave Collins the go-ahead for another year on the job. (Had the board voted down her contact extension, Collins would have been job hunting in 2013.) Jill Evans, Rebecca Grimm, Paul Hochanadel, Meredith Woodward King and Erin Kranichfeld voted against retaining the superintendent.
The vote came after months of heated allegations of racism in the Burlington School District, and criticism centered in recent weeks on Collins. Her opponents — who included activists from the minority community, some students of color, and City Councilor Vince Brennan — accused the superintendent of responding too slowly to these allegations, and called repeatedly for her replacement. Collins' supporters rallied in recent weeks, citing her long record of achievements in the district (including establishing the state's first magnet elementary schools) as reasons to keep her on.
But the ultimate decision fell to the 14-member school board, who made their choice last night in an open meeting rather than executive session — a choice that illustrated fissures on the board that some members say the board will need to work hard to mend.
Pillsbury, who chairs the board, pushed for the open discussion, saying that this year's contract debate was far more public than decisions in years past. Pillsbury says he's heard repeatedly from constituents who told him, "We want to hear what the board members are thinking."
"If they were going to have confidence, and have trust in us as leaders ... they needed to know where we were," Pillsbury says.
Collins agrees: She waived the right for the conversation to take place in executive session. "I felt as though this conversation has been playing out in the community and public all along. For me to go into executive session and cut out the community did not feel right," she says.
That didn't mean the decision was made easily: Board member Chasan said much of last night's meeting, a continuation of a discussion initiated by public comments on Tuesday, was tied up in complex questions about protocol and the technicalities of various motions.
And board member Meredith Woodward King, for one, called the push for transparency a "tactic" used by Pillsbury to stifle broader conversation. King says she came to the meeting hoping to reach broader consensus with the board, and to come out with a more unified voice, but that the open meeting meant the board couldn't discuss stickier personnel issues — such as Burlington's struggle to retain principals.
"I want to make sure we can move forward as a functional board, and I think our board really needs to talk about that issue," King says.
As for Collins, King says she'll be watching to make sure the superintendent carries through on the diversity and equity plan she unveiled earlier this month.
"I want us to be able to get behind Jeanne's plan," King says. "I've had enough conversations in the district to know that not everyone's on board with this thing. I'm going to be interested in seeing how Jeanne really does get buy-in around this, and whether she does hold people accountable."
Pillsbury, meanwhile, was publicly supportive of Collins during this spring's trial-by-public-opinion, but he tempered his endorsement today by clarifying the school board's relationship with the superintendent.
"As a boss, you always give support," he says, but with that support comes supervision and guidance. He says he doesn't "blindly follow" Collins. "When I say I’m supporting her, I’m also doing my responsibility to make sure she’s following through on the directives of elected community leaders — not special-interest groups, or staff, or teachers, but the elected body."
That body, of course, is the school board, which Pillsbury says is also moving to put in place a more rigorous means of evaluating the superintendent in the months ahead. That will include establishing more objective benchmarks for Collins' performance.
She has already set some goals of her own moving forward; Collins says she's moving swiftly to kick her diversity plan into action. Next week, school administrators will meet for a two-day professional development course, focusing in part on the process for reporting and investigating harassment complaints.
"I feel ready," said Collins this morning, admitting she also felt "exhausted" — last night's meeting ran until nearly 12:30 a.m.
Now that the board has reached its much-anticipated decision, is it time to move on? Chasan doesn't know about that, but "it's time to move forward," she says, "and Jeanne's plan is a good place to start."
Even some of Collins' most vocal critics agree on that much. Brennan wrote by email to Collins this morning offering his help in executing her plan. He wrote that the debate so far has been divisive and sometimes nasty. "Let me be the first to join with you to bring our community together," he wrote.
"The board has spoken, and most importantly the children of our district are the ones that I'm concerned with," says Brennan. He's still disturbed by some of what he's heard over the last few weeks from Collins' supporters — especially those who purported to be "color blind" and refuted claims of racism in the schools — and he remains disappointed that the superintendent was, to his mind, slow to react. But now Brennan says the conversation about racism in Burlington needs to extend beyond the school district. Collins agrees.
"This is a citywide issue, and quickly is going to become a regionwide and statewide issue," she says.
Photo by Andy Duback