Citing Burnout, Winooski School Superintendent to Take a Four-Month Sabbatical | Education | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Citing Burnout, Winooski School Superintendent to Take a Four-Month Sabbatical

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Sean McMannon visiting the Winooski "gymteria" in 2019 - FILE: LUKE AWTRY
  • File: Luke Awtry
  • Sean McMannon visiting the Winooski "gymteria" in 2019

Long-serving Winooski School District superintendent Sean McMannon will take a four-month leave from his job, starting in late February and running through the end of the school year.

McMannon said the decision — which has been in the works since fall 2020 and was approved by the school board — was driven by the physical and mental strain he's feeling from running a school district during a challenging time.

The hiatus, he said, will enable him to come back with renewed energy to run the district next school year, the last of his current contract.

"I want to stay in Winooski," McMannon said in an interview with Seven Days in early January. "We've got a lot of multiyear, deep work to do, and we're planning for that, and I want to be a part of that ... I know that, for me to do my best work and to be able to lead the organization, I needed a break."

Sabbaticals are "a power move for the burnout era," the Wall Street Journal declared in a recent story about people taking a break from their jobs. But the absences are rare, if unheard of, for administrators in K-12 education. And some Winooski educators told Seven Days that the sabbatical seems unfair at a time when all staff are under immense strain. Parents only learned of McMannon's upcoming leave on Tuesday, when he sent a letter to the school community.

McMannon, 53, previously served as principal of Champlain Valley Union High School in Hinesburg and has been superintendent of Vermont's only majority-minority school district for nearly a decade. In that role, he's had to navigate several weighty issues.

In 2020, a group of current and former Winooski students formed a coalition to press for anti-racist reforms within the school district. Progress has been slow on that front, but McMannon pointed to several initiatives this school year that aim to increase equity. Among them are a district-wide audit that looks at disparities in student achievement and a $25,000 grant the district received from the Barr Foundation to help recruit and retain staff of color.

In the fall, McMannon took a public stand in defending Winooski student athletes who said they were racially harassed during a soccer game. He wrote an open letter that described routine vile behavior by opponents — and sometimes spectators — and demanded that the Vermont Principals' Association take more meaningful actions to curb racism in interscholastic sports.

Over the past two years, McMannon has also helped manage a huge renovation of the district's campus, which serves more than 800 elementary, middle and high school students. In May 2019, Winooski voters approved a bond to fund the project — which includes a new gym, middle-school wing, elementary school addition and expanded health center. The district broke ground in June 2020, and the project is slated for completion in August.

That's not to say anything about dealing with COVID-19, including a recent surge in cases that's led to a bumpy start to the New Year and a school shutdown for five days.

Serving for almost nine years as superintendent, plus managing the district's response to the pandemic and a $57 million capital project, "has taken a toll on me, and I have not been able to take care of myself as well as I normally would," McMannon said.

In the past few years, McMannon said, he's missed spending time with his wife and two young-adult daughters, and he has not had the energy to exercise and meditate. McMannon said he's always tried to stress the importance of wellness practices to district employees and has supported those who need to take time off for mental health reasons.

"[Focusing on wellness] is something ... that I feel like we all need to do, and it benefits our students and the organization if we do that, and I need to model that," McMannon said. "I need to walk the talk a little bit."

According to the Winooski School Board, McMannon first raised the idea of a sabbatical in November 2020 during contract negotiations. After months of discussions, conducted privately in executive session, the board approved a new contract for McMannon in May 2021.

Sean McMannon - FILE: LUKE AWTRY
  • File: Luke Awtry
  • Sean McMannon

It entitles the superintendent to a four-month break at some point in 2022, "to be used as he sees fit." McMannon "shall be free from all job-related duties" but will make himself available "at reasonable times by telephone or by email" to help with urgent matters, the contract states.

The board granted McMannon permission to use 40 days of sick leave, 20 days of vacation leave, three days of personal leave and 10 days of paid leave so that he earns his full salary — $155,129 annually — during the sabbatical. He can also use up to 10 days of unpaid leave.

The district has hired Kevin Dirth, who recently retired as superintendent of Maple Run Unified School District in St. Albans, as a substitute superintendent for the latter part of the school year.

McMannon has provided the district some consistency. Winooski’s superintendent position was a revolving door in the decade before he started in 2013.

McMannon's contract expires on June 30, 2023. The superintendent said he isn't sure about his plans beyond then.

"That will be a discussion like it always is, as we get into the final year of the contract, about whether it continues to be a good match or not moving forward," McMannon said.

In a statement to Seven Days, the board said it approved McMannon's request because "the superintendent's role and demands have been complex in light of the numerous endeavors underway to build a school and systems that are equitable, relevant and accessible for each Winooski student.

"The board expects the superintendent to return recharged and refreshed to fully support our school's faculty, staff, students and community's continual journey of building together a more just, equitable and student-centered community," the statement continues.

McMannon described staff reaction to his break as "mixed." He's heard that some responded negatively on social media, but he also said he's received supportive emails.

Four Winooski educators who learned about the superintendent's sabbatical plan in November shared their concerns with Seven Days last week. They requested anonymity out of concern for their jobs.

McMannon's decision to take off four months fully paid — when teachers are only allowed up to nine weeks of paid family or medical leave — feels unfair, the educators said.

"I am glad that Sean is able to take the time to care for himself and to recover in the ways he needs," one educator said. "It's the inequity that bothers me — that this same length of paid leave is not afforded to teachers and staff who need it."

School employees are also burned out, struggling with physical and mental health, and missing loved ones, too, another added.

The educators, who all live in Winooski, don't think that allowing McMannon to take a fully paid break, and hiring a temporary superintendent in his absence, is financially prudent.

But McMannon said "a very high percentage" of his sabbatical will use paid days off that he has already earned. At the end of his contract, he would be paid for any accrued vacation days that he didn't use, the superintendent added.

That doesn't take into account the money the district will shell out for a substitute superintendent. Dirth will make $80 an hour and work 25 hours a week from February 28 to June 10. That amounts to $2,000 weekly for almost 15 weeks.

The educators also questioned McMannon's choice of words to describe his time off when, under the teachers' contract, a sabbatical leave requires an educational component, such as research. The superintendent's contract gives McMannon the freedom to spend his sabbatical doing whatever he wants.

"As a superintendent, as a leader, you kind of set the tone," one teacher said. "When you're taking this very extended leave, there's kind of this double standard."

Vermont Superintendents Association executive director Jeff Francis acknowledged that many other administrators around the state are also facing major burnout. During the pandemic, educators have had less time to rest and rejuvenate, Francis said. Because of their "positions of great responsibility," administrators are under a tremendous amount of stress.

In recent years, Vermont school districts have had trouble recruiting and retaining superintendents, and Francis said, "It seems that the pool of qualified candidates seeking superintendent positions has diminished in the last decade or so."

He said it's too early to know how many superintendents are planning to call it quits at the end of this school year. Currently, he knows that at least six of Vermont's 54 superintendents will be leaving, which is not unusual. Five additional superintendents are currently serving on an interim basis. The current crop of superintendents has served an average of four and a half years.

"I'd say there's a little less stability right now. I would not attribute it to COVID, per se," Francis said. "But I'm paying careful attention to what we may be looking at in terms of turnover, because I do think that the pressures are significant."

Clarification, January 19, 2022: Winooski athletes said they were racially harassed during a soccer game. An earlier version of this story lacked attribution.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Time Out"