ACSU picks Conley as interim head

MIDDLEBURY — Former Chittenden East Supervisory Union Superintendent Gail B. Conley will serve as interim leader of the Addison Central Supervisory Union (ACSU) for the 2011-2012 academic year beginning on July 1.
Conley’s hiring, confirmed by ACSU board Chairman Mark Perrin on Tuesday, will partially fill what was looming as a substantial administrative vacuum in the district office created by the imminent departure of current ACSU Superintendent Lee Sease and the recent resignation of longtime Business Manager Sharon Stearns.
Both Sease and Stearns are leaving under strained circumstances and in wake of an investigation into the working climate within the ACSU central office. The ACSU board chose not to renew Sease’s contract, while Stearns resigned late last month after having been placed on administrative leave by Sease back on Jan. 5.
Stearns confirmed through her attorney that she is considering legal action against the ACSU, which in her words placed conditions on her return to work that are “onerous, unreasonable, intolerable and unacceptable.”
Conley, 68, is a Huntington resident who served as top administrator of Chittenden East from 1994 to 2005. He came out of retirement in 2007 to serve as interim superintendent of Barre schools for one year. He is coming out of retirement for what he indicated was one last time to lead the ACSU schools for one year.
“Middlebury has a great reputation for being a strong academic place,” Conley said during a phone interview Tuesday.
He said he sees his primary job as “helping everyone else get their work done.” If he can do that, the end result, he said, is better-prepared principals and teachers, which in turn should translate into better educational programs for students.
Conley vowed to be a hands-on administrator who looks forward to working with all school boards within the ACSU. The ACSU includes the elementary schools in Middlebury, Cornwall, Shoreham, Weybridge, Salisbury, Ripton and Bridport, as well as Middlebury Union middle and high schools.
Prior to his arrival in Vermont in 1994, Conley served in various top administrative posts in schools in Rantoul and Macomb, Ill.
Perrin said he is pleased the ACSU was able to secure an interim leader with Conley’s experience and stature. The Vermont School Boards Association helped recruit Conley for the ACSU post, and will also help the district search for a permanent replacement during this fall and winter.
Conley was one of two candidates the ACSU executive board interviewed for the job, according to Perrin. It was Conley’s prior administrative experience, budgeting skills and attention to detail that helped garner the executive committee’s unanimous approval, according to Perrin.
“He is a great guy, very confident, with a lot of experience in the larger school districts,” Perrin said. “We are very confident he will move us in a direction that is good for the kids in this district.”
The ACSU is also in the market for a new business manager to succeed Stearns, who worked in that capacity for nine years.
The ACSU board on May 20 offered to return Stearns to her job if she agreed, among other things, to:
• Use the “services of a coach to assist her in improving managerial skills and interpersonal relationships with all peers and subordinates.” The ACSU would have provided the coach, with progress monitored by Stearns’ direct supervisor.
• No longer engage in “behavior or actions that others interpret as demeaning or derogatory to themselves or others; and, exercises flexibility in her demands and requests of others.”
• Work within an organizational structure as required by the superintendent.
• That she become a “better team player.”
Stearns, in a May 27 reply to the ACSU board, said she has not been made aware of the specifics of the investigation into her behavior.
“It is grossly unfair to conclude an investigation and enter into my personnel file information about the investigation when I have not been provided an explanation of the information that is alleged to have occurred in a forthright and timely way so I may respond to them,” Stearns wrote in her letter. “The board’s demand that I return to work without specific information concerning the accusations means I would be forced to work with blindfolds. A business manager cannot operate in such a manner.”
Stearns also contends that some members of the committee that would have overseen her return included “several members who are known supporters of the superintendent.” Stearns noted it was Sease that placed her on administrative leave “after I raised concerns about his harassment and bullying conduct and other concerns on Jan. 4, 2011.”
Stearns is being represented by Woodstock-based attorney Norman E. Watts. He said his client is now employed with another school district and is considering “a civil action for monetary damages.” Those damages, he said, might include the difference between what Stearns is making at her current job compared to what she was making at her higher paying job with the ACSU. The claim, he said, might also seek damages for an “oppressive” work environment.
Sease said he could not comment when asked if he, too, was considering legal action in connection with his departure from the district.
“I learned early on in my career that a strong understanding of human relationships is essential for any kind of success,” Sease said in a written statement. “I believe human relationships begin with the understanding of the interests and desires of others and with honest and open interactions. Unfortunately, I was unable to establish such an environment throughout ACSU. I was unable to navigate through the long-standing resentments and issues that I found upon becoming superintendent. In the end those issues that divide this supervisory union prevailed, which is what has led to my departure.”
Meanwhile ACSU Associate Superintendent Jan Willey confirmed she will remain with the district next year. In December of 2009, Willey had tendered her resignation in wake of a shift in her job duties. She later reconsidered that action. Willey has worked for the ACSU for almost two decades.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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