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New ACSU leader vows progress

MIDDLEBURY — Although his tenure as Addison Central Supervisory Union superintendent will last only one year, Gail Conley doesn’t like to hear the word “interim” used before his title.
That’s because, he said, “interim” leader can conjure notions of someone satisfied with staying the course until a permanent replacement comes along. And Conley served notice last week that he will not simply be holding down the fort during his year in office.
“I would like people to refer to me as the new superintendent with a one-year contract,” said Conley, now one month into the job. “I’ve got a lot of work to do. I like to tell people I’ve got to get busy, because I only have one year.
“I am going to fix anything that needs to be fixed,” he added.
Conley, 69, is a former superintendent of the Chittenden East Supervisory (CESU) Union, and previously served in that capacity in public schools in Illinois. This is his second stint as an interim superintendent; he served as temporary top administrator of the Barre school system in 2007.
He agreed to shepherd the ACSU schools for a year in wake of the departure of former Superintendent Lee Sease, who was let go by the district in June.
Conley is aware of the discord that prevailed between some administrators within the ACSU central office during the past year, and he said he would work to take the district forward.
“The last couple of years there have been some non-positive headlines on a couple of matters, and so my goal is to work on the future and understand a little of the past, so I can make good decisions,” Conley said.
With that in mind, he has been working to learn the territory of the district and his staff’s skills and duties, and how to lay the best learning foundation possible for the students who will soon be returning to the classrooms.
“I have always seen the superintendent’s role as being one of support,” Conley said. “My job here is to primarily support the nine principals in the nine buildings, making sure they have the resources they need, the staff they need to do their jobs. If I am successful in helping every principal do their best, every day, then I expect the principals to help the teachers do their best every day.”
He added he must also execute education priorities developed by the 52 citizens who make up the nine boards that govern the ACSU.
“I like being in the middle,” Conley said. “The boards set the policy and then I am their worker who goes and gets it done.”
With one month under his belt, Conley has already met with virtually all of the administrative staff and board members representing the nine ACSU schools.
Meeting with school officials and the public will be a top priority for Conley during his year at ACSU.
“My goal is to go to all the board meetings,” Conley said. “The only time a miss a board meeting is when I have two scheduled.”
He anticipates a full agenda for the coming year in a district that includes the elementary schools in Middlebury, Cornwall, Shoreham, Weybridge, Salisbury, Ripton and Bridport, as well as Middlebury Union Middle and High schools.
“I don’t think, in any school district, you can sit still for a year,” Conley said.
And there won’t be a lot of sitting still within the ACSU schools during the coming academic year. School governance consolidation and tough budget decisions are but two of several issues looming on ACSU board agendas.
An ad hoc committee has been studying the pros and cons of potential mergers of school resources and board districts within the ACSU, given what has been a statewide trend of declining enrollment. That conversation will continue, most notably in Weybridge, which this fall will convene the first in the series of community meetings to discuss the future of its community school. The other six communities in the ASCSU are also expected to convene such meetings.
Feedback gleaned from those meetings will shape the committee’s consideration of consolidation among schools and its ultimate recommendation to the ACSU board.
“One of my goals will be to serve as a helper to that (study) group, just as I am a helper to the board,” Conley said.
Conley will also be asked to navigate the district’s school boards through some increasingly rough financial waters. The ACSU’s school budgets are already coming off a year of essentially flat funding.
“The schools were helped last year with some federal funding,” Conley said of some stimulus dollars. “There is still some of that lingering with us this year. But as that funding reduces or disappears in some categories, that will be a tough choice for the boards to look at. Can we afford local or state money to make up that gap, or are we going to have to stop doing some things or do them in a less expensive way?”
Ultimately, Conley believes all school districts will have to continue to abide by the maxim of “doing more with less.”
Another large task for Conley — helping the ACSU board hire his replacement. It’s a process that will likely begin with the formation of a search committee in October or November, Conley said. The most promising applicants will likely be interviewed in January or early February, culminating in the selection of a finalist ready to start by July 2012.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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