ANwSU school head sets date for retirement

VERGENNES — Addison Northwest Supervisory Union Superintendent Tom O’Brien will retire following the 2013-2014 school year after 13 years in Vergennes, and on Nov. 28 he received the ANwSU board’s approval to work less than full-time — on a 60-percent basis — during the upcoming academic year.
Last Wednesday the ANwSU board also gave approval to O’Brien to negotiate with longtime Addison Central School (ACS) Principal Wayne Howe about coming aboard as a part-time ANwSU assistant superintendent next year.
O’Brien said on Thursday Howe has expressed an interest in such a role, and in January O’Brien will almost certainly recommend to the ANwSU board an arrangement in which Howe will assume a 40-percent superintendency position.
At the same time the ACS principal post would become a 60-percent job, an arrangement O’Brien said would offer financial relief to ACS, which is facing a budget crunch due to its declining enrollment.
O’Brien said if the ANwSU board gives its final approval to the plan next month an ACS lead teacher would assume some of Howe’s duties, and that administrative assistant Susie Hodsden would also take on greater responsibilities.
The board made its Nov. 28 decision on O’Brien’s future after an executive session, one of two recent closed-door meetings devoted to the topic. ANwSU board chairwoman Laurie Gutowski said she could not comment on the content of the executive sessions or the opinions of other ANwSU board members, but said she supported both elements of the plan.
Gutowski said the arrangement with Howe is not a done deal, but noted Howe’s efforts in recent years to become involved in union-wide issues and programs.
“I think it’s a great idea because of Tom needing to back off a little bit, and Wayne is very experienced … and he knows all of our schools,” she said. “I’ve worked with Wayne on several occasions, and he’s a great guy. I don’t think we could have asked for anything better.”
O’Brien said he had been contemplating his retirement plans for a while. By the end of 2014, O’Brien will be 66 and will have been a school superintendent for 30 years in school districts in Washington state, Maine and Windsor County, as well as ANwSU.
O’Brien is a former Vermont Superintendent of the Year and one of the state’s longest-serving single-district superintendents (the average is less than four years, he said).
O’Brien had already thought three decades as a school district head would be enough even before he needed relatively recent heart surgery — he had five stents implanted and is now on a regimen that includes medication, exercise and a careful diet.
“At some point even before last year I figured when I turned 66 when I finished that year I would be done,” O’Brien said. “And that is 2014. And during this past year I found out that my health isn’t as solid as one might want it to be, and that became a concern, also … Given the health care and my age, I wanted a little time to do something else.”
O’Brien credited stable administrative teams, strong personnel, hard-working school boards and community support for helping move ANwSU forward during his tenure, and he said that foundation will make Howe’s expected transition run smoothly.
“We’ve got good people here in each of the schools, good teaching staff, solid support staff. On any given day our principals are outstanding,” O’Brien said. “We’ve seen a lot of good growth at the high school. I asked for that … I said we need to be one of the best, if not the best, in the state, and I think we’re right up there for all kinds of reasons. And we’ve made progress at the elementary level. Our district has a reputation statewide that is a positive one.”
O’Brien said Howe has worked on a number of district-wide initiatives, including leading committees charged with coordinating professional development and improving schools’ annual test scores. ACS has also been recently recognized on a statewide basis for its improved scores for low-income students.
Howe has also sat in on meetings devoted to Vergennes Union High School’s transition to Performance Based Graduation Requirements, worked hard on the ultimately unsuccessful efforts to fully unify ANwSU, and is a member of the Vermont Principals’ Association’s executive committee. 
“He’s expanding his repertoire,” O’Brien said. “And I know he has the respect of the other administrators.”
O’Brien said if the ANwSU board does sign off on Howe as an assistant superintendent, ACS would remain his priority.
“In my conversation with the Addison board I said I want you to understand that Wayne’s primary role will still be Addison,” O’Brien said.
If the board approves the plan, ACS would save about $40,000 in salaries and benefits, O’Brien said, while the ANwSU budget would save about $10,000.
The arrangement would also continue an existing district trend that O’Brien views favorably, giving ANwSU personnel who are doing good work a chance to advance.
“We’re better off continuing the investment we’ve made in these people already,” he said.
Gutowski and O’Brien acknowledged Howe’s prospective tenure as an assistant superintendent could position him to take over for O’Brien.
Gutowski said “come the appropriate time” board members would keep an open mind.
“Anything can happen. I think we have to be open to possibilities,” she said, and described one of them: “He may not like it. He may think ‘What am I doing?’ Time will tell.”
O’Brien agreed Howe and the board would have a mutual opportunity, and pointed to the difficulty of filling Vermont superintendencies.
“It puts him in a position to make that assessment for himself, and provides the groundwork for the board to even give that consideration,” he said. “I think it’s a great opportunity for anyone, and Wayne is the one who is the most likely candidate I can think of. And I also know that looking for a new superintendent these days is a tough business.”
And three decades of being one will be enough for O’Brien.
“I put in a long time, and I’ve had a successful career,” he said. “It’s time for me to do some other things.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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