Busy meeting schedule hurts search for ACSU superintendent

MIDDLEBURY — When the Addison Central Supervisory Union board next meets on Jan. 16, it will begin to discuss whether to quickly launch a fourth attempt at hiring a new superintendent or instead focus on bringing in an interim administrator to temporarily take the helm come July 1.
Some board members also promised the upcoming discussion will include a debate on what the ACSU could do to reduce the number of board meetings the superintendent must attend as part of the job.
The superintendent is currently accountable to nine separate boards in a supervisory union that includes seven communities — a system that entails multiple evening meetings each week. It is a situation that elicited comments of concern from one of the two finalists (Jeanne Collins) in the most recent, ill-fated search.
“It is a challenging thing for anyone who is going to be our superintendent,” ACSU board Chairman Mark Perrin said of the current meeting requirements. “I think it is something that sets someone back on their heels if they are not prepared to spend that kind of time.”
Indeed, ACSU officials have spent more than two years gauging public support for possibly streamlining the supervisory union’s governance structure. The ACSU Governance Study Committee was formed during the fall of 2010 to take advantage of Act 153, a state law that provides incentives for school districts to voluntarily consider mergers. Act 153 allows individual school communities to consider merging into a “Regional Educational District (RED)” governed by a common board.
The state is offering up to $20,000 to RED study committees to defray consulting and legal services. The Addison Northwest Supervisory Union held several public votes on whether to consolidate its governance within one board, but the effort ultimately failed to win support from all the communities involved.
The ACSU Study Committee last year held multiple forums in the district’s seven towns — Middlebury, Bridport, Weybridge, Shoreham, Salisbury, Cornwall and Ripton. While residents were receptive to sharing resources and making their schools more efficient, there has been no resounding call in any of the communities to phase out boards or merge schools.
“In Vermont, giving up that local control tends to be difficult for a lot of districts,” acknowledged consultant Bob Stevens, who has assisted the ACSU in its most recent superintendent search.
There are 63 supervisory districts in Vermont, and 46 of them fall into the category of supervisory unions that serve multiple communities and schools represented by a combined total of 288 elected boards, according to Steve Dale, executive director of the Vermont School Boards Association.
Supervisory unions with multiple boards have been a feature of Vermont’s public education system since 1915, according to Dale.
“They were created not as management units; they were created for the supervision of teaching,” Dale said. It was the superintendent’s primary job to travel to the many rural schools to monitor teaching practices. It was the school boards that coordinated the actual operation of the schools, Dale noted.
“The (superintendent’s) role has changed dramatically,” Dale said. “Over the past 100 years, it has evolved from an instructional focus to much more about management and leadership.”
That has led to more administrative functions and responsibilities, Dale noted, which can add up for superintendents — some of whom must answer to as many as a dozen individual school boards “all of which might have separate agendas and aren’t necessarily in agreement.” A supervisory union board — which represents all of the boards — can provide a forum for all of the individual school boards to come together to codify a joint vision, set mutual priorities and figure out a way to operate in the most efficient way possible so that the superintendent’s job is “doable,” Dale said.
“I think it’s very legitimate for supervisory unions, like the ACSU, to really spend time talking about ‘how can we be as functional as we can possibly be to both make this a very attractive place to be, but also a very effective place to be,’ because people value local boards, they value local voice and at the same time they need to be able to function as a single entity that is worried about the education of all of the kids in that region, not just town by town,” Dale said.
He described some strategies that some supervisory unions have been trying to lessen the evening meeting burden on their respective superintendents.
For example, the Orange Southwest Supervisory Union in the Randolph area encompasses three towns with four elected boards. But those boards basically function as a unified body, coming together once per month to make decisions jointly for all of the districts in the OSSU, according to Dale.
“Even though they are separate boards, they have mutually agreed that a lot of the major decision making will be done jointly,” Dale said. “Then, when they finish their supervisory union meeting, they break into their town board meetings and take care of any specific business that needs to be voted town-by-town. But the substance of what goes on takes place in a consolidated way.”
So the superintendent and the boards essentially meet once per month to take care of their business jointly and separately, according to Dale.
Other supervisory unions have employed a “carousel” meeting system. This “one-stop shopping” method calls for school boards within the supervisory union to meet on the same evening under the same roof, thereby allowing the superintendent to visit and conduct business with each group.
ACSU board member Peter Conlon of Cornwall chaired a committee that screened candidates for the most recent superintendent searches. He believes the ACSU board should take a close look at the strategies other supervisory unions have employed to cut down on meetings to enhance the supervisory union’s chances of recruiting and retaining a superintendent.
“It’s just one more potential obstacle for this school district as we go about solving our leadership issue in the future,” Conlon said of the rigorous meeting schedule for the ACSU superintendent. “The ACSU currently enjoys a strong reputation as a good school district, but the complexity of our organization makes it difficult to attract good candidates. And those good candidates that we do attract certainly think about the impact of our structure on their lives.
“It’s probably time the ACSU think about creative solutions to this because we do not want our organization to be a deterrent in attracting the best possible candidates,” he added.
Stevens said there remains a good window of opportunity for the ACSU board to re-launch its superintendent search. The window of opportunity usually runs from late fall to early spring, he said.
Stevens has helped many Vermont supervisory unions find superintendents, and he noted the ACSU is not alone in dealing with many boards holding many meetings.
“A lot of (candidates) are looking for single districts or two boards,” Stevens said. “When you talk to people from out of state where there aren’t supervisory unions, they are kind of amazed with Vermont’s configuration, the number of boards and board members. So sometimes that inhibits some of the out-of-state candidates from wanting to come to supervisory unions in Vermont.”
Meanwhile, current ACSU Superintendent Gail Conley has agreed to serve out the balance of this school year. He is not interested in extending his tenure into a third year. Conley agreed to come out of retirement during the summer of 2011 to lead the ACSU while it searched for a permanent replacement for former Superintendent Lee Sease, whose contract was not renewed.
“It’s time for me to be retired again,” said Conley, who originally retired as a superintendent in 2005.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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