Embattled Burlington superintendent the only choice left for RNeSU
BRANDON — A choice of one is not a choice. That was the message to the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union Executive Board from the community on Monday evening after a forum introducing the candidates for superintendent. In the end, the public urged the board to re-post the superintendent position, but for now, the board will continue the process it began.
The issue was twofold: One of the two candidates bowed out just days before to take another job, leaving one remaining candidate. The other issue is that final candidate was Jeanne Collins.
Last week Collins, 53, agreed to resign as superintendent of the Burlington School District on June 30 in a separation agreement with the Burlington School Board. That came as the board is discovering a district budget deficit that was years in the making and stands at $2.5 million.
Collins leaves with a severance package of $225,000, close to what she would have earned over the remaining two years of her contract had she stayed.
Roughly 40 people came to the forum held at the Otter Valley Union High School library on Monday evening to meet the candidates hoping to replace RNeSU Superintendent John Castle, who is leaving after five years for a superintendent job in his native Northeast Kingdom. The candidates scheduled to appear were Collins and Carl Chambers.
But Chambers called Executive Board Chair Carol Brigham on Friday to say he was opting out of the RNeSU superintendent search to take a job as curriculum director for the Windsor Southeast Supervisory Union, saying it was much closer to his home in Bellows Falls.
That left over an hour devoted to a Q & A with the remaining candidate, Collins, before her second interview with the committee and the board.
TIMING IS EVERTHING
The same day the Burlington School Board voted unanimously to accept Collins’ resignation, the RNeSU Executive Board released the names of the two finalists in the superintendent search, Collins and Chambers. But the search and interview committees were formed almost two months ago. There has been an inclusive and organized process of posting the position, gathering resumes, background checks, reference checks, interviews, school tours and discussion that led to Monday’s forum.
The RNeSU board first established the search committee in early April from representatives of each school board within the district from the executive board. Then a screening sub-committee was formed of board members and others who had been through the superintendent search process when Castle was hired in 2009.
Finally, an interview committee was formed with Castle’s input, made up of principals and staff from around the supervisory union, who came up with interview questions and began the interviewing process.
There were originally 22 applicants for the RNeSU job when it was first advertised. Between April 10 and May 5, the screening committee narrowed the list to five candidates. The first round of interviews of four finalists selected from those five candidates was held May 12-13. Of those, two candidates, Collins and Chambers, were asked to come back for the community forum scheduled Monday night, after which the RNeSU Board would conduct second interviews.
For her part, Collins said she has been looking to move on from the Burlington district for roughly two years now. She said she initially applied for the open Addison Central superintendent position in Middlebury last year, but then decided to wait. Then when the RNeSU job opened up in April, Collins felt the time was right.
“Having known (former longtime superintendent) Bill Mathis and John Castle, I really respect the focus on equity of education for all students here, and the focus on services that ensure equity for all kids,” Collins said.
Originally from Indiana, Collins earned her undergraduate degree in elementary education from Purdue University. She went on to do graduate coursework in special education at California State University-Northridge before receiving her master’s in special education from the University of Northern Colorado. She also earned a certificate in advance educational studies from St. Michael’s College in 2002. In 2011, she was recognized by the Vermont Superintendents Association as the best superintendent in the state of Vermont. She also received statewide recognition as a special educator before becoming an administrator.
After Collins gave an introductory statement at Monday’s forum, the floor was open for questions and the first one asked if RNeSU could face the same budget issue Burlington is now dealing with.
Collins offered a lengthy explanation of how the budget fiasco happened. She said the business manager who was on board when she took the job in 2003 wrote his own software to track the district’s budget using outdated DOS programming. She could not access the budget information on the system he created. In 2010, Collins said she let that business manager go. When he left, there was no transitional period with the new business manager, and she said there were inaccurate numbers from the previous business manager’s system. Then that business manager left and Collins hired a third in 2012, who brought in new software and began to recreate the entire budget with a new system.
“We had to build the data into the software,” she said. “There were 1,800 lines of data, and it had to be checked and scrubbed.”
The data was still predicated on the faulty 2011 budget numbers, Collins explained. She said the odd thing about what’s happening in the Burlington district now is that the 2010 and 2011 budgets showed surpluses, while 2012 was the first budget to identify a deficit, but it wasn’t until an audit released in 2013 that identified a second deficit for that year as well.
“In 2014, we were finally able to identify the deficit, in March, but to me, that was exciting because that meant we were finally able to identify a deficit in the budget year we were in,” Collins said. “We had started from zero and based the budget process and the rebuilding of it as if we were opening the doors of the district for the first time.”
Collins also said she was working hand in hand with her school board throughout the changes in business managers and the rebuilding of the budget process with new software. But last year, the board members began to leave and new members came on, and Collins said it was a different board.
“I lost 50 percent of my board this year and 25 percent of my board last year,” she said. “It was not the same board, so to them, it felt like more of a crisis than it was.”
That led to last week’s mutual parting of the ways, Collins said. To answer the initial question, however, Collins said she was well aware of RNeSU Business Manager Brenda Fleming’s qualifications.
“I know of Brenda’s reputation,” she said with a smile.
OV School Board Chair Jim Rademacher asked Collins what she learned from her experience in Burlington.
“I really should have insisted that I bring in a team when I let that business manager go,” she said. “There was no transition team and it would have been better to get the budget in order.”
She also said that with all the media attention surrounding the issue and her resignation, she learned to keep her composure.
“I have to be true to my own values and respect the values of others,” she said. “I keep my head high and respect the views of others. I was the ‘it’ girl and I sold a lot of papers. Also, keeping your eye on the prize, and I understand that the prize is student outcomes.”
It was also noted that Burlington has one board overseeing one budget for a number of schools, while RNeSU has eight schools and eight separate budgets and eight school boards, so that checks and balances are firmly in place. The push to consolidate school districts died during the legislative session that ended last week, and Collins said she is well aware of RNeSU’s stance against consolidation and for preserving its small schools.
“What I value the most is the community’s investment in their schools,” she said. “It’s not about consolidation, it’s about the strength and commitment of community. I will stand up and fight for the small schools. I absolutely accept that requirement.”
When asked how she would prevent her problems in Burlington from following her here and overshadowing the job, Collins said she doesn’t see that happening.
“That problem began four years ago and I was in the process of fixing it,” she said. “But I was dealing with a different board. I don’t imagine it will be the same here. I applied for a new job before all of that, and I was picky about where I wanted to go.”
The executive board and the search committees met after the public forum was over and interviewed Collins a second time. Sudbury School Board and search committee member Darlene Kelly said the forum really informed the board’s questions the second time around.
“We asked her if budget concerns here would overshadow student outcomes,” Kelly said.
Brandon resident Kevin Thornton, also on the executive board, said the group has not ruled out re-posting the position, but that they will continue the process they started to be fair to Collins. This week they will travel to Burlington to conduct one-on-one interviews with school board members, principals and central office staff members who work with Collins.
“After the one-on-one interviews, her process will be done and we’ll make a decision,” he said.
That decision will come at a meeting next Tuesday, May 27.
Kelly said even Collins recognizes that having one candidate isn’t a choice.
“When we were wrapping up last night, Jeanne said she wished there was a candidate to compare her to,” Kelly said. “That left me feeling like she understands where the people are coming from.”
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