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Teacher’s leave-of-absence case highlights changes at Bristol schools

BRISTOL — Bridget Nardiello is taking a leap she never thought she’d have to take.
After teaching 15 years at Bristol Elementary School, the Bristol resident applied for an unpaid leave of absence so she could be with and support her son, Francis, during his senior year (2018–19) 700 miles away at a high school in Ohio, where he is playing highly competitive soccer. (Click here to read about this soccer phenom.)
Nardiello told the Mount Abraham Unified School District board that she would find a one-year position teaching in a new environment, grow as an educator, then bring back to her Bristol classroom what she had learned.
But the school board, following Superintendent Patrick Reen’s recommendation, voted 6-5 on March 27 to deny her request.
The denial surprised some 5-Town educators given the routine way such leaves of absence had been granted in the past, before the school district unified.
Reen explained his reasoning.
“Some employees are losing their jobs next year and all they want is to continue working,” said Reen in a statement, referring to the FY 2019 district spending plan approved by 5-Town voters March 6. The spending plan will eliminate the equivalent of five full-time elementary school teachers.
“Under these circumstances I could not ethically recommend that the MAUSD board approve (Nardiello’s) request to take a year away while we hold a position for her,” he wrote.
The moment 15-year-old Francis Nardiello Smith pulled out of his Bristol driveway last August to head to Ohio and pursue his soccer dreams, Nardiello began to wonder what she’d be missing. Would he still need her? Was she doing the right thing?
For more than half his life Francis had played soccer at a level far beyond his years, first with Burlington’s Synergy Football Club, then in the Olympic Development Program. Now he was headed for an Ohio academy designed to produce professional soccer players.
Over the next several months, however, Francis became disillusioned with the cutthroat world of U.S. Soccer Development.
The last weekend of September, after Francis had suffered a series of setbacks, his mom drove through the night to bring him a talisman.
Nardiello’s grandfather had put himself through medical school by boxing, then gone on to become a boxing commissioner in New York City and the house doctor at Madison Square Garden. Upon retiring he had received from the city a pair of Golden Glove cufflinks, which had over the years been passed down through the family until Nardiello and her sister each possessed one.
She thought it was time to pass hers on.
“That weekend was a turning point for me,” Francis said. The visit and the cufflink helped him transcend his disappointment and refocus on the pursuit of his dreams.
But it was not lost on Francis that his mom had spent more time in the car that weekend than she had in Ohio.
PRECEDENTS
Before they agreed to consolidate under Act 46, the Mount Abe Unified district’s individual school boards had a long history of approving leave requests.
An elementary school principal and a high school English teacher spent the 2012–13 school year teaching in the Caribbean.
That spring a guidance counselor was granted leave to hike the Appalachian Trail.
In 2015 an elementary school teacher took a year off with paid health insurance to travel the country by bicycle and then teach in Ghana, West Africa.
And a year ago a literacy specialist won the district’s blessing to take a year off to continue writing a novel.
Nardiello’s supporters found themselves unable to reconcile the board’s stance with the MAUSD’s stated mission to welcome “flexibility and creativity as a single district” and to include “support for faculty and staff” among its focus areas.
“I think it’s really important to think about who we are and what we stand for as a school,” said fellow Bristol Elementary  5/6-grade teacher Andrea Murnane before the MAUSD board voted. “It would be a really great message for you all to send, that when someone’s given (so many) years of their life to a school that you value them as people as well as educators in your district. She’s an incredible educator and an incredible mom.”
Bristol Elementary educational assistant Julie Clark agreed:
“It would be sad to miss her for that long, but the diversity of experience that she could bring back to our school, I think, would be invaluable. Showing support for her journey would send a message about what we value as a community, and that’s family and children.”
Even Francis, himself, who was home from Ohio on spring break, was unable to sway the board.
“I’m still a kid,” he said. “I don’t have nearly as much experience or knowledge as you guys, but one thing I do know: you have an opportunity to potentially change the trajectory of my life. I know that I’m just one kid that grew up in this community, but I’ve loved every minute of it, and I miss it very much. If there’s a way where it could also help someone else in the district or the school to have an opportunity to be in my mother’s room while she helped me achieve my dreams and perhaps gained some sort of knowledge and skills to bring back to the school, I think that could be a win-win situation for the community.”
It was a challenging decision for the board, said board Chair Dawn Griswold.
“The board was deliberate and thoughtful in considering this request,” she told the Independent. “We debated the pros and cons and as was evidenced by the vote, it was a hard decision.
“We are heading into the next three months ready, willing and able to continue to get things in order for the new district and I appreciate everyone’s effort in our work, and their willingness to tackle both the easy and hard decisions,” she added.
NEXT STEPS
The school board extended the deadline to April 30 for Nardiello to sign her contract to teach at Bristol Elementary next year. On the eve of that deadline, Nardiello said she would not sign it.
“I’ve been carrying that envelope around in my father’s leather bag since the first week of April, and every time I saw it in there I would get sick to my stomach,” she said. “Today is the first day that didn’t happen.”
She has put her house up for rent and begun interviewing for teaching positions in Ohio.
“No matter what, I’m going to let someone down, but it can’t be my son,” she said.
“I’m not only disappointed for Bridget, I’m disappointed in the district,” said former Bristol Elementary teacher Rebecca Zavadil, who now teaches in Hinesburg. “Bridget is an incredible educator. She teaches to the whole child. She’s not being valued as she ought to be, and it’s heartbreaking to see her family go through this.”
Nardiello plans to return to Vermont after Francis’s senior year, but she has no idea what the future will hold.
“My job, as a teacher, as a parent, has always been to hold everything together, to ‘keep the light on,’” she said. “We’re going through stuff right now, but I will continue to keep that light on.”
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].

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