Bill Lawson caps quarter century as leader of MUHS
I think consolidation is difficult, I understand people’s pain with that … But it’s something that really does need to occur, and if it doesn’t, the (financial) pressure on the secondary schools will be enormous.
— Bill Lawson
MIDDLEBURY — William Lawson has spent the last quarter-century leading Middlebury Union High School. He’s done it through changes to the state’s education funding formula, the transition to an International Baccalaureate curriculum, a substantial student enrollment decline and discussions about possible school closures in the Addison Central School District.
Now add this: A coronavirus pandemic that’s emptied MUHS and all other schools statewide for the rest of the academic year.
As a result, Lawson, 70, will mark another first in this, his last year as MUHS principal: Governing a school from his home.
“I’d like to do over this last half year,” Lawson chuckled during a recent phone interview. “If you’d told me five years ago I’d be ending my career with no students, no teachers and not even me in the building, I would have laughed. It’s just unreal.”
He called the impact of the coronavirus “the most difficult adjustment and experience that I’ve had.”
That said, except for a spring 2020 do-over, Lawson wouldn’t change much of anything about his 48 years in public education.
“It’s been a great run and a great place,” he said.
It was in July of 1995 that Lawson took over the top administrative spot at MUHS. He had led Greenfield High School in Greenfield, Mass., for seven years before matriculating north to Middlebury. Prior to that, he’d served as an associate principal and teacher at Dennis-Yarmouth Regional School District on Cape Cod.
While anchored in the Bay State, Lawson and his wife, Sherry, felt the pull of Vermont. Sherry’s parents lived in Brandon. They had a small ski camp in Bethel. They enjoyed rural living and all that Vermont had to offer. So when Lawson got wind of the MUHS principal vacancy in 1995, he applied, and got the job. He succeeded Eileen Leavitt.
He joined the MUHS staff at an exciting time.
Enrollment in grades 9-12 was around 850 students, substantially more than the current 541.
Addison Central voters had recently OK’d a major bond issue that paid for extensive renovations to the high school and construction of a separate middle school building. Lawson began his tenure amid the din of hammers and saws.
“My first coupe of years there we had this building project going on,” Lawson recalled. “For a while, I was in a temporary office in a trailer in the circle in front of the school. Those were wild times.”
Still, the construction disruption didn’t keep students from learning. And the building upgrades have, for the most part, stood the test of time, according to Lawson.
“One of the things I feel really good about is we’ve really maintained the building very nicely so that it looks about the way it did when we moved back into it… in 1997,” he said.
Lawson credited Len Denis, a former math teacher, for having designed a computer system for the newly renovated building. That seed has given rise to a good crop of tech infrastructure that’s served students and faculty well during the past two decades, according to Lawson. Local taxpayers are to be commended for “watering” that crop responsibly through investments over the years, to the extent that all MUHS students will be able to study remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“In this day and age, when we’re trying to get computers out to kids who may not have them, we haven’t had to struggle with that at all,” he said. “The computers are there; it’s just a matter of the logistical work needed to clean them up and distribute them.”
Many people deserve credit for the quality of education delivered at MUHS, according to Lawson.
For example, he said ACSD Superintendent Peter Burrows “has brought a lot of energy to the school system” during his seven years on board. He specifically praised Burrows for championing an International Baccalaureate curriculum that is being adopted throughout ACSD schools. Instead of the past pattern of elementary school students bringing disparate educational experiences with them to the middle school and MUHS, they’ll soon have had common instruction under IB.
“I believe strongly that within a few years, people in the high school will see a real difference in terms to students coming to us with very similar instructional experiences, which should be really helpful in enabling students to move ahead,” he said.
Having a supportive community and good leadership has helped MUHS assemble good staff through the years, Lawson noted. He specifically cited Assistant Principal Catherine Dieman, Buildings & Grounds Director Bruce MacIntire and Athletic Director Sean Farrell.
“We’ve always been able to attract highly qualified and energetic teachers and administrators,” he said. “I’ve been blessed to work with terrific colleagues.”
Lawson departs the ACSD at a key moment in its history. In addition to its transition to IB, the district is sizing up repairs to its school buildings. At the same time, officials are weighing which of those buildings are essential to the ACSD’s educational mission, and which are potentially expendable during this era of declining student numbers. Residents may soon be asked to weigh in on school consolidation options.
Some form of school consolidation will likely be necessary in the ACSD, Lawson believes. In addition to the constant financial pressure caused by dwindling enrollment and rising per-pupil costs, Lawson said state revenues will take a big hit from the COVID-19 pandemic that has seen many layoffs and temporary business closures. The postponement of tax filing dates is also going to exacerbate the school finance situation, Lawson believes.
“It’s important we run as efficient a system overall as we can,” he said.
He recalled there were five elementary schools serving Greenfield when he began serving that district. By the time he left for MUHS seven years later, Greenfield had three.
“I think consolidation is difficult, I understand people’s pain with that,” Lawson said. “But it’s something that really does need to occur, and if it doesn’t, the (financial) pressure on the secondary schools will be enormous.”
So the ACSD is facing some momentous decisions.
“There’s still a lot of work to be done, and part of the difficulty for me is that I wish I could be a part of that,” Lawson said. “But I’m getting along (in age) and there are things I want to do and see before my time comes.”
The Lawsons, too, face big decisions. They currently live in a big house on 109 acres in Middlebury. A small portion of that acreage hosts a 200-plant vineyard that yields nice Marquette grapes.
“I basically produce cooking wines,” Lawson said with a chuckle. “I just enjoy tending to the grapes.”
But he and Sherry are resigned to giving up the grapes, big house and all that acreage for a smaller place. Perhaps back in Massachusetts. Bill enjoys reading, biking, sailing and fishing, and the couple still has a home on the Cape.
The Lawsons have a son, Nathaniel, and a daughter, Sarah.
“I probably will spend a significant amount of time (on Cape Cod), being out on the water,” Lawson said, “but I’m not sure about totally giving up Vermont, because I really enjoy the rural nature of where we are here. We haven’t quite figured it out yet.”
He’ll look back fondly on his time at MUHS, which he conceded has been lengthy based on school system standards.
“For principals and superintendents, the average lifespan in any one spot is about three years, these days,” Lawson said. “But I’ve always found this to be a great place to work, so I’ve stayed and really enjoyed it.”
He confessed the last month of isolation has given him an early preview of what retirement might be like.
“There’s stuff to do, but it’s not the same intensity as in school, when you have things flying at you,” he said. “You don’t know what’s going to walk through the door in the next five minutes. All of that’s gone right now; it’s just email and writing projects and stuff like that. It’s much calmer.”
ACSD board Chair Mary Cullinane thanked Lawson for his many years of service.
“After dedicating so much of your life, as an educator, to the service of others, I can imagine you have in your mind what your last day in a building or classroom will look like,” she said. “While Bill’s journey is ending differently than he intended, his impact remains unaltered. On behalf of the board, we thank him and wish for him an enjoyable and restful retirement.”
John Flowers is at [email protected]
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