Jim Kenyon: A Failure to Communicate in Claremont

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

As I watched the 12-member board that governs Claremont and Unity schools wrestle on Thursday night with how to go about replacing Superintendent Middleton McGoodwin, a couple of things came to mind:

By abruptly ousting McGoodwin — for reasons they’re not divulging — SAU 6 board members have created a lot of unnecessary work for themselves. This summer, they must find an interim superintendent to get the district through the upcoming school year. Only then can they turn their attention to finding McGoodwin’s long-term successor.

More importantly, board members are costing taxpayers in their hardscrabble communities a lot of money — roughly $110,000. In a school district where the starting teacher’s pay is under $35,000 annually, that’s enough to cover the first-year salaries of three teachers.

Whether the decision to spend that kind of money is wise is impossible to determine because board members refuse to discuss their rationale. They won’t even disclose how they voted on the matter.

Talk about a train wreck.

But this is what happens when elected officials take it upon themselves to conduct the public’s business in secret.

On May 10, the board met behind closed doors. Not even McGoodwin was invited. By the end of the session, the board had “voted to pursue other leadership of the SAU 6 at the end of the current school year.”

The only reason we know this is because Valley News correspondent Patrick O’Grady obtained a copy of the letter that board members Sara Lowe, Mike Petrin and Frank Sprague hand-delivered to McGoodwin at his office nearly two weeks after the deed.

Apparently, it didn’t matter to board members that McGoodwin, who was hired in 2011, was under contract for three more years. They opted to exercise a provision in the contract that allowed them to “terminate” the agreement, which ran through June 2021, if they so desired.

But there was a catch: SAU 6 would have to continue paying McGoodwin for the next six months.

On Thursday, the school district cut McGoodwin a check for $85,044 to cover a $65,000 buyout fee and other fringe benefits. (He’ll also receive a year of health insurance coverage.) In addition, the board expects to spend $25,000 of taxpayer money on its search for a new superintendent.

The board learned at Thursday’s meeting that the unbudgeted expenditures leave SAU 6 with a projected $24,156 deficit. They’re hoping to make it up through staff changes, including going without an assistant superintendent this summer while Cory LeClair, who holds the position, fills in for McGoodwin.

LeClair told the board that it shouldn’t expect much in terms of strategic planning, grant writing or “curriculum work” while an interim superintendent is in place. “We’ll be more status quo than moving forward (for the) next year,” she said.

Since the board refuses to say why it could no longer tolerate having McGoodwin in the $130,000-a-year job, the public is left to draw its own conclusions.

I suspect personalities had a lot to do with it. Last fall, McGoodwin, who could come across as a bit arrogant, ticked off the board, which has its share of big egos, during budget talks. Instead of reducing the proposed budget, as the board had asked, he increased it.

What the board had in mind would “destroy the district,” McGoodwin argued. He eventually relented but not before the board chastised him for deliberately ignoring its orders.

To his credit, McGoodwin continued to work through Friday — his final day. When I stopped by unannounced Wednesday afternoon, he was writing principals’ evaluations. We talked about his approach to being a school superintendent.

“I don’t work for the School Board, I work for students,” he told me. “I won’t be a bobblehead.”

Looking back at what happened between September 2016 when McGoodwin was awarded the contract extension slated to begin today and the board’s decision to tear it up, I’d say he lost a numbers game. Five of the seven current Claremont representatives came aboard after the extension was approved. Neither of the holdovers voted for the extension. (Sprague abstained and Michele Pierce hadn’t attended the 2016 meeting.)

Marjorie Erickson, of Unity, who was voted in as board chair after McGoodwin’s ouster, talked at Thursday’s meeting about wanting to “promote consensus” and becoming more transparent in dealings with the public.

Erickson might be well intentioned, but if she thinks the McGoodwin debacle is in the board’s rearview mirror, I’m afraid she’s mistaken.

Last week, I talked with Gilles Bissonnette, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire, about the six-page “confidential separation agreement” that the board is using for cover.

The board may be determined to keep the public in the dark about why it wanted McGoodwin out, but Bissonnette questioned whether documents relating to McGoodwin’s sacking would be exempt from the state’s public records law.

“The exemption is not automatic,” Bissonnette said. “The public has a right to know the circumstances concerning the dismissal of the city’s top educator, especially when that dismissal was accompanied by a payout.”

McGoodwin, 71, told me that at his age, he wasn’t sure that he would have stayed through 2021. But he would have given the board plenty of notice to allow for a smooth transition.

With one closed-door meeting, the board has made sure it will be anything but that.

 Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.