Hartford School Board clashes with educators over plan for two superintendent-level salaries 

Peter Merrill, of Quechee, Vt., left, and Dave Harris, of Wilder, Vt., chat before the start of the Hartford school and town budget information session at Hartford High School in White River Junction, Vt., on March 2, 2019. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Peter Merrill, of Quechee, Vt., left, and Dave Harris, of Wilder, Vt., chat before the start of the Hartford school and town budget information session at Hartford High School in White River Junction, Vt., on March 2, 2019. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Geoff Hansen

by CHRISTINA DOLAN

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 02-15-2024 8:01 PM

HARTFORD — A group of Hartford school administrators walked out of a school board meeting Wednesday night after board members refused to allow them to read a letter during public comment and one board member accused the educators of trying to “propagandize” elected officials.

At issue is the school board’s decision to begin a superintendent search a year early, which means that Hartford would pay two superintendent-level salaries next school year as the new hire overlaps with Superintendent Tom DeBalsi’s final year.

The two-page letter, signed by 18 members of the district’s administrative council — composed of principals, vice principals and program directors — raises objections to the ongoing search. The letter takes issue with the expense of paying two salaries, a lack of transparency in the search process and a lackluster commitment to diversity and equity on the part of the consultants conducting the search.

Given the challenges to the budget process this year, “paying two superintendent salaries is not financially responsible,” the administrative council’s letter stated.

DeBalsi has announced plans to retire at the end of the 2024-2025 school year, and the district has contracted with Nebraska-based executive search firm MacPherson & Jacobson to assist with the hiring process. The fiscal year ’25 school budget includes $218,000 in salary and benefits for the new superintendent. The contract stipulates that the district will pay an amount not to exceed $16,375 for the search. As of Feb. 9, Hartford has paid $5,900 to MacPherson & Jacobson, said Jacob Vezina, the district’s finance director, in an email.

Several members of the council came to Wednesday night’s school board meeting hoping to read their letter during the public comment portion of the meeting.

The school board voted to include the letter in the meeting minutes but objected to a word-for-word recitation of it, which members felt would be time-consuming and unengaging.

Board Chairman Kevin Christie added that the issues in the letter could be confidential and “kind of touchy” for a public session.

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A member of the council noted that the school board’s public comment guidelines allowed them to participate, but when one of the administrators started to read from the letter, she was abruptly cut off by board member Peter Merrill.

“I’m sorry, no,” Merrill said. “This is a chance for us to have a conversation, not to be a forum to get your viewpoint across.”

“We are not here to be propagandized to,” he said, to audible gasps from those in the room.

Almost as soon as he’d finished his sentence, members of the administrative council rose and walked out of the room.

“That’s a little childish,” Christie said as they departed.

But the board members faced immediate pushback from others at the meeting.

Mary Gannon, the district’s equity consultant, called the board’s behavior “dehumanizing.”

“You invited them here. These are people who are members of your staff who are under intense pressure,” she said. “This is a bad look.”

“I ask you to do better,” White River Junction resident Michelle Boleski said via Zoom. This is not the first time that “people have been disrespected when sharing things before the board,” she said.

A few minutes after the walkout, Merrill said, “I was not as artful as I might have been in my comments, but the board needs to control the meeting.”

The letter, which the administrators distributed to meeting attendees, expressed a lack of confidence in MacPherson & Jacobson’s commitment to equity following a series of January meetings with staff, administrators, parents and teachers.

“After one meeting with stakeholders, the consultants commented that even if we are committed to hiring with diversity in mind, we were most likely going to hire another white man,” the letter reads.

The letter recommends forming a committee that includes people from all identity groups, “especially those most marginalized within our district” to assist with the hiring process.

The administrative council’s letter also expressed a frustration with what was deemed as a lack of transparency and asked for better communication from the district, including “the specifics of Mr. DeBalsi’s role next year if the board moves forward with two superintendents.”

Reached by email Thursday, DeBalsi said that he was saddened by what happened at Wednesday’s meeting.

“I have the greatest appreciation and admiration for the work of these extremely talented professionals,” he wrote, and said that it could have been handled differently, “but sadly, it was not.”

The administrative council met with DeBalsi on Thursday, Erika Schneider, Hartford Area Career and Technical Center Director, said, acknowledging that the district is weathering an unprecedented budget cycle. “We support his leadership through this process and throughout the implementation of the budget next year,” she said by email Thursday.

She declined to comment about Wednesday’s meeting.

For his part, Merrill expressed regret Thursday for his interaction with the council. “I am trying to take responsibility for it,” he said.

Addressing the content of the administrative council’s letter, Merrill acknowledged that there “has not been as much clarity about the search as there might be” because of focus on the budget process, which has been unusually complex and time consuming this year.

DeBalsi announced in a letter to community members Tuesday that the state legislature’s repeal of the 5% tax increase cap for education spending caused the district’s projected property rate to increase by 39%, and it is “not reasonable to ask taxpayers to accept that.”

The board has asked him to revisit the budget and reduce the tax impact to no more than 18.5%. Although the numbers are still a “moving target,” DeBalsi said, the revision will require an overall reduction of the school budget by about 10%.

The school board is in a holding pattern, awaiting the passage of H.850, a piece of legislation that will formally allow school districts to rescind their budgets and reschedule their annual school meetings. Although the bill is still under consideration and may be amended, it may also compensate districts for the financial cost of delaying budget votes.

Merrill said Thursday that one option in looking at the budget is to remove the superintendent search: “Putting off the search to save money is something I proposed, but it was not supported.”

He said, though, that given the outcry against having two superintendent level salaries, the board may revisit the issue.

Christina Dolan can be reached at cdolan@vnews.com or 603-727-3208.