Lyme teachers lack confidence in district leadership

By ALEX HANSON

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 05-29-2023 5:40 PM

LYME — The union representing Lyme School teachers has voted no confidence in the School Board and newly hired superintendent.

Beyond its initial statement, contending that the board hired the superintendent outside the planned hiring process and has sought to silence the union and its members, the union has said little about the dispute. Tom Harkins and Kate Cook, co-presidents of the Lyme Education Association, declined further comment in a Wednesday email.

Though it has deeper roots, the dispute stems from the Lyme School Board’s appointment of Frank Perotti as superintendent of SAU 76, which oversees the K-8 Lyme School and the tuition program for the town’s high school students.

Perotti had served as interim superintendent in the wake of the August 2021 departure of Jeffery W. Valence, who as district administrator held the authority of both the superintendent and the Lyme School principal. Last year, the district hired former Lebanon Middle School Principal John D’Entremont as principal, but a candidate for the superintendency turned the job down.

This year, a search committee forwarded two superintendent candidates, Steven Nilhas and Lisa Scolaro, to the School Board, and the board interviewed them both in early February, according to meeting minutes. (Nilhas and Scolaro also were finalists for the Grantham superintendency. The Grantham School Board has not yet announced a new leader.)

But at its March 2 meeting, the Lyme board nominated Perotti and unanimously approved his hiring. Two teachers, Steven Dayno and Susan Merrill, asked the board why it chose to hire Perotti without talking to the union first.

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“Mr. Dayno wants the minutes to reflect that the decision feels unilateral,” the meeting minutes say.

The board talked with Cook and Harkins, the union leaders, at that meeting, and they registered more or less the same complaints, according to minutes from a non-public session.

About an hour after that conversation, the union released a statement announcing its vote of no confidence in the board and the superintendent. The union asked the board to overturn its decision to hire Perotti.

In its statement, the union said the board “violated district procedure,” noting that Perotti “did not apply or interview for the position.” The union also said the board didn’t evaluate Perotti’s performance and “did not seek input from stakeholders … as they did with other candidates.”

The union’s lack of confidence in Perotti stemmed from his acceptance of the job and what the union called his “lack of commitment to the Lyme School.”

“He has been interim superintendent for one year and has attended only one staff meeting,” the union’s statement says. Further, “he often doesn’t respond to emails in a timely manner (or at all) from Lyme School teachers and staff.”

The board opted to hire Perotti both for his long experience and for the sake of continuity after a period of strained relations in the school community. He’s working under a two-year contract.

“The Board complied with all hiring procedures, including its decision to decline to hire either of the two candidates brought forward by the ad hoc superintendent search committee and opted instead to stay with a tried-and-true leader in Dr. Perotti,” the board said in a statement released March 4.

Now in his mid-70s, Perotti’s long career in education has included service in Hartland Elementary School, as superintendent of the Springfield, Vt., School District and the Plainfield School District. In addition to serving part-time in Lyme, he also is the part-time superintendent of the Croydon School District.

“He understands his role as Superintendent, including the level of presence necessary to meet the needs of teachers, parents, and students within the time limitations set by his contract,” the board’s statement says.

The union said it asked for a meeting with Perotti to discuss this issue, and it was rebuffed. The board said Perotti’s refusal was “a proper recognition that such strong-arm tactics have no place in our community, least of all heading into a collective bargaining agreement negotiation year.”

Efforts to reach Perotti late last week were unsuccessful.

Both the board and the union have accused each other of refusing to communicate. It’s not entirely clear how much communication a school board and superintendent are supposed to have with school staff, whose day-to-day work is overseen by the school principal.

“I think it’s different in every situation,” Jerry Frew, associate executive director of the New Hampshire School Administrators Association, said in a phone interview. He spoke generally about administrative structures in school districts and not about Lyme specifically.

A school principal generally evaluates and oversees a school’s staff, while the superintendent is responsible for hiring decisions and for evaluating principals and other administrators, Frew said.

State rules that outline a superintendent’s qualifications and work requirements paint a picture of broad oversight, policymaking and communication, not handling smaller details. Whether answering emails from teachers is included in those duties is unclear.

Lyme has struggled with school leadership in recent years. Valence, a longtime and well-liked principal at Lyme School, took on the superintendent’s duties as well after the 2017 retirement of Mike Harris, who like Perotti served part-time.

But the district struggled in the “district administrator” leadership system, which vested so much authority in one person, and the board was riven by internal conflict. Valence stepped down in August 2021 and was paid a settlement of $34,500.

The board held a series of retreats in December 2021 and decided to return to a leadership model with a part-time superintendent and a full-time principal.

Such a model was intended to forestall the kind of conflict now at work in the district. At a meeting in March 2022, teacher Amanda Burns read a statement from the union expressing dissatisfaction with the board, citing a “lack of transparency,” and noting that some of the board’s key subcommittees weren’t posting minutes from their meetings.

“There’s very important and impactful decisions regarding technology that have been made at some point, but there’s no public record,” Burns said. “It is our right and the right of the public to know when the discussions are happening and which school board members are participating in that. So we want you as a school board and the public to know that the morale around the building continues to be very low. The teachers are not feeling supported by this board. We’ve expressed this sentiment privately and publicly for months.”

The statement asked the board for greater support and input into decision-making.

In an additional comment at that meeting, Steven Dayno, the school’s longest-tenured teacher, took the board to task, noting that the issues surrounding technology at the school had deeper roots. “Let me remind this board that the decision to go to a (district administrator) was a unilateral decision by a previous board. There was no discussion, no input by parents, staff or community members, contrary to a strategic goal for communication and transparency.”

At the board’s subsequent meeting, in April 2022, Chairwoman Yolanda Bujarski read a statement in which she noted that at the prior meeting “many things were said that I believe were based on false information or were said to hurt people.” The board restricted public comment to items on the agenda, and removed from the agenda opportunities for the union and staff to address the board.

“This is an intentional, temporary change,” she said of the union and staff comments, “to encourage comments to the board to come through the proper channels through the superintendent as per policy.”

A year later, those communication issues appear unresolved.

“We have not heard anything more from the LEA,” Bujarski said in an email, calling the union’s no-confidence vote “disappointing.”

“Dr. Perotti has the Board’s unanimous confidence — a confidence that has sometimes been lacking in recent times,” the board said in its March statement. “The Board also looks forward to working with the union and will continue to support all employees of the District, including teachers and other staff.”

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@ vnews.com or 603-727-3207.