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Jim O’Connor of Pownal (center) making his case to the board about amending verbiage in current hiring policy. (Elizabeth Conkey)
Jim O’Connor of Pownal (center) making his case to the board about amending verbiage in current hiring policy. (Elizabeth Conkey)
Jim O’Connor of Pownal (center) making his case to the board about amending verbiage in current hiring policy. (Elizabeth Conkey)

ELIZABETH A. CONKEY

Staff Writer

BENNINGTON -- The Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union opened the door Thursday to potentially hiring a superintendent lacking traditional qualifications.

A motion by Pownal representative Jim O'Connor led to a lengthy discussion by the SVSU board, which culminated in a 6-3 vote to ask the state to grant a partial waiver to the current hiring policy.

The requested change -- which would do away with the need for a superintendent to possess prior teaching and administrative experience -- could potentially allow the SVSU's chief financial officer, Richard Pembroke, to assume the superintendent's job.

Superintendent Catherine McClure recently announced her intention to retire, spurring a search for a replacement.

O'Connor drafted a detailed request to amend the hiring policy before Thursday's meeting and gave it to SVSU Board Chairwoman Sean-Marie Oller after the vote. Oller will forward the request to state Education Secretary Armando Vilaseca for consideration.

Board members opposed to the motion voiced concerns about the potential outcome of a waiver.

"We want an education leader who has degrees," SVSU Vice Chairwoman Cynthia Brownell said. "We're opening ourselves up for any ‘Joe Schmo' on the street to be the superintendent. I don't want to put anyone in that position who isn't qualified."

North Bennington representative Raymond Mullineaux said he was also opposed, speculating in an interview Friday that the request by O'Connor was premeditated, and that a potential candidate who might fit the bill, if the request is approved by Vilaseca, has already been identified.

"I have a theory of who it could be," Mullineaux said. "It was pointed out at the meeting that to do this, we would have to have a certain candidate in mind. I doubt they would approve the request if we didn't."

When O'Connor was asked directly during the meeting if he was trying to open the door for Pembroke to step in as superintendent, he said, "absolutely not," a response which caused visible frustration and doubt amongst the board.

O'Connor noted that he "was advised" to investigate changing certain sections of the statute and that he had met with eight or nine members of the Vermont Department of Education seeking advice on how to proceed.

When pressed again by SVSU board members if he had a candidate in mind for the superintendent's job, O'Connor, "I was asked not to name any names" by state officials.

Prior to the vote, the board reviewed two separate proposals for superintendent search services, one from the Vermont School Boards Association and the other by the New England School Development Council's executive director, Arthur Bettencourt.

The VSBA suggested hiring consultant Joseph Silver, who has history working with the SVSU, and presented two hiring plans, including a search for an interim superintendent and that of a permanent superintendent.

According to the material provided at the meeting, the cost of an interim process through the VSBA would total $4,750, while the cost for a full search would total $8,000.

NESDEC proposed four levels of executive search services to the board, with fees ranging from $3,000 to $13,000.

During the final stretch of Thursday's meeting, the board voted unanimously to proceed with a superintendent search with help from NESDEC, without waiting for an answer from Vilaseca, leaving those who opposed making changes to the hiring policy with a hope that a traditionally qualified candidate might still be hired to replace McClure.

In an interview Friday, Oller said of the decision, "I don't want controversy over the statutes to prevent the SVSU from moving forward with hiring a qualified superintendent."

When asked how she would have voted, had she been given the opportunity during the meeting, Oller said," I would have voted no."

She said, however, that the community may feel it could benefit from a superintendent working in a more "managerial" role, as opposed to that of an educator. 

"I hope to hear from people in the community and in the five towns about how they feel about this," Oller said. "If nobody cares, maybe making that change would be OK and we should consider it. This is just the beginning," she added. "We're not closing the door."

Attempts to contact Pembroke for comment were unsuccessful Friday. The SVSU board of directors is scheduled to meet again on Sept. 26.

Contact Elizabeth A. Conkey at econkey@benningtonbanner.com or follow on Twitter @bethconkey.