mau meets

Mount Anthony Union School District Board Chairman Timothy Holbrook, center, and members Leon Johnson, right, and Superintendent James Culkeen, left, listen during a board meeting Wednesday. Spanish teacher Jennifer Austin was named the new middle school associate principal.

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BENNINGTON — The Mount Anthony Union School Board has filled a vacant associate middle school principal’s position, representing the third of four administrative changes this year among top posts at the high school and the middle school.

The board on Wednesday accepted Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union Superintendent James Culkeen’s recommendation to hire middle school Spanish teacher Jennifer Austin to replace Christopher Maguire as associate middle school principal.

Maguire, who was appointed last month to the middle school principal’s position, strongly endorsed Austin’s hiring during the meeting.

RAPID CHANGE

Maguire’s new job became open when former middle school Principal Timothy Payne was appointed last month as the new principal of the high school.

The MAU District found itself scrambling in early August to fill four administrator positions, after former high school Principal Stephen Nixon left in the wake of a board decision not to renew his contract past end of the school year.

The district also has to replace associate high school Principal Christopher Barnes, who left around the same time to become principal at the Gill-Montague Regional School District in Massachusetts.

The departures set off the chain reaction of administrative change. After the board approved hiring Austin on Wednesday, only the associate high school principal post once held by Barnes remains open.

However, Culkeen said Thursday that advertisements last month seeking a replacement did not produce a possible replacement.

He said in an email, “The application process failed to produce a candidate for the position. We are going to regroup and re-advertise at a future date.”

The board at its August meeting also approved an undisclosed separation agreement with Nixon, which was discussed in executive session, and approved moving Payne to the high school to replace Nixon as principal.

At the same meeting, the board also approved Maguire as a replacement for Payne as principal at the middle school.

SPANISH TEACHER

According to paperwork submitted with Culkeen’s recommendation to hire Austin, he said her position will pay $93,905 annually, which officials said Wednesday reflects terms and specifications in the current contract with the employee association representing the 12 SVSU administrators.

Austin was expected to begin work as middle school associate principal on Thursday. She obtained a bachelor’s degree in Spanish and secondary education from the University of Vermont in 1994 and received a master’s degree in education in 2012 from Southern New Hampshire University.

She taught Spanish at the middle school from 1995 to 2005, before serving as the Turning Point in-house facilitator at the school from 2005 to 2012. Austin has taught Spanish at the middle school since 2012 and now has 26 years of teaching experience.

She was one of two applicants interviewed by a four-person group that included Maguire.

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SETTLEMENT DETAILS

During its August meeting, the board entered a brief executive session, apparently to discuss legal issues involving a separation agreement with Nixon, which extended through the end of the school year.

Afterward, the board voted to authorize the superintendent to execute a prepared agreement with Nixon, the terms of which were not discussed in open session.

During the MAU meeting Wednesday, Mary Gerisch, moderator of the Southwest Vermont Union Elementary School District, asked if the details of the agreement with Nixon will be released to the public, indicating she was considering a public records request for the information.

If public funding is involved, she said, the taxpayers should have a right to know more of the details.

Board Chairman Timothy Holbrook said it is board policy to confer with legal counsel before discussing such an issue. But he said that would be done prior to the next meeting.

“We will be in touch with our attorney and be able to respond to your questions next time,” Holbrook said.

Gerisch was one of six residents who sued the MAU district in 2016 over alleged meeting law violations prior to and during the selection of former high school Principal Glenda Cresto in 2015.

Cresto, whose hiring proved controversial among many school staff members when she was hired over then-Assistant Principal Michael Molloy, left the school system in August 2017.

She first said she would leave at the end of that school year, when her contract would end, but she and the board then reached a separation agreement that called for her to leave immediately but be paid through June.

At the time of the open meeting lawsuit, Gerisch said the plaintiffs wanted the board to adopt a policy for conducting its open meetings and executive sessions, and a clear policy for how searches for principals and other employees are to be conducted.

A settlement agreement among the parties was reached about a month prior to a February court date for a trial in the suit.

LEFT IN AUGUST

Culkeen sent an email early last month to staff members, stating that Nixon and Barnes “will no longer be with the school district as of the start of the 2021-2022 school year.”

He wrote that as of Aug. 6, Payne would be “administrator in charge” of the high school and Maguire administrator in charge of the middle school, decisions the board later formalized.

Culkeen also responded in August to an email seeking further comment, saying that “Principal Nixon is currently out on leave. The MAU board had previously provided him with notification that his contract would not be renewed after the 2021-2022 school year.”

Jim Therrien writes for Vermont News and Media, including the Bennington Banner, Manchester Journal and Brattleboro Reformer. Email jtherrien@benningtonbanner.com

Reporter/editor

Jim Therrien reports for the three Vermont News and Media newspapers in Southern Vermont. He previously worked as a reporter and editor at the Berkshire Eagle, the Bennington Banner, the Springfield Republican, and the former North Adams Transcript.


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