contract is extended as local debate deepens: Burlington’s school board has
given Superintendent Jeanne Collins two more years, but debate over racism has
revealed divergent views about coded language, intimidating behavior, and the continuing
need for change. Story
and videos by Greg Guma
VT – The five hours of discussion leading up to an eventual school board vote
to extend the contract of Burlington’s superintendent for two years offers a
poignant demonstration of how difficult it can be to openly discuss racial
of the meeting was consumed with parliamentary matters – whether to hold an
executive session, whether discussion either in public or private could include
an already completed evaluation of Superintendent Jeanne Collins, repeated requests
for legal opinions from school board counsel Joe McNeil, and confusion over whether
a motion represented an agenda change or merely a deletion. There was also the
impact of Collins’ decision, midway through the evening, to let her contract
and evaluation be debated in an open session.
very few remarks had been squeezed in about the specific complaints or the underlying
problems that have fueled the dispute.
|ELL students from Somalia|
protest outside BHS.
Appel, executive director of the Vermont Human Rights Commission, pointed to
this difficult dynamic in a letter following up with the school board after a particularly
intense meeting in May. About one hundred parents, teachers and students had
turned out to speak in favor and against the handling of diversity, equity, and
harassment by school officials, particularly Superintendent Collins. Some were
already urging the board not to renew her contract.
who attended and spoke, wrote afterward that he was encouraged to see “white
people with power honestly grappling with, and attempting to move the
conversation about the school community climate forward.” Conflict and tensions
in Burlington could be an opportunity if leaders can “rise to the challenge,”
he argued. “This means leaders embracing rather than avoiding the necessary
problem, however, is a “seemingly circular conversation.” As a result, wrote
Appel, “little concrete progress has been accomplished despite this repeated
rhetorical commitment to change the culture and close the various identified
gaps between white middle-class students and others.”
DISSONANCE: In May students, parents and teachers brought a strong message to
the school board: they were tired of waiting for a serious work to address
racism and unequal treatment. Dozens of people addressed the board for more
than two hours, many calling for the resignation or replacement of Superintendent
Collins and other members of the administration.
Local tension had increased since the release of a new diversity, equity and
inclusion plan, its rebuttal by a math teacher, and a protest outside the high
At the June 13 school board meeting that continued a discussion
of Collins’ overall performance and contract begun after public testimony the
previous evening, one response was to adopt what board Chair Keith Pillsbury
called a “more rigorous evaluation process” for the superintendent. Over the
next few months, the commissioners agreed, a voluntary ad hoc committee will
work with her to develop specific, measurable goals.
But the meeting stumbled over whether discussion
of Collins’ contract should occur in public or executive session. Without any vote the contract would have
automatically continued until June 30, 2014. Ultimately, the board voted 9-5 to
reaffirm that agreement.
One group of board members, including those
who later voted to terminate the contract in one year, wanted a private
discussion before taking a public vote. Most of those supporting the
superintendent opposed the executive session. The result was a tie vote,
spelling defeat of the move to exclude the public and press.
Chairman Pillsbury supported the public
route. “People want to know our thinking,” he said. But Board member Meredith King
accused him of “managing the story” on behalf of Collins since criticism
erupted over the district’s handle of a new Strategic Plan for diversity,
equity, and inclusion. “We’ve being sitting here for two months while the
issues swirled around us,” she charged, adding that Pillsbury had made it
difficult to go into executive session for a frank discussion.
King was one of several commissioners who
felt that the school board has been “put in a corner” by the actions of its
administration and the board leadership. Commissioner Jill Evans called Pillsbury’s
handling of the matter “problematic,” and wanted to add that to the executive session
Haik Bedrosian and Catherine Chasan were equally
adamant in support of Collins. Bedrosian led the successful charge to drop the
executive session, attempted to adjourn the meeting before a vote on the
contract could be taken, and described non-renewal as “firing” the
superintendent. After attempts not to renew and to offer a compromise six-month
extension failed, Chasan pushed for the affirmative vote to extend the contract
until 2014, although that was not required.
training at City Hall?
Only a handful of observers remained in the
cavernous auditorium at Burlington High School by the time the school commissioners
voted. But the issues raised by the dispute over school leadership on racism
and equity are about to spill over into city government.
Vince Brennan, the Progressive city councilor
who chaired the Diversity and Equity Strategic Plan task force and later became
one of the first to call for Collins’ replacement, has joined with Independent
Karen Paul and Rachel Siegel, also a Progressive, on a related resolution for
the June 25 city council meeting.
The resolution is still being drafted, and
may include proposals concerning the city’s hiring and minority retention
policies. In its current form, distributed by Brennan at a recent school board
meeting, it already calls for anti-racist training of all city employees, the
city council, and more than 100 commissioners. If approved, development of the
program would begin this fall, with training that commences no later than next
It also asks the city administration to
develop an ad hoc committee by July 16, including experts in anti-racist
training, local stakeholders, department representatives and council members,
to plan and implement the proposed training program. The draft acknowledges
that the cost of such a program is not insignificant, but argues that it “can
be a strong beginning to addressing racism, both overt and subtle, in our
ON EQUITY: In early April racial disparities turned out to be the main event at
the first working session of the City Council after a new mayor took charge.
Students of color are 27 percent of the student body in Burlington’s public
schools, according to a Task Force report, and more Black students drop out of
school. They're less likely to take SAT tests and more likely to be suspended.
The report was supposed to set the stage for a strategic plan to address
diversity, equity and inclusion. On April 16 School Superintendent Collins and
Board Chair Pillsbury outlined the efforts that led to its recommendations. But
not everyone was satisfied. Some teachers said they had been excluded, and
residents pointed to ongoing racial disparities.
David Hartnett, although an unlikely supporter for an anti-racism training resolution, recently
made a related point in his regular column for the North Avenue News. Hartnett,
who managed Republican Kurt Wright’s campaign for mayor last winter, disagrees with
Brennan about how well Burlington’s schools are doing. “While imperfect, the
schools are doing a very good job.” But he wrote that “all of Burlington
needs to be part of the solution.”
the bigger picture, said Hartnett, “this is not just about the schools. As a
whole community we need to do better.”
attended the Tuesday school board meeting and spoke up for Collins. “No one
asked me to come,” he noted before arguing that “she is capable of doing what
is right” and it would be a “huge mistake not to retain her.”
Trust and Heated Language
began last October with an ambitious plan for top-to-bottom educational change
-- training for everyone, more people of color and “culturally competent”
staff, better leadership and accountability, increased transparency, and a
“multicultural mindset” – has turned into a sometimes painful but much broader
community debate over the persistence of institutional racism, and even how the
problems are discussed.
dueling press conferences last week in the run up to the school board’s
decision, supporters and critics of the current leadership attempted to define
the problem using often stark language.
Bishop Thomas Ely called racism “a deeply rooted disease of the soul,” and
suggested that Collins may have experienced a “conversion” since admitting that
she was slow to address the problems.
Joshua Chasan, a leading Collins supporter who organized the press event on the
back steps of City Hall, took the opportunity to apologize for having
previously used the term “bullying” to describe some criticism of the
superintendent. However, he argued that he was just responding to the unfair charge
that some school board members were racist. Chasen concluded that he should
have said “intimidating.”
was grateful to the high school students, he said, mainly to the new American
students in ELL classes who protested about their treatment and image in April.
But he viewed Collins’ “slowness to see the dimensions of the problem,” along
with her “capacity to apologize,” in a hopeful context. In background
information provided to the media, he went further, predicting “social
breakdown” and “communal meltdown” if any move was made to replace her in
response to criticisms.
RACISM: On April 19 English language (ELL) students were joined by local activists
and parents for a morning protest a few feet from the front door of Burlington
High School. The students felt unfairly judged by outdated tests and objected
to statistics that they felt correlates poverty with poor academic performance.
Despite progress or promises of change in the new strategic plan for diversity,
equity and inclusion, they said racism remained a real and persistent problem.
days after religious leaders held a press conference in late May, an ad hoc group met at the Fletcher Library to repeat the call for
non-renewal of the contract. Erik Wallenberg said that trust had been “eroded
beyond repair as a result of her (Collins’) years of resistance, and
demonization of those who raise concerns.” He and others claimed that the
school administration was doing the intimidating.
can’t overcome the betrayal,” Wallenberg claimed. “We need transformational
Comerford, a parent with two children attending local schools, accused the
school district of spending money on public relations to frame the issue as “divisive
and bullying.” She meanwhile faulted the media for focusing only on racial
inequities. The issue is “more than about just race,” Comerford said, “it is
about the needs of kids with disabilities, of children from low-income
families, and about new American children’s education, whatever their skin
and equity consultant Denise Dunbar, a Hinesberg resident, went after the idea,
expressed by some people who have spoken at public meetings, that they are
“colorblind” or “don’t see race.” Dunbar called such language “a newer face of
liberal denial” and, quoting Angela Davis, suggested that claims of color
blindness are “camouflaged racism.”
the board’s Tuesday meeting several speakers made a point of saying that they
are not colorblind.
in authority are involved in a “cultural war” that upholds the status quo and
uses coded language like “civil” and “bully” to define insiders and outsiders,
Dunbar charged. She also faulted the religious leaders who met earlier for taking
Collins’ side, and for “a demonization of advocates and stakeholders for equity
remarks can cut deep. There have also been accusations that both teacher and
student voices have been “squelched and discredited.” During the debate some of
those who spoke, and a few on the board, expressed concern about the larger effects
of what some called “poisonous” or “dangerous” rhetoric. Hartnett has charged
that the local debate “is on the verge of being destructive.”
the school board’s decision approached last night, however, the appeals became
more nuanced. Brennan did not reiterate his call for Collins’ replacement.
Instead, he called her recent missteps unfortunate while agreeing that some
things have begun to change.
Roy Hill, a Collins supporter who is president of the Vermont Ecumenical
Council and Bible Society, also struck a tone of reconciliation, while warning
against targeting scapegoats. Others
said it simply wasn’t the best time for someone new as superintendent.
Rep. Suzy Wizowati, a Diversity Now supporter, concluded that blaming one
person for the community’s problems is a mistake, like “expecting one person to
change the world.”
Accusations of Intimidation
response to mounting criticism Superintendent Collins has released an action
plan, based on recommendations in the original Strategic Plan, and has pledged
to “eliminate race, ethnicity, class, gender, and sexual orientation as
predictors of academic performance, discipline, and co-curricular
steps she has described include strengthening complaint procedures, upgrading
professional development, reorganizing administrative staffing to improve the
handling of equity issues, improving retention of a more diverse staff, and
creating an Equity Climate Team to monitor and follow up on incidents.
critics say that they have heard such promises before and do not believe, based
on its past performance, that the current administration is up to the
print and public statements Collins has repeatedly admitted that she missed
opportunities, acted too slowly, and has been bureaucratic rather than
heart-centered in her response. Beyond taking the steps outlined recently and
refocusing her efforts, possibly under increased school board scrutiny, she
therefore plans to spend more time actually interacting with students and
teachers in the schools.
Appel’s May 10 letter to the board suggests, while frank discussions and rhetorical
commitment are hopeful signs they have happened before and leave some issues
unacknowledged. He argued, for example,
that existing resources are not being smartly deployed, specifically asking why
Diversity Director Dan Balon “appears to be being kept on the sidelines.”
suspicions that some school administrators do not adhere to the superintendent’s
zero tolerance standard, Appel also reported from “multiple credible sources”
that Vice Principal Nick Molander tried to intimidate speakers after the May public
forum. According to Appel’s sources,
Molander sought out several people of color and “in a confrontational manner
informed them, in so many words, that their perspectives were not valid. The perception of those who received this
message from Mr. Molander was that he was attempting to intimidate them.”
informed the board bluntly that an administrator who does that “should not be
in a school setting, and should have his licensure investigated.” If Molander
behaves like this with adults, he added, “just imagine how overbearing and abuse
he may well be one-on-one with a student of color in an unsupervised context.”
itself the option of an executive session to discuss personnel, evaluation and
contract matters the school board did not get near this level of scrutiny in
dealing with Collins responsibilities and contract. There were only indirect
references to the difficulties of supervisory oversight and how to define board
and management responsibilities.
board members meanwhile emphasized that equity issues were not the only matters
bring addressed, in general or in relation to Collins’ tenure. As Jill Evans,
one of several commissioners on the losing side of Wednesday’s votes, put it in
a local newspaper column, the school board “is not exclusively concerned with
race in its decision.” But the district does need “a visionary leader who can
be proactive and take risks.”
UNDER FIRE: After months of criticism, Burlington School Superintendent Jeanne
Collins responded to charges she had ignored racism with new plans to move
forward. But questions at a June 1 press conference centered on what went wrong
and whether the School Board would extend her contract. Collins talked about
bringing more of her heart into addressing harassment and racism, and Board
Chair Keith Pillsbury was pressed about whether she is the right person to lead
in the future. Two weeks later Collins received a contract extension.