Concord-Carlisle Regional School Committee members came under fire at a forum last week for their decision on renewing Superintendent Diana Rigby’s contract, with some residents saying the school district has suffered financial and emotional turmoil under her five years of leadership.
On Oct. 22, the School Committee voted 6 to 1, with Phil Benincasa casting the dissenting vote, to start negotiations on a three-year extension for Rigby, whose contract expires in June. The board members are expected to vote on a final deal late this month or early in December.
However, dozens of residents attended the meeting Tuesday night, and railed against the decision, citing several high-profile problems in the district.
“A lot of us were surprised and deeply concerned that Ms. Rigby’s contract was extended, given the tumult in our community,” said Jennifer Montbach. “Our community is crying out for a reset.”
Three School Committee members and Rigby were present at the forum.
After the meeting, Rigby, who is paid $212,180 as the district’s superintendent, defended her performance, citing a silent majority in the two towns who are content with the school system and its administration.
“For all the criticism we hear, there’s also lots of support — these are the people who aren’t here tonight, because they are satisfied with the schools,” she said.
School Committee cochairman Louis Salemy and vice chairwoman Kathi Snook held their ground on the decision to negotiate a contract extension for Rigby. Salemy said the committee would listen not only to the vocal critics at the meeting but to “many different voices in our community.”
Benincasa, the third committee member at the forum Tuesday, referred residents to his statement he has issued on his vote against the extension, in which he spoke of a chasm between the school administration and the community “around faith and unity of purpose.”
At the forum, which aimed to promote transparency, dozens of residents admonished administrators for a lack of communication with the public. Some also alluded to the mishandling of planning for the new regional high school project, which caused state officials last year to threaten to withhold construction funds.
Most residents Tuesday emphasized diminished teacher morale, which they tied to a decision by Thoreau Elementary School principal Kelly Clough not to renew the contract of Merrie Najimy, a veteran third-grade teacher and president of the local teachers union.
Hundreds of teachers and parents rallied in Monument Square in May to protest Clough’s decision; Clough resigned the next month, saying she was pursuing other career opportunities.
Many participants Tuesday also referred to last year’s TELL Mass survey of schools across the state, in which only 10 percent of Thoreau teachers said there was an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect in the school. Also, only 18.5 percent said they thought that school leadership consistently supports teachers.
“We have a crisis right now,” said resident Dinny McIntyre. “I deplore the hierarchical, controlling climate that has been set. I think that’s why so many teachers are unhappy, and that affects student learning.”
‘For all the criticism we hear, there’s also lots of support — these are the people who aren’t here tonight, because they are satisfied with the schools.’
Many said they worried that teachers dissatisfied with the system were unable to voice their concerns in a bureaucratic complaint process overseen by their bosses, leading to low morale.
“I have had discussions with at least a dozen teachers, and they all told me they have a lack of faith and trust and feeling of respect coming from the administration,” said resident Sigmund Roos. “I don’t think this community can bear any longer the lack of faith expressed by teachers.”
Najimy, who was in attendance Tuesday, said she appreciated the School Committee hosting the forum but said the board has a long way to go.
“I hope this will get us to a place to see things the way they are, so we can structurally change things so they can be better,” Najimy said. “We really need the School Committee to watch closely and listen carefully.”
Other residents complained that the School Committee members were not making themselves accessible enough to teachers and the community. One resident said a complaint she sent to administrators went unacknowledged; another said she was frustrated with board members not communicating with teachers or conducting site visits.
Some residents said they were also concerned about the length of Rigby’s extension being discussed, saying that she should be offered a shorter contract. Others suggested administrators draft a contract with incentives for Rigby to make improvements in a measurable way.
“We can put it in a clause provision that ties Diana’s continued tenure to improvement and results,” Roos said, a suggestion that was met with applause. “You need to recognize the serious problem of trust and respect. Let’s put this in the contract and move past this.”
Although School Committee members acknowledged discontent in the district, they said their decision to extend Rigby’s contract was final.
“This is not a voting process,” said Snook. “We had to look at all the information we had to make the best choice.”
As for going forward, board members said they would take into account Tuesday’s suggestions, but noted that other, less vocal opinions also would be heard.
“We take into consideration all members of the community during contract negotiations, and there are many different voices in our community,” Salemy said after the meeting.
Benincasa, the dissenting School Committee member, and the other board members referred residents to their voting statements posted on the School Committee’s website.
“The wellspring of trust and respect, in my judgment, has run dry and the chasm between administration and community around faith and unity of purpose has grown so wide as to be impossible to refill or narrow in three years or any reasonable length of time,” Benincasa wrote in his statement. “Thus I have concluded that the community and schools would be best served by a change in direction and in leadership.”
Meanwhile, the tension over school issues in the district was heightened later in the week when police reported that they are charging two juveniles with alcohol-related offenses in connection with a party thrown by Salemy’s son at the family’s Carlisle house Oct. 19. One of the juveniles consumed so much alcohol that he had to be taken to the hospital, police said.
Authorities said Salemy and his wife were home at the time but did not know there was alcohol at the party, and called police when they learned the youth needed medical attention. They were not charged.Jaclyn Reiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.