I made a mistake

Blog Post by Allen Nitschelm

The website is fixed, for now!

Today's article picks up the issue of the imminent departure of AB Superintendent Glenn Brand, who most people (at least parents in the community) think was doing a very good job. Having a change in leadership now is, at best, very inconvenient with a lot of complicated stuff on the School Committee's (SC) upcoming calendar.

People say that I never admit mistakes, and there is a very good reason for this misperception. It is because I so rarely make them. So to put this vicious rumor to rest, let's start off with just such an admission.

Three years ago, when Superintendent Brand was first hired, I published a series of articles on Acton Forum which raised serious questions about the Superintendent search process and the inside track that a favorite internal candidate had apparently been given by one or more School Committee or Superintendent Search Committee leaders or members. A recent post has links to the articles (http://www.actonforum.com/story/altieri-poised-take-over-top-job-acton-boxborough-schools).

I asked the SC leaders back then for an explanation and reported their reply, which was nothing useful. They responded but they didn't answer any of my questions. Since the candidate hired was an outsider who obviously wasn't involved in any of this, once that hiring decision was made, I decided to move on and not further investigate the circumstances and coverup that was occurring. That was my mistake, and I apologize.

I should have realized that nobody else was going to do it and if we are going to try to prevent future wrongdoing, we need to make wrongdoers accountable. But I simply wasn't thinking years ahead and I was as shocked as anybody that Brand resigned after just three years.

So now, hard as it will be, I will go back and try to figure out what happened, who was responsible, and whether anyone who was involved continues to try to participate or influence the current selection process. My primary focus is not to "get" anybody, but instead to make absolutely sure that the upcoming process of having an Interim Superintendent and then a full, fair, and transparent selection process is done without anyone having an unfair advantage.

Earlier this week, I sat down with Marie Altieri, the current Deputy Superintendent, and asked her about any involvement she had as a candidate for the position in 2013-14, and how that process worked while she was employed as the head of human resources. She said she had no contact with the search committee and was careful both to recuse herself from any discussion or involvement, and cautioned a SC Chair who early on approached her to discuss the process, by telling the Chair that she was considering applying and therefore could not talk about it. I have no evidence or even any indication that Altieri did anything wrong in applying for the last position or tried to influence anyone on the SC or Search Committee inappropriately. So I have no objection to her being a candidate for Acting, Interim, or permanent Superintendent.

That being said, I strongly believe we should hire an Interim Superintendent for a year, and then have a robust, nationwide search and hire a permanent Superintendent to start July 1, 2018. The Interim must not be able to apply for the permanent position as that would taint the pool of applications, discouraging good candidates from applying. And if Altieri gets through that entire process and is the best candidate for Superintendent from among the finalists named, I would be happy to support her.

But the process is now critical, so I hope we can all agree that having a selection process without unethical behavior is the top goal and one that the public will demand. I hope the SC will listen, and if not, I guess the public will have to make its voice heard.

TAINTED PROCESS

That the last Superintendent search process was tainted, I have no doubt.

Somehow, during the last search process, a basic qualification that is present in almost all searches and what most would consider a basic requirement--to have a Master's degree--was left out of the qualifications for the position.

Acton-Boxborough, being a large regional school system with a good track record and high-achieving students, should have been on the high end of the qualifications spectrum, not the low end. On top of that, you have a very educated workforce in which we encourage (and pay extra salary to) our teachers to achieve certain academic goals like advanced degrees. It would be illogical to require of the staff what we don't value in the leader.

We can debate the need for advanced degrees like Masters or doctorates, but I can't imagine the AB school system hiring, say, the most brilliant leader and administrator who was a high school dropout, had just a high school diploma, or had just a bachelor's degree. Would an airline hire the best pilot who lacked a pilot's license? A great doctor who didn't actually graduate from medical school?

When I researched the original article, I found several districts that listed specific requirements (almost all did), and they all required at least a Master's degree, and most said a doctorate was preferred.

Altieri told me that she anticipated receiving her Master's degree prior to when she would have started the Superintendent's job, and that she was granted her degree as expected in the summer of 2014. But whether having a Master's degree in hand versus an anticipated degree, and whether some might think that was good enough, is not the issue. Candidates who lack qualifications are free to apply for positions and the selecting authority is free to consider who they want. But in this case, the group that determined the qualifications was NOT the selecting authority. In fact, I would argue that the Superintendent Search Committee had no power to make any changes to their charge which was given to them by the School Committee. That charge was to find qualified candidates, to not recommend anyone who was not qualified, and the qualifications would be determined by the SC (not the Search Committee).

The SC had a lengthy debate on October 17, 2013, about academic qualifications and whether or not a doctorate should be required. The Committee determined, based in part on a recommendation by the search consulting firm, FMS, that requiring a doctorate would not be a good idea because it might eliminate a good candidate. No mention was made of not requiring a Master's degree, yet these minutes are what the two co-chairs (Maria Neyland and Dennis Bruce) referred me to when I specifically asked about the Master's degree requirement being dropped. The other SC chair was Brigit Bieber, who also chaired the Search Committee.

When I questioned the SC co-Chairs about my concerns about having a Master's degree dropped from the requirements, I was referred back to these minutes which they said should answer my questions. The minutes did not. For a link to the minutes, go to this SC page and scroll down to the bottom to find the minutes for October 17, 2013: http://www.abschools.org/school-committee/archived-agendas-packets-and-minutes/school-committee-meetings-2013-2014

If you read the meeting minutes (link), I think you will agree that having a Master's degree was ASSUMED. This is important.

The discussion was whether a doctorate would be "required." The standard description is that having a doctorate is preferred, but not required. When the SC debated this, I'm sure most believed that the Master's degree was a given. ("Most," but not all.)

Somehow, the Committee then left it up to the Chairs to interface with FMS, the search consultant, to write an ad. FMS also requested a written description of the qualifications.

Somehow, between this general discussion about requiring a doctorate and the ads listing the qualifications and the creation of a job description, the requirement for a Master's degree, which is required of every other position in school administration across the entire universe, and was clearly a requirement in the previous 2009 search, and which materials were expressly used to create the documents for the new search in 2013, was dropped off. The ad and online job posting listed no academic requirements at all.

Other AB searches for top positions like principals have such a basic degree requirement, and the previous search's qualifications listed a Master's degree with e doctorate preferred, so I believe it is near impossible for this to have been a simple oversight.

If it were, it would have to have come up in the Search Committee discussions and maybe the Search Committee would seek clarification (and a public discussion) by the SC on this specific topic. I am not aware of any such request or further discussion, but will look for it. I have requested the minutes of the Search Committee meetings. If members of the Search Committee took it upon themselves to misinterpret what the School Committee probably wanted (someone with a Master's degree) then that avenue needs to be explored.

If there truly was no requirement specified about an academic degree, the Search Committee might then feel free to interview anyone, even someone who lacked a high school diploma, I guess, and could elevate them to be a finalist if they thought that person was one of the top three candidates.

So I believe there may have been some manipulation of the charge to the search committee in order to help an insider who otherwise would not have met what most would consider basic requirements for this position. Now we need to find out additional information to see if we can learn more about what happened.

2008-09 SEARCH

The 2008-09 search was headed by former SC Chair Heather Harer. Marie Altieri was the administrator liaison (non-voting.) In that search, the search consultant specifically recommended that candidates have a Master's Degree (See Joint Committee minutes of 11-13-08, available here: https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/0BwvZc91Bz7ASaGhJRE1BMXhaa2s at page 6.)

The consultant, MASC, represented by Glenn Koocher, recommended that the SC have the "widest latitude in screening candidates" which meant having "the fewest restrictions and mandates." But the consultant listed a Master's degree as a requirement, with "advanced degree [beyond Master's] preferred."

Altieri told me that having a Master's degree "is a basic requirement."

The 2013-14 SC used the prior search qualifications, according to the October 17 minutes: "Charge to the Search Committee. It was the sense of the [School] Committee to use the charge from the 2008 Superintendent Search with the addition of a bullet about confidentiality..."

This leads me to believe that individuals may have been responsible for this change and not the SC as a whole. Members perhaps thought that by using the 2008-09 criteria, which included a Master's degree, that that same criteria would be carried over into the 2013-14 search criteria. But the basic requirement to have a Master's to be considered qualified to even apply was somehow removed and then the process produced a finalist who would otherwise not have been able to apply under the 2008-09 criteria and job description.

WHY IT IS IMPORTANT TO UNCOVER POSSIBLE CORRUPTION

I am going to digress by finishing up this article by talking about why it is so important to uncover possible corruption, which is why "process" matters so much. Without a good, fair, and transparent process, corruption can and does happen. And I believe we may be seeing the effects right now.

We have something on the order of 1,000 school employees and maybe another 500 that work for the town. All of these employees deserve to work in a system which is fair, honest, and consistent. When you have evidence of people at the top getting preferential treatment from their "friends," it undermines the entire system. If people can choose not to follow the rules and they get away with it, what does that tell everyone down the line?

Is an employee going to jeopardize their job or career by complaining about something when they just know that the people in charge may be corrupt and they face no exposure or repercussions for wrongdoing?

This creates a culture of fear and a terrible work environment. I'm sure it leads to increased inefficiency and employee turnover. If having a good leader can inspire confidence and make people motivated to do better, then having bad leadership does the opposite.

Who we pick as Superintendent to run our crown jewel, the AB School system, should be a leader of the highest caliber, who follows the rules, who stands up for what is right and faces down wrongdoing. Someone or some group of SC members or their affiliates may have tried to deny us this by inappropriately interfering in the last Superintendent search process in 2013-2014, and I am going to try to get to the bottom of it. Meanwhile, there are over 1,000 people in town who have signed an online petition and are now watching closely to make sure our next process is open, fair, transparent, and will not be tainted like the last one was.

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