MIDDLEBURY — The Addison Central Supervisory Union School Board set some guarded expectations for Gail Conley when they lured him out of retirement in 2011 for what was expected to be a one-year stint as superintendent: Help the seven-town district stay the course during a tumultuous period marked by two lawsuits, a fractured administrative office and negotiations for a new teachers’ contract.
It’s safe to say Conley greatly exceeded most school board members’ expectations.
His one-year stay turned into two, during which he helped the ACSU fill six top administrative posts, including his own; new Superintendent Peter Burrows will officially begin his duties on July 1. The ACSU also, during Conley’s watch, hired a new Middlebury Union Middlebury School principal (Patrick Reen), a new Mary Hogan Elementary principal (Tom Buzzell), and a new business manager, assistant superintendent and director of technology for the central office.
Conley worked with lawyers to close the books on two longstanding lawsuits that had been filed against the ACSU by its former superintendent (Lee Sease) and former business manager (Sharon Stearns).
And Conley also helped facilitate a new one-year teachers’ contract that will cover the upcoming 2013-2014 academic year. This means that Burrows will not be immediately saddled with a tough contract negotiation when he joins the fold next month.
“Gail came in during a time of turmoil,” ACSU board Chairman Mark Perrin said. “He calmed our waters and helped us get out of the twister and lay a nice foundation for (Burrows) to come in.
“He helped us put out a lot of fires,” Perrin added.
Conley is now closing out his brief-but-eventful tenure as the ACSU’s top executive and is ready to retire for a third (and he insists) final time. Prior to his arrival in Vermont in 1994, Conley served in various top administrative posts in schools in Rantoul and Macomb, Ill. He served as Chittenden East Supervisory Union superintendent from 1994 to 2005. He came out of retirement in 2007 to serve as interim superintendent of Barre schools for one year, then did so again in 2011 after the board elected not to renew Sease’s contract.
“It has been challenging and rewarding,” Conley said on Tuesday as he continued to lay the foundation for a smooth transition for Burrows. “I like challenges, and I think we’ve had success in dealing with nearly every challenge.”
Some of the challenges were indeed extraordinary and unanticipated.
For example, neither he nor school directors imagined it would take four searches to hire a new superintendent. Conley agreed to stay on a second year when the previous searches failed to yield the right match for the ACSU, whose nine school boards and requisite evening meeting commitments were off-putting to some prospective applicants.
It also took three tries for Conley to land an ACSU business manager after an initial hire died tragically and the second stopped showing up to work. Laura Nassau has been serving as business manager since February of 2012.
Conley said assembling a full staff and seeing it work well together is perhaps his favorite accomplishment of his two-year tenure.
“The easiest part of my job was helping these very talented folks work together,” Conley said, referring to all levels of administration functioning in the ACSU’s seven elementary schools, high school, middle school and central office. “That translates into support for teachers, which helps students do their best work.”
Asked what advice he would give in passing the torch to Burrows, Conley said, “You need an appreciation for small communities and multiple boards. Each of the communities has a unique personality and each of the schools has a unique personality.”
And Conley said that uniqueness among schools should be respected and nurtured.
At the same time, he acknowledged the work of the ACSU Study Committee in considering some potential governance consolidations to lessen district bureaucracy and create more collaboration among schools to save money. Some community members are concerned that governance consolidations could become a precursor to some school closings, considering student enrollment in most regions of Vermont is declining.
Conley anticipates a majority of Middlebury-area parents won’t endorse closing and consolidating local schools. And he agrees with that position, believing less dramatic changes could be implemented to produce cost savings short of closing schools.
“The complicated supervisory union in Middlebury recognizes the value of smalls towns and school boards,” Conley said. “I think that’s a value that people like and don’t want to give up.”
He’s intrigued by the notion of creating one school board to govern the seven elementary schools in ACSU member towns of Middlebury, Bridport, Cornwall, Ripton, Salisbury, Shoreham and Weybridge. This would reduce bureaucracy and lead to a more universal supervision of programs in all of the elementary schools, according to Conley.
As a resident of nearby Huntington, Conley will continue to watch ACSU activities with interest — but he’ll do it without having to attend three or four evening meetings per week. At 70, Conley still looks forward to harvesting wood from his property to stoke his outdoor boiler. He and his family have no big travel plans.
“We love it in Huntington,” he said. “I like being at home; I don’t need to go anyplace.”
Reporter John Flowers is at firstname.lastname@example.org.