Hartford presses forward with superintendent search

Superintendent Tom DeBalsi speaks to parents during a Hartford School Board meeting at Hartford Town Hall in White River Junction, Vt., on Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2023. DeBalsi said that he has been spending time in the middle school following Bouvier’s departure and disagrees that it is “in chaos” despite concerns about bullying and safety that several parents expressed during the meeting. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Superintendent Tom DeBalsi speaks to parents during a Hartford School Board meeting at Hartford Town Hall in White River Junction, Vt., on Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2023. DeBalsi said that he has been spending time in the middle school following Bouvier’s departure and disagrees that it is “in chaos” despite concerns about bullying and safety that several parents expressed during the meeting. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News / Report For America — Alex Driehaus

By CHRISTINA DOLAN

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 02-08-2024 9:01 PM

Modified: 02-13-2024 9:46 AM


HARTFORD — The search for a new superintendent is underway despite lingering questions about the School Board’s decision to conduct the search a full year before the current superintendent’s contract ends, incurring the expense of an additional administrative salary for the 2024-25 school year.

Facing an increase of more than 4% over last year’s $47.6 million operating budget, the board at its Jan. 16 meeting asked Superintendent Tom DeBalsi to suggest cuts to the initial proposal. Board member Peter Merrill recommended that the superintendent search be suspended until next year to eliminate the $218,000 salary and benefit expense for the new hire, according to the meeting minutes.

When DeBalsi presented the revised budget to the board a week later, it had been reduced by $1.25 million to a total of $52.4 million and included the removal of one teacher and one paraprofessional, but the superintendent search remained intact.

“We wanted to get this moving,” School Board Chairman Kevin Christie said Wednesday, explaining why the board did not postpone the search. Going forward this year would “make sure that we had the best options.”

On Jan. 8, the board announced that it had selected Omaha, Neb.-based executive search firm McPherson & Jacobson to assist with the hiring process. The company has conducted more than 1,000 superintendent searches nationwide, including Vermont districts in Burlington and Windsor. The cost for the search is $16,375.

“They have a track record in Vermont, and that expertise is invaluable,” Christie said.

Given the district’s budget struggles, the Hartford Education Association (HEA) has pushed back against the early hiring of a new superintendent. Citing proposed tax increases, aging school buildings and increasing student needs, “having two superintendents is frivolous and irresponsible,” HEA President Nichole Vielleux said on Tuesday.

In addition to the proposed operating budget, the board this year also is asking voters to support a $21.8 million bond for facilities repairs throughout the district.

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The money budgeted for the new hire “could be used to repair our buildings and hire professionals, both of which would have an immediate impact on students,” Vielleux said.

In its request for proposals for a search consultant issued in October, the School Board said that it had decided to begin the superintendent search a year early to provide a “full year of planned transition and continuity” that will allow the “successes of the last 13 years to be acknowledged and time for the new superintendent to thoughtfully transition into the position.”

But that decision could potentially deter some qualified applicants. A period of overlapping superintendents would be “very unattractive to a potential candidate,” John Gratto of McPherson & Jacobson said, because superintendents do not want to “be seen as an understudy.”

The district will not have two superintendents, Christie said in an interview Wednesday. He explained that DeBalsi’s tasks would be completely separate from the superintendent’s office.

“His role would be working directly with the board on some visionary projects that wouldn’t interfere with the onboarding of the new superintendent,” he said.

Developing an emergency operations plan for the district as well as a Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS), DeBalsi said Wednesday, are two of the projects that he plans to complete next year. MTSS is a framework for providing support to students with academic and behavioral challenges. DeBalsi also said that “depending on who is hired and their needs and wants, I will support the new superintendent.”

If the bond passes, DeBalsi plans to provide administrative support “to ensure the taxpayers get their money’s worth and that things are done well.”

Gratto, one of two consultants working on Hartford’s search, said that there is “no particular advantage in conducting Hartford’s superintendent search this year rather than waiting until the 2024-25 school year.

The candidate pool, job market, Vermont’s educational ecosystem and other relevant factors are likely to be the same for either a July 1, 2024, or July 1, 2025, start date.”

As of Tuesday, three applications had been submitted for the superintendent position. The low initial number is not unusual, Gratto said, since it’s typical for most applications to come in during the last week prior to the deadline, which is Feb. 19.

“Being a superintendent is an extremely difficult job” and requires the ability to navigate many diverse interests, Gratto said. The pool of potential candidates has become smaller in recent years as challenges have increased, and when it comes to living in Vermont, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” said Gratto. Just as some candidates will be attracted to the outdoor splendor and recreation opportunities in the region, the high cost of housing and long winters will be deterrents to others.

DeBalsi informed the board this past fall that he plans to retire at the end of the 2024-2025 school year. Originally from Cranston, R.I., he began his tenure as Hartford’s superintendent in July 2011 after serving for 11 years as director of instructional support services in the Windsor Central Supervisory Union (now called the Mountain Views Supervisory Union).

Before that, he spent three years as the Mascoma Valley Regional School District’s director of special services. His 2019-20 salary was $165,598 according to the Vermont Agency of Education.

The salary range listed in the job posting is between $150,000 and $170,000, plus benefits. The anticipated start date for the new position would be July 1, 2024.

The School Board expects the first round of interviews to take place during the week of Feb. 26, with a final candidate selected during the week of March 28.

Christina Dolan can be reached at cdolan@vnews.com or 603-727-3208.