Rivendell superintendent departure adds to district’s challenges

Barrett Williams (Courtesy photograph)

Barrett Williams (Courtesy photograph)

By CHRISTINA DOLAN

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 05-20-2024 7:31 PM

ORFORD — In the latest of a series of challenges Rivendell Interstate School District, the superintendent of the small district resigned last week.

Superintendent Barrett Williams, who will become the principal of Strafford’s Newton School this summer, said in his resignation letter that he has been “dealing with some major health issues that have forced me to think about what is best for me and my family.”

Williams, a Vermont native who lives in Thetford, was principal of Sharon Elementary School for 10 years before taking the superintendent position at Rivendell. He could not be reached for comment for this story.

At the May 7 meeting when the board accepted Williams’ resignation, Kathy Hooke, the Rivendell School Board’s former chairwoman, praised him for providing “calm, solid leadership” through rough times.

Williams’ departure, effective May 16, comes on the heels of the resignation of Rivendell Academy Principal Keri Gelenian earlier this year. The district, which serves Fairlee, West Fairlee, Vershire and Orford, also has yet to pass a budget for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

This has been a transitional year on many fronts for the Rivendell school district. The School Board has faced pushback from community members and faculty over plans to consolidate the district by closing Samuel Morey Elementary School in Fairlee within the next three years, a move that comes as the district has seen declining enrollment in recent years.

In early February, Gelenian abruptly resigned after 14 years as principal at Rivendell Academy. Although no reason for the resignation was provided, Gelenian and Williams were believed to have a strained relationship, according to several Rivendell Academy teachers.

As principal, Gelenian was popular with the faculty and with parents, roughly 60 of whom packed a board meeting on Feb. 6 to express opposition to the direction in which the district was headed and support for Gelenian. Responding to rumors of Gelenian’s possible departure, 12 district teachers approached the board during public comment to praise the principal for his work and to implore the board to persuade him to stay on.

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A study commissioned by the Rivendell teachers union in January found that faculty members said they were demoralized by administrative dysfunction and a lack of transparency at the district level.

Then at the district’s annual meeting in April, voters, some of whom expressed concerns about the tax impacts of school spending, soundly rejected the $15.7 million proposed school budget by a vote of 240 to 143.

Jennifer Botzojorns, the new interim superintendent, understands that the Rivendell community has endured a challenging year.

“There’s a lot of sadness and loss in the district. It’s important to hear that and temper what you’re doing,” Botzojorns said in a telephone interview last week. But “it can’t be 100% of your focus” as a leader, she added.

Botzojorns has been serving as interim principal at Rivendell Academy, a 6-12 school serving roughly 240 students, since April, following Gelenian’s departure. She has agreed to serve as interim superintendent through June 30, 2025, while maintaining the principal’s role until the end of the current fiscal year, which is June 30.

Botzojorns and the board are still hammering out the details of a revised contract for her new role, so for now she is still working under her principal’s contract, she said last week.

Botzojorns, 60, was a candidate for the permanent Rivendell Academy principal’s position until becoming interim superintendent last week, and that has set back the hiring process for a new principal, Avery said. The search process “is in mid-stage,” he said last week.

Williams’ resignation took effect on May 16, but School Board Chairman Mark Avery explained that because Williams, who has been at Rivendell since 2019, has accumulated leave time, he will continue to be paid through the end of his contract term, which is June 30.

Through the end of June, Williams has agreed to remain available to consult with Botzojorns as needed, Avery said.

A former principal at Mt. Mansfield Union High School, Botzojorns served for seven years as superintendent of the Kingdom East School District. In 2023, she was named superintendent of the year by the Vermont Superintendents Association.

She decided to take a gap year during the 2023-2024 school year to “regroup and reflect” and to explore creative interests, she said. She threw her hat in the ring for the interim principal’s position at Rivendell Academy because she’d been “looking for a small school community to be a part of,” she said.

At the May 7 Rivendell board meeting, Avery explained that while the board could expedite a search for a new superintendent for the coming 2024-25 school year, “it is typically a long process,” and “we’re in the process of trying to pass a budget and stabilize the district.”

Therefore, the board will begin a search in the early fall for a permanent superintendent to begin on July 1, 2025.

Rivendell will hold a second budget vote on Saturday, June 1 at 10 a.m. at Rivendell Academy in Orford. The revised $15.3 million budget proposes to allocate an additional $100,000 from a reserve fund and apply it to the operating budget.

Meanwhile, Strafford School Board Chairwoman Sarah Root confirmed Monday that Williams has signed a two-year contract to lead the Newton School, which serves about 110 students in grades K-8. He is to begin July  1.

His salary will be $112,000 per year, and he will begin meetings with teachers, staff, and community members this week as part of a transitional plan, White River Valley Superintendent Jamie Kinnarney said Monday afternoon. 

“We are excited and thankful to have Barrett on our team,”  Root said by email Monday.

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