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A beloved figure who has served the town for almost 35 years was under fire on Feb. 10, defending behaviors that raised eyebrows on the School Committee, but didn’t dissuade the hundreds of teachers, school employees, and general public from supporting him.
*******WATCH THE VIDEO HERE*******
A School Committee meeting designed to explain why the members were not extending Superintendent Everett “Bill” Olsen’s contract for at least one more school year only solidified the sentiment inside the Stony Brook School auditorium and led School Committee member Megan Eckroth to walk out of the meeting. Teachers and School Department employees wore sweatshirts with a picture of Olsen dressed in a Superman outfit touting the words “strength in leadership.”
Olsen, known for his positivity, kindness, and patience, was perceived by the committee differently from the action hero who fought for “Truth and Justice.”
“Individual members of the committee have expressed reservations about the strategy around renewing Superintendent Olsen’s contract for some time,” said member Chris Sanders. “These strategy concerns have been ongoing and are myriad in nature.”
Sanders listed a number of practices by Olsen that led six of the seven committee members to reach “personally agonizing” decisions. Member Sean Kelly voted in favor of Olsen. Chair Avery Adam did not return an email requesting comment.
Contract Extension Request
Olsen, who has worked in education for 49 years in Lowell and Westford, had requested a one-year extension of his contract months earlier, but received no response for almost seven months, he said. On Jan. 23, Sanders and Chair Avery Adam paid him a visit and informed him that the contract wouldn’t be renewed, he said.
“One person at this table has a total of 15 minutes in private executive sessions negotiations. And that’s myself,” Olsen said. “It’s a difficult job to be a School Committee member. But what rises to the level of concern of some, does not rise to the level of concern of others.”
Olsen went on to say, “And to hang your hat on what you present as reasons because I wanted them discussed in public, to let people know that there was no malfeasance, no theft, no affairs, no nothing because that’s been circulating around town and I’ve been fending off questions for two weeks in work and in my own household. I want you to know, whether I’m here next year or not, I’m the same person, the same leader that you have known, the same leader that you have respected and I’ve respected you and we’ve cared for each other deeply and that’s why this school system has the reputation it does. And we will alway be proud to say that we have worked in the Westford public schools.”
The standing ovation lasted about 30 seconds.
Westford schools are often among the highest ranked school districts in the state. In 2014 the Westford school district ranked first among all other Massachusetts school districts by NerdWallet.com.
School Committee’s Reasons for Not Renewing Contract
Last year, the town’s nominating committee sought to rename the Stony Brook School after Olsen, but the effort was shot down by a group of residents who said it was premature to bestow the honor on someone still working for the School Department.
The disappointment apparently led Olsen to respond to an email from a parent. The tone of the exchange did not reflect well on him.
“The incident of the nasty email. Did I overreact, personally?” Olsen said. “Yes, I did because I became too personally involved. It involved the article that involved renaming this school (Stony Brook) in my honor. Did I get angry with an individual and did I send an inappropriate email? Yes I did. But that was a year ago and sometimes it’s time to get over it.”
The assembly erupted in applause.
Sanders continued on, mentioning concerns that Olsen created uncertainty for the community regarding unnecessary changes to the school system.
“For example,” said Sanders, “by releasing a proposed redistricting map accompanied by a recommendation to not redistrict at all.” The committee worried that Olsen may have created anxiety for those parents who might have been affected.
There were also budget concerns, said Sanders. Olsen released the proposed fiscal 2021 budget, beginning July 1, to the committee at the same time it was released to the public, — 27 hours prior to the first budget meeting in December. Sanders said this gave the School Committee no time to assess it.
“Also, failure to notify numerous employees who might be impacted by the proposed changes prior to the public release of the budget including many of the individuals whose jobs might be substantially changing or eliminated completely,” Sanders said.
Another charge by Sanders was in the area of communication. Olsen admitted he forgot to inform employees and pre-school staff members that they would soon be moving from the Millennium School to another building, thereby creating a substantial change to their environment.
“I’m not sure that rises to the level of a contract renewal,” Olsen said to thunderous applause.
Sanders continued listing Olsen’s missteps. They included financial practices “that did not comply with Massachusetts General Laws and have damaged the school system’s reputation for fiscal responsibility,” said Sanders. There was also a procurement matter of $132K worth of flooring material that Olsen addressed, saying over the past decade about 20 out of 230 instances of procurement law were not followed.
There was a legal breach of confidentiality of executive session negotiations. “The superintendent reviewed minutes regarding School Committee discussions regarding his contract. Those discussions were confidential and should not have been reviewed by the superintendent as the committee was discussing his contract,” Sanders said.
Mingquan Zheng said fake profiles on social media were allegedly created to attack School Committee members. Zheng said information known only to the committee and Olsen was posted on the pages, and a rumor was spreading that the leadership team of administrators was trying to push Olsen out.
“This is self-serving, appalling and ultimately disgusting,” Zheng said.
But Olsen countered immediately. “I don’t have to defend my honesty and integrity to anyone,” he said, referring to Zheng’s accusations.
When the meeting opened for public comment, Nabnasset School Principal Susan Dubois spoke first.
“I am here tonight representing the leadership team,” she said. “As the Westford Public Schools building principals it disheartens us to learn that Superintendent Bill Olsen was not given information about his contract in the same timeframe that was provided in the past. Bill had expressed his desire to complete his 50th year in education and had expected to learn of your intentions earlier in the school year…”
Kevin Regan, retired principal of the Day Elementary School, spoke highly of Olsen. “His personal attributes: He’s highly ethical. The highest integrity…approachable…I can’t assume that the next leader of our school system will have those attributes. Bill has them,” he said.
Kelly spoke favorably of Olsen.
“In conclusion, I know Bill to be a kind, loving, intelligent, hard working, driven leader,” he said. “His success is in that he draws consensus and represents stability. He will always have my vote. Although I respect differing opinions, I think we have gotten too excited about what else is out there. When in reality, the best person for the job is sitting right in front of us.”
UPDATE — The School Department’s fiscal year was defined, a photo that wasn’t registering on the front end was replaced, and various minor grammatical improvements were made on Feb. 15.