Vermont Public is independent, community-supported media, serving Vermont with trusted, relevant and essential information. We share stories that bring people together, from every corner of our region. New to Vermont Public? Start here.

© 2024 Vermont Public | 365 Troy Ave. Colchester, VT 05446

Public Files:

For assistance accessing our public files, please contact or call 802-655-9451.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

State deploys staffers — and offers a warning — to Vermont school district in disarray

A woman wearing a blue blazer stands at a podium and speaks into microphones
Sophie Stephens
Vermont Public
Gov. Phil Scott announced that Zoie Saunders would be Vermont’s next secretary of education at a press conference at the Statehouse in Montpelier on March 22, 2024.

The Vermont Agency of Education recently deployed staffers to visit a southern Vermont supervisory union that is in disarray after a string of top administrators were put on leave or resigned. The unusual move came at the request of the Windham Southwest Supervisory Union, which has experienced extraordinary turnover in its central office in recent months.

Interim Education Secretary Zoie Saunders delivered a mixed verdict on current operations in the union. While school officials welcomed the intervention, Saunders in a written statement reminded them the state could initiate non-voluntary intervention, as an extreme step, if student education was imperiled.

The Windham Southwest Supervisory Union is struggling with turnover in key positions. In quick succession, superintendent Barbara Anne Komons-Montroll and special education director Troy McAllister were put on leave, according to Erika Bailey, who chairs the supervisory union board. The curriculum director, human resources coordinator, and business manager have also resigned.

“When I came in, we pretty much didn't have a central office,” said Kevin Dirth, a veteran Vermont school administrator who stepped in as acting superintendent in April. Windham Southwest provides central office functions for five school districts spanning the towns of Wilmington, Halifax, Whitingham, Readsboro, Stamford, and Searsburg.

Dirth and Bailey declined to elaborate on the reasons for each administrator’s departure, citing privacy protections.

The Brattleboro Reformer has reported that some problems came to a head after retirement funds were found to be missing, although Bailey said that a separate personnel concern triggered the discovery that retirement funds hadn’t been deposited in the right place. The board chair added that there was no evidence the money had been stolen, only that it hadn’t been administered correctly. She blamed central office turnover for the mistake.

“That's a case of we had one business manager and then we had another business manager and then we had another business manager — so all the keys hadn't been, like, turned over so that they didn't have access to the right systems to do it,” Bailey said.

Central office woes aren't the only problems plaguing the supervisory union's schools. Twin Valley Elementary in Wilmington has also been struggling with PCB remediation after a state testing program found elevated levels of the toxic chemicals in the air.

Upon taking the reins, Dirth said he asked the Agency of Education for help. The agency sent members of its finance, operations, and special education staff to conduct an onsite visit on April 29. In a letter to Windham Southwest leaders two weeks later, Saunders said state officials had been “encouraged to learn that needs related to special education were not as severe as originally reported,” adding that special education faculty and staff “are to be commended for their work during a time of transition and uncertainty.”

Saunders also noted that local officials, in partnership with the agency, had taken “some immediate steps to address some of the most critical issues related to employee benefits.”

But Saunders added that state officials had nevertheless “identified critical areas of concern,” which could “result in a disruption of the delivery of educational services if left unaddressed.” A lack of compliance with federal reporting and internal controls, she added, could put federal funding at risk.

Saunders also wrote in her letter that while the state was “appreciative of the board’s willingness to allow the (agency) to step in and help assess needs in the areas of concern,” it was also “important to note” that the state retained the authority to “pursue non-voluntary intervention when a school district fails to provide equitable education opportunity to students.”

The interim secretary closed her letter by writing that she was not currently recommending that step “at this time” and would “only pursue nonvoluntary interventions in the extreme case that the supervisory union’s actions fail to ensure continuity of educational operations.”

Both Dirth and Bailey emphasized that they were not worried the state intended to pursue a takeover of the supervisory union. The board chair said that Saunders had let her know before issuing the letter that she would be making mention of this scenario, but had characterized it as a formality.

Bailey said she did not take the letter as a threat. She expressed gratitude at the state's involvement.

“I really don't know where we would be right now if they did not help us as much as they have,” she said.

Similarly, Dirth called the state "nothing but collaborative." And Dirth said he’s hopeful Windham Southwest can turn things around.

“I didn't at first,” he said. “But there are good people there.”

The supervisory union board has already approved the hiring of a new superintendent, Bill Bazyk, to take over July 1, Dirth noted, as well as a new curriculum director.

Still, Dirth said he’s worried that Windham Southwest’s recent troubles are of statewide concern. Workforce shortages are increasingly imperiling the basic operations of schools, and getting qualified people to fill critical leadership roles — particularly in isolated, rural schools, is especially hard.

“I worry that this isn't just our district,” he said.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

Lola is Vermont Public's education and youth reporter, covering schools, child care, the child protection system and anything that matters to kids and families. She's previously reported in Vermont, New Hampshire, Florida (where she grew up) and Canada (where she went to college).
Latest Stories