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Price of change: ruffled feathers

Firing renews debate over Arlington school chief's style, direction

Superintendent Nate Levenson is not surprised that opinions about him differ. Superintendent Nate Levenson is not surprised that opinions about him differ. (JANET KNOTT/GLOBE STAFF/FILE 2006)

Clarification: An Aug. 30 article about Arlington School Superintendent Nate Levenson did not fully describe the system of merit-based pay raises and cuts in his contract. The clause calls for Levenson's base pay to be adjusted downward as much as 5 percent or upward as much as 10 percent, based on a scoring system that considers the performance of Levenson and his staff in helping the district meet a range of goals and objectives, including student achievement.

ARLINGTON -- As a superintendent with a Harvard MBA and corporate background but limited experience in education, Nate Levenson came to Arlington billed as an agent of change.

That has been the case in his first two years, from his contract -- which called for his pay to rise and fall based on student performance -- to his latest move, the firing of a middle school principal on the cusp of the school year.

Levenson's style has prompted some in the school community to hail him as a visionary and others to blast him as impolitic and turbulent.

That split doesn't surprise Levenson, who marked his first year on the job by laying off administrators to save $500,000, money that was used to pay for a sweeping elementary-school reading program that created new demands on teachers but has since won accolades from principals and parents. He says he believes his firing of Ottoson Middle School principal Stavroula Bouris this month reinforced how people feel about him.

"The committee that hired me said, 'We want to go from good to great,' and change is part of that," he said. "For people who are not as happy with what I'm doing, they see less need or less rush for change. And this situation in the Ottoson would be just one more change they wished I didn't make."

The Bouris firing was the latest development in an Ottoson saga that first attracted attention in March, when Levenson announced he would not renew the principal's contract, giving no details but saying the decision was in the best interest of students. He reversed the decision after a public demonstration and a vote of no confidence in Levenson from the middle school faculty. But this summer, Levenson confirmed that he had initiated an investigation of Bouris and teacher Chuck Coughlin after an unnamed school employee provided him with copies of more than 50 e-mails between Bouris and Coughlin.

On Aug. 22, Levenson terminated Bouris on the basis of the probe and wrote a letter to the public alleging that Bouris forged e-mails under his name and had an "inappropriate relationship" with Coughlin that harmed staff morale and necessitated her firing.

Levenson asked the community "to put the children of Arlington first" and focus on education.

But many believe the issue will remain in the public eye.

Frank Mondano, an attorney for the principal and teacher, said forthcoming arbitration and litigation would give them a chance to lobby for their jobs, tell their story, and try to uncover who tapped into their e-mails.

Mondano said Levenson's investigation was a ploy to allow him to fire a principal with whom he had clashed publicly and privately.

"We can view the whole thing as basically retaliatory for protected activity," he said, citing the e-mails. He said Levenson had the upper hand through the termination, but the "arena changes" with arbitration and litigation.

In arbitration and litigation, Levenson and the School Department "don't get to make up all the rules, and there they don't get to not answer the questions about who, what, where, when, or how," Mondano said.

Former School Committee member Paul Schlichtman said Levenson is an effective superintendent, but he fears the Bouris situation has colored public perception. "Not enough people have had the opportunity to see who he is," said Schlichtman, who helped hire Levenson. He described the superintendent as a "low-key, kind, and gentle soul" with a focus on uniting the school system with a collective improvement mission, as opposed to nine separate schools.

Schlichtman said Levenson handled the challenging Ottoson situation appropriately. Among other moves, Levenson refrained from conducting the investigation himself, and he sought the advice of a pair of experienced former superintendents -- a Boston College professor and the executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents -- as well as the legal counsel for the state superintendents association.

"The superintendent did the right thing," Schlichtman said.

Others disagree.

Larry Greco, a middle school math teacher who left Arlington this summer after three decades in the town schools, said he grew dissatisfied with the schools' direction under Levenson and made the decision to leave over the way the Bouris matter was handled.

He believes the public airing of personnel issues set a poor example for students, and he thinks Bouris and Coughlin will be vindicated.

Teachers union president Jacques Duranceau told the Globe recently that he had a good relationship with Levenson but the Ottoson situation tested it. In a letter to Levenson before the investigation was finished, Duranceau accused the superintendent of "petty and small-minded" score-settling.

The arbitration and litigation could play out while the School Committee considers Levenson's future.

Chairwoman Susan Lovelace, a Levenson supporter, said the board has to tell the superintendent by December whether it plans to renew his contract, which expires at the end of this school year. It's no secret that the board is divided, she said.

"In any model of change, those who bring about change will encounter people who are resistant," said Lovelace, who described Levenson as a forthright and candid administrator who solves problems creatively, admits mistakes, and invites collaboration. She also acknowledged that he can be off-putting.

"Does he come across great in television interviews? Maybe not," she said. "But in my mind we didn't hire him for that."

Fellow committee member Joseph E. Curran said he would withhold judgment on Levenson until the Bouris situation evolves. Sean Garballey, another committee member, said Levenson has made some positive changes but also left "a lot of unhappy people." Garballey said he is worried about parent and staff morale at Ottoson.

Levenson, 46, worked as CEO of his family's custom-machinery business before a stint on the school board in Boxford inspired him to sell the business and obtain his superintendent certification. He shadowed the superintendent in Harvard for two years -- earning $1 the first year and about $12,000 in grant money the second, he said -- before coming to Arlington, where he has approached education and school budgets with what supporters see as the discipline of a good CEO.

Levenson negotiated an unusual contract that would include raises and cuts to his roughly $150,000 base pay tied to student performance, but he abandoned the system after it proved unpopular with the public. Had he kept it, he would have received a $7,500 performance bonus this coming year, he said.

Levenson said he hopes people see him as an agent of progress, but he understands he has shortcomings to address.

"I am not nearly in tune with the nuances of what I say. I really do have an enormous amount of respect for the staff in Arlington and what was in place before I got here," he said. "If that's not coming across, that's my fault, not theirs."

He also hopes the school board retains him: "I would definitely like to be here to continue the work we've started," he said.

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at emoskowitz@globe.com.

Melissa Beecher can be reached at mbeecher@globe.com.

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