After six years of leading Lexington schools, Jeffrey Young departed in the summer of 1998, ready for a new challenge as superintendent of Newton public schools, a system twice as large as Lexington's. What folks in Lexington didn't know then was his departure would touch off a revolving door of school superintendents that plagues the district to this day.
In the last six years, four men and women have led this powerhouse system, and a fifth is to be hired next month. The constant change in leadership has prompted questions among residents here and school observers across the region about whether the town's culture has grown too harsh to enable a new superintendent to bring stability to a job that should be a plum assignment.
"If people are not able to walk on water, then we crucify them," said Susan Elberger, who served on the Lexington School Committee for six years in the 1990s and chaired the search committee that hired Young's successor. "We are a community that expresses disdain and anger in very harsh terms."
A number of factors contributing to the tense atmosphere in Lexington are endemic in many high-performing school districts across Eastern Massachusetts and the nation: swirling accusations -- whether founded or not -- about overly demanding parents, School Committee members who meddle too much in the running of schools, and taxpayers who grumble too much about the rising cost of education.
While such things can be said about many school districts across the region -- rich, middle-class or poor -- the debate tends to be the loudest and most divisive in the high-performing districts, where many parents are consumed with getting their children into the best colleges.
"There is a higher degree of pressure because of the demands parents bring to these communities," said Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents.
"And with high involvement of parents come high involvement of the community," he said. "The superintendents of these districts really are in an intense environment of expectations, where people are fully expecting them to be visible and part of the community more so than other places."
Yet other high-performing school districts have been able to retain their leaders. Young remains in Newton. Claudia Bach has been superintendent of Andover schools for more than six years.
So what has propelled the revolving door in Lexington, a system of more than 6,100 students?
A collision of circumstances, say school leaders, teachers, parents, and residents. A problem, though, is many of them say they do not know completely what those circumstances are. Mystery has surrounded the departure of two school superintendents who were supposed to bring stability to the district. (The other two people were hired on a temporary basis.)
First came the abrupt firing on Feb. 27, 2001, of then-Superintendent Patricia Ruane, 18 months into her three-year contract. The School Committee never publicly revealed why they fired her, except to say she didn't do anything legally wrong, and paid her $125,000 in severance. Ruane was replaced later that night by Joanne Benton, the district's director of elementary education, who was initially given the job temporarily and later permanently, setting off a rocky tenure.
Conspiracy theories circulated through town about what lead to Ruane's demise and Benton's ascent. At the same time, a group of parents at the Fiske Elementary School accused Benton of mishandling complaints of child sexual harassment by a janitor there while she was the principal of Fiske.
The Middlesex district attorney's office, after conducting an investigation, ordered the district to create a comprehensive child sexual abuse prevention policy in 2003, and an independent investigation commissioned by the town found that Benton did not properly document a number of allegations against the man, and that she and the School Committee did not respond adequately to questions from parents about the case.
Meanwhile, Benton guided the district through a couple of contentious votes to increase property taxes beyond the limit set by Proposition 2 so school programs would not have to be eliminated. The votes deeply divided school supporters and fiscal conservatives in town. By last summer, Benton, who enjoyed the School Committee's support, relinquished the job without publicly giving a reason. She is now an assistant superintendent for curriculum and staff development for Wilmington schools.
Benton did not return phone calls seeking comment.
"A lot of people were disappointed and felt she was a good superintendent and a fine person," said Jed Snyder, chairman of Citizens for Affordable Lexington, which opposed a Proposition 2 override request last year.
But he believes Benton's departure was due in part to the political climate in town. He noted the Board of Selectmen last summer forced out longtime town manager Richard White.
"Can any superintendent last three or four years if the town poisons the political process?" he asked.
Bill Hurley, a Lexington resident and a former superintendent of schools in Sudbury, is currently the interim superintendent. He is the third -- Benton initially served as an interim before her permanent appointment, and Karla Brooks Baehr, a former superintendent in Wellesley who is now superintendent of Lowell schools, served as an interim superintendent for the 1998-1999 school year following Young's departure.
Baehr, who did not apply for the job permanently, said she is not surprised about the intense atmosphere in town.
"We are dealing with parents most cherished dreams -- the dreams for their children," Baehr said. "I'm sure in Lexington that no one thinks twice about e-mailing a long letter questioning the actions of a superintendent, and then expecting a long response. . . . [But] based on the little bit I know of what has taken place since 1999, it would appear the environment is increasingly harsh in criticism and judgment by townspeople and parents."
Plenty of applicants
Despite the political atmosphere and superintendent searches in about 50 school districts statewide, Lexington had no shortage of applicants. The district offers one of the highest salary and benefit packages in the state, advertising the job for between $158,000 and $168,000 a year. The district also boasts some of the highest MCAS scores in the state, and the community retains a reputation for supporting schools financially and providing a large force of parent volunteers.
The School Committee hopes the next superintendent will stay at least five to seven years. The state average is 5.5 years.
Last week, the four finalists for the superintendent's job toured the district -- meeting students, teachers, parents, and town officials. The crop of candidates consists of Paul Ash, superintendent of Westwood public schools; David Fleishman, assistant superintendent of Wellesley public schools; Richard Hoffmann, superintendent of Ashland public schools; and Richard Silverman, the former superintendent of Brookline public schools.
This week, the candidates will be interviewing publicly with the School Committee at Clarke Middle School on Tuesday at 5 p.m. and Thursday at 4:45 p.m.
The School Committee intends to offer the job on Feb. 8.
"It's going to be a fresh start for Lexington," said Janet Tiampo, a parent and school volunteer. "I think the school system is ready for it, and parents are ready for it. When the new superintendent starts, we will have a clean slate to work with."
But others are withholding judgment.
"I think the real test of our current School Committee is whether or not they seek an independently minded individual who's got a leadership vision for the schools, or whether they pick somebody who will be at the School Committee's beck and call," said Todd Burger, the father of a middle school student and three graduates of Lexington High School.
Eager for stability
Tom Griffiths, chairman of the School Committee, disagreed with characterization that the School Committee micromanages. He also stressed that the makeup of the five-member board has changed considerably since the firing of Ruane. Only one member, Scott Burson, remains, and Griffiths said he was the lone dissenting vote against Ruane's termination.
"The School Committee is well aware of its roles and responsibilities," he said. "I don't think we are guilty of micromanagement."
The committee, he and other members said, is eager to bring stability to the district, and members thought they had achieved that with Benton.
"It has been a rough time," said Helen Cohen, a School Committee member who chairs the search committee. "We need someone with a lot of energy and enthusiasm, who can build morale. There is a kind of wearing down that comes with a lot of change at the top. What we need is a more long-term person who can pull things together."
The next superintendent will have a number of tasks to confront. Most notably, teacher morale has slid due to the constant change in the central office. A number of teachers have been showing up at School Committee meetings since early December to protest the way course loads are assigned to high school teachers. This year, six teachers have filed grievances with the teachers union concerning administrative decisions -- twice the typical number -- and union representatives expect more to be filed.
"A tremendous amount of teachers have lost confidence in the School Committee," said Vito LaMura, president of the Lexington Education Association, which represents the district's 760 teachers and instructional assistants. "The staff is hungry for stability."
James Vaznis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Meet the finalists
The following are brief biographies on the four superintendent finalists in Lexington. The School Committee will interview them two at a time at two public meetings this week at the Clarke Middle School auditorium. The public may comment at the end of each session.
5 p.m. Richard Hoffmann has been superintendent of Ashland public schools since 2000. He served previously as superintendent of the North Attleborough public schools, executive assistant to the superintendent and magnet schools supervisor for the Lawrence public schools, and executive director and program director for Creative Educational Associates in Boston. He started his career in Saugus as a language arts teacher. He holds a doctorate in education leadership from the University of Massachusetts.
7 p.m. David Fleishman is assistant superintendent of Wellesley public schools. He served previously as assistant superintendent of schools in Ossining, N.Y., director of the New York City Academy of Public Service, teacher/coordinator of the New York City Internship Program, and education policy adviser to the New York City Office of Comptroller. He holds a doctorate in education administration from Columbia University.
4:45 p.m. Paul Ash has been superintendent of Westwood public schools since 1998. He served previously in the Wellesley public schools as director of professional personnel and staff development; assistant superintendent for personnel, finance, and administration; assistant superintendent for personnel and planning; and interim superintendent of schools. He started his career in education as a chemistry/physics/earth science teacher at Dover-Sherborn Regional High School. He holds a doctorate in philosophy from Boston College.
7 p.m. Richard Silverman is an educational consultant on leadership and administration. He served previously as superintendent of Brookline public schools, superintendent of Windsor public schools in Connecticut, assistant superintendent for program development and operations and director of grants and special projects for Windham public schools in Connecticut, curriculum coordinator for the Dudley-Charlton Regional School District, coordinator of computer education and supervisor of music for Haverhill public schools, and director of music education for Quaboag Regional School District. He started his career as a music teacher in Medford public schools. He holds a doctorate in education from Boston University.
Note: Snow dates will be Friday, 5:30 to 8:45 p.m. or Saturday from 9:30 a.m. to 1:15 p.m.
Source: Lexington public schools