What does it mean to be Joe McNeil?


McNeil advises the school board in regards to the risks of raising the Black Lives Matter flag.

Emma Chaffee

From discussing the legality of raising the Black Lives Matter Flag to coaching students on the courts of Burlington High School (BHS), local lawyer Joseph E. McNeil has played more than one role in the Burlington School District. Currently, he is counsel to the Burlington school board.

“There are multi-facets to the role [of counsel to the school board],” McNeil said. “The first part is to serve as an advisor, and to try to make sure that from the legal perspective, the board avoids legal trouble and takes the best possible course of action when it is considering items that have legal consequence.”

McNeil said he does this work for not just one person in the district, but for the district as a whole.

“The actual client is the Burlington School District. Which is the entity, the corporate entity that runs the school system. It’s not one board member, or even the superintendent, or the administrative staff directly, but, only in that that they are the arms of the corporation,” McNeil said.

When taking on a complex job such as this, McNeil recognizes that it is important to reflect on his role in the community.

“We have to remember, as lawyers, that no one elected us,” McNeil said. “We’re advisors. So, ultimately, what we provide is advice.”

However, once the school board makes a decision about any one thing, McNeil’s role shifts from advisor to advocate.

“Our role somewhat changes to become advocates for the policy and procedures and course of action that the board has taken, and we’re expected to represent those in a zealous manner. It could be before the legislature, it could be before the administrative body, or it could be in court,” McNeil said.

McNeil also identified one of the most difficult parts of his job: saying no.

“[…] It’s always hard to tell someone to do something different than what you’d like to do. But you’ve got to do it. That’s why they hire you, to give them dispassionate advice, objective advice.”

McNeil is careful to not lose sight of his purpose within the district.

“Sometimes, you know, it’s easy in a corporate world to forget that the principle reason for the existence of a school district is to educate young people. So, the most pleasant surprises are when we see things that we’re involved with work positively to enhance the education environment,”

McNeil rarely interacts with students; however, a few years ago, he did a series of seminars on district policies about discrimination, harassment and equal opportunity.

“Not always the greatest topics, but they’re very edifying from a lawyer’s standpoint, to interact directly with young folks. We certainly would appreciate the opportunity to do that [again]. We enjoy it.”

Bob Church, Burlington Technical Center Automotive Science and Technology teacher and former lead negotiator for the Burlington Education Association has gone toe to toe with McNeil for the last two teacher contract negotiations.  Despite their opposing interest groups, Church respects McNeil’s approach to his work.

“I think he’s genuine and I think he’s a man of integrity. [He’s] authentic,” Church said.  “I think that when I look at the bigger picture of things, the whole McNeil family is a pillar of this community.”

Coaching students at BHS has also brought joy to McNeil.

“I would say from my perspective, the most edifying thing is successful personal interaction. That’s across the entire district. I had the pleasure of being the coach up there at the high school for ten years at one point. I was the JV basketball coach and assistant varsity coach for quite a number of years. So, the direct interaction with students, board members, administrators, that’d be the best.”

McNeil has a clear hope for the future lawyers and leaders of the Burlington School District.

“The hope would be that they do not ever lose sight of mission number one. [Which] is that you’re dealing with smart, creative, young people who will be the leaders sitting in the chairs we’re in now, in not many years to come,” McNeil said. “So, to work together to provide the best possible environment for real learning, both theoretical and practical, for when that is going to happen. As I said, it will be happening sooner rather than later, for all of us.”