By Halle Newman
This article has been updated since its original publication on 2/11/19 as The Register received more information.
In the past 20 months, 14 women left the main office wing at Burlington High School (BHS). 11 women resigned, one woman’s position was cut, one woman took a position elsewhere in the district, and another woman was involuntarily transferred by Superintendent Yaw Obeng.
BHS Interim Principal Noel Green declined to comment.
Here is what The Register, after a four-month investigation, knows for sure.
At present, the following 12 positions exist in the Guidance Department and Main Office: five Guidance Counselors (including the Director), one Registrar, one Administrative Assistant, one Student Assistant Program Counselor, one Data Manager, one Office Manager, one Attendance Officer, and one Student Activities Coordinator.
The following women have departed from the front office area in the past 20 months:
Guidance Counselor Adrien Preston resigned in the Spring of 2017 after working at BHS for 6 years.
Guidance Counselor Yvette Amblo Bose resigned in the Spring of 2017 after working for BHS for 21 years.
Guidance Counselor Larissa Urban resigned in the Spring of 2017 after working for BHS for 21 years.
Registrar Colleen McSweeney resigned in the Spring of 2017 after 9 years.
Student Assistant Program Counselor Margo Austin resigned in October of 2017 after five years at BHS.
Prevention Coordinator Tara Holaday resigned in September of 2017.
BHS Data Manager Heather Sienkiewicz resigned in July of 2018 after working at BHS for nine years and in the BSD for 16 years.
Administrative assistant Cyndi Sullivan’s position was cut on March 31, 2017.
Guidance Counselor Simrat Peltier resigned in the Spring of 2018 after her first year working at BHS.
Office Manager Crystal Byrne resigned in April of 2018 just shy of one year on the job.
Administrative Assistant Wilhelmina Kirk accepted a new position at Central Office this Fall.
Administrative Assistant Jenna Morrissey resigned in November 2018 after three months at BHS.
BHS Front Office Manager and Executive Assistant to the Principal Christine Stone resigned in October 2018 after two months at BHS.
Superintendent Obeng also moved former BHS principal Tracy Racicot to the position of Director of the Burlington Technical Center (BTC) in the Spring of 2018.
The Register filed a Public Records request on October 8, 2018 with Obeng to obtain an official list of resignations at BHS from the Fall of 2014 to today. After initially agreeing to compile this information, Obeng later emailed the Register that the resignations were “not in one location at this time.” He forwarded the link to the Burlington School Board online archives.
The Burlington Education Association (BEA), the union of Burlington teachers and paraeducators, has done some of the work.
“We [keep] a running list of people who have left the school district and people who have resigned positions. However, we have not in the past correlated the data between the people leaving and reasons why they were leaving,” Andrew Styles, President of the BEA said. “That was something we felt should be the district’s role.”
Styles said the BEA plans to correlate resignations with their reasons, and that, given that the district refuses to prioritize exit interviews, the BEA would like to do so for future resignees.
“I hope we can work with the Union to educate their [members] about what resources they have,” Obeng said in a February 4, 2019 interview with The Register. “[Educators] can go to the Union for sure, and they can also have other [outlets] so they can share the information around what’s happening in their work environment.”
Obeng said he is aware of the challenges at BHS around continuous resignations.
“We’re well aware of some of the challenges at the high school, and I think we’re working towards trying to create the kind of environment that will help people come forward when they need to access the appropriate information,” Obeng said. “I think what happens is that sometimes people may have challenges but they don’t access the procedures that we have in place.”
“We’re well aware of some of the challenges at the high school, and I think we’re working towards trying to create the kind of environment that will help people come forward when they need to access the appropriate information.” -Yaw Obeng, BSD Superintendent
Styles said the BEA was aware of the counselor’s concerns before their public testimonies were made in August of 2017.
“They did tell us what they were feeling about the reasons why they were leaving,” Styles said in a phone interview with the Register. “They didn’t have a lot of stuff we could actually handle, but we did advise that they take it through the district process.”
According to Obeng, lack of staff at Central Office is one reason the exit interviews are not done. Obeng also said that staff do not know to access the district’s resources and may not understand the process.
“It’s up to the employee [to ask for an exit interview],” Obeng said. “We haven’t had a lot of good responses from employees doing that and giving us the feedback.”
The District has a survey for departing personnel to fill out when they leave. Obeng said the survey asks for years of service and reasons for departure. He said the survey is an organized way to gather data and find trends.
“We may have close to about 30 [people] turnover each year…[Central Office Staff] can’t do everyone. We just don’t have the staff,” Obeng said. “[The District has] less than 4% turnover, which is really good, but as the head of the agency I want to know exactly why people are leaving.”
The Guidance Exodus
The first woman to resign was Colleen McSweeney, the former Registrar who worked at BHS for nine years. She resigned in the Spring of 2017.
Her resignation was followed by Adrien Preston, Yvette Amblo Bose, and Larissa Urban, all longtime guidance counselors at BHS. They credit their resignations to their (then) new Director of Guidance: Mario Macias. At a Burlington School Board meeting in August 2017, Amblo and Urban testified about the challenging work environment.
These testimonies prompted a yearlong investigation by the Vermont Agency of Education (AOE) and resulted in misconduct charges against Macias.
The AOE held three hearings in November and December of 2018. To revoke Macias’s license, the witnesses must present “clear and convincing evidence” against Macias.
A decision is pending by the three-member hearing board.
Macias’s attorney, Francisco Guzman, urged the hearing panel to be diligent when listening to the witness’ testimonies.
“Let’s see what happens when the first witness (speaks) under oath. You already know that they wanted to sexualize [the] charges against him,” Guzman said.
Macias’ charges include intimidating employees, creating a hostile work environment, and failing to maintain a professional relationship with a female practicum student.
Mcsweeney, Urban, Preston, Amblo Bose and former guidance counselor Simrat Peltier all resigned while working directly under Macias.
“I can’t help but notice the current MeToo aspect of this situation. Women’s voices are being dismissed, discredited, and silenced, including student voices in the school newspaper,” former Guidance Director Patty Wesley said a school board meeting on September 13, 2018 referring to an article by The Register which broke the story of the misconduct charges that Green censored on September 11. “And men, in positions of leadership, rally around each other with support.”
“I can’t help but notice the current MeToo aspect of this situation.” – Patty Wesley, former BHS Director of Guidance
The Register asked Obeng if he saw a pattern of sexism in the exodus of women in the BHS guidance department.
“I think we live in a society and in an institution where there’s sexism and racism. That’s undeniable,” Obeng said. “I could go into any organization in North America right now and say there is an element of sexism or racism. That’s there, regardless of if anyone wants to acknowledge it or not. But we do.”
In Macias’ affidavit, Amblo Bose stated that she and her fellow guidance counselors went to former BHS Principal Tracy Racicot about Macias, but felt their concerns were not addressed.
“Although Ms. Racicot listened and offered a few interventions, [she] was not interested or engaged in hearing or working with us,” Urban said at the August 2017 school board meeting.
Urban declined to comment for this article.
Obeng said it is difficult to address sexism or racism in the workplace and to find ways “to curb that behavior and educate people.”
“It’s difficult to get people to recognize what the real challenges are,” Obeng said. “This is stuff that you can’t really put your finger on that easily. That’s sometimes more difficult than the straight explicit stuff.”
Wesley argued the district chose not to listen the women who resigned.
“It seems that any well-run organization would want to understand what happened,” Wesley said at the school board meeting in September. “Not one of these […] employees have received a face-to-face exit interview.”
“It’s difficult to get people to recognize what the real challenges are.” – Yaw Obeng, BSD Superintendent
The BEA submitted a statement to the school board at the August 8, 2017 school board meeting expressing their concerns about the resignations. Styles added that the statement has been reiterated since, but still no action has been taken.
School Board Chairwoman Clare Wool also expressed her concern about the resignations at BHS.
“Our district needs to create a healthier more engaging process when faculty and staff resign,” Wool wrote in an email to The Register on February 7, 2019.” I know of at least [eight] employees that were ignored when they left the district. Neither [Human Resources] or their building Administrator thanked them for their service. Our School Board is committed to recognizing those employees by thanking them and understanding their reasons for leaving voluntarily or involuntarily.”
The Register spoke with BHS Vice Principal Herb Perez on September 11, 2018. He said he was aware of the AOE investigation for a while but would not comment on whether or not these women came to him about their experience working with Macias.
“Staff oftentimes will have conversations about different issues at different times about different people. They could be about students, colleagues, or other administrators,” Perez said. “[These conversations] are generally confidential.”
Former BHS Horizons Director Lynn Kennedy is also mentioned in the affidavit. Kennedy said that Racicot told her she had spoken to Obeng about Macias, but that Obeng told her to give him one more year, even after Racicot told Obeng that Macias was untrainable.
The Racicot/Mellencamp Shuffles
The AOE interviewed Racicot during their Macias’ investigation. In the affidavit, she describes Macias’ work on a student transcript as “sloppy” and “careless”. Racicot also said she put a letter in Macias’ file about an inappropriate interaction with a female substitute teacher.
Racicot declined to comment.
Racicot now works as the Director of the Burlington Technical Center (BTC), a switch the Burlington Free Press reported was assigned by Obeng in June of 2018. According to her BSD Administrator Contract, if Racicot declined to take the position at BTC, her contract could have been terminated by the School Board.
“[Moving Racicot to BTC] was Yaw’s decision that he shared with us after he assigned Tracy back to BTC,” Wool said to Vermont Digger in an article published on June 21, 2018.
This administrative switch mirrors Obeng’s decision in the Spring of 2016 to transfer BHS Principal Amy Mellencamp to C.P. Smith Elementary school in her last year before retirement. She was the BHS Principal for 17 years.
On May 4, 2016, Mellencamp told the Burlington Free Press that she thought the administrative switch had to do with her opposition to teacher cuts Obeng wanted to impose:
“I probably asked too many questions and stood up for the school in ways that weren’t well received,” Mellencamp said.
“I probably asked too many questions and stood up for the school in ways that weren’t well received.” -Amy Mellencamp, former BHS Principal of 17 years
Transitional Phase – Asking Questions
Mellencamp was not the only woman asking about changes at BHS.
At the August 13, 2017 school board meeting, Amblo Bose described Macias’s response to a question. She said she had asked him why guidance counselors were no longer the “point people” for students to go to for emotional support. This policy change was instituted by Macias during the 2016-2017 school year.
“The response I received was a finger pointed across a desk in my face followed by a loud angry voice telling me that I was the problem in the department,” Amblo Bose said of Macias. “I asked too many questions, and I was unwilling to change.”
During her 21 years at BHS, Amblo Bose said she worked under four different principals and five different guidance directors. She could not be reached for comment for this article.
At the school board meeting last August, Urban said that she and her colleagues had “no choice but to leave BHS”.
“Ethically, we could not continue to be attached to a department or school [where] administrators refused to respect or value our professional experiences and voices,” Urban said at the meeting.
Macias was put on paid administrative leave in September, yet women are still leaving.
“Ethically, we could not continue to be attached to a department or school [where] administrators refused to respect or value our professional experiences and voices.” -Larissa Urban, former BHS Guidance Counselor
The Front Desk Turnover
This past fall, BHS Front Office Manager and Executive Assistant to the Principal Christine Stone, and Administrative Assistant Jenna Morrissey, both resigned only months into their first year at BHS.
Stone, who gave her notice of resignation in October, agreed to an interview after asking BHS interim principal Noel Green for permission. Green declined to comment.
Stone said she didn’t want to comment on the environment of the administrative office at BHS because she wanted to “keep things positive”. With teary eyes and shaky words, Stone described the staff in the office as “busy” and “hardworking.” After leaving her job, she worked as the advisor to the BHS Dance Team for a few months.
Morrissey, who gave her notice of resignation on November 9, 2018, said she resigned because she was not aware that her position at BHS was not a full year position when she applied.
“I think the job descriptions aren’t really relevant to what the jobs are here, at least in the office,” she said.
“I think the job descriptions aren’t really relevant to what the jobs are here, at least in the office.” – Jenna Morrissey, former BHS Administrative Assistant
Wilhelmina Kirk, the former Attendance Administrative Assistant whom Morrissey replaced, said she too was looking for year round positions and that is why she applied for the job at Central Office.
Crystal Byrne, the Office Manager who resigned in April of 2018, could not be reached for comment.
Although Byrne, Morrissey, Stone, and Kirk voluntarily left the office, former Administrative Assistant Cyndi Sullivan said she had no choice. Her position was cut in the Spring of 2017.
Sullivan said the BSD Central Office advised Racicot and Perez that her position would be the easiest to cut to add the new position of Office Manager. Sullivan said she asked for an exit interview, but did not receive one.
“I wanted to find some way to reach out,” Sullivan said in an interview with The Register on January 30, 2019. “[Racicot] did meet with me but it was very faceless and she didn’t really want to discuss anything.”
“[Racicot] did meet with me but it was very faceless and she didn’t really want to discuss anything.” – Cyndi Sullivan, former Administrative Assistant
Sullivan said that although Racicot and Perez encouraged her to apply for the new position, she could not.
“They encouraged me to apply, but they didn’t post the position for me to apply [….] for over a month [after the position was cut],” Sullivan said. “I’m a single mom, and I’m given notice that my job is [going to] end; I have to find another job… I wasn’t given the chance [to apply].”
To Sullivan, the new role of Office Manager was created to combat what she perceived as a “somewhat dysfunctional” front office environment.
At press time, the onus remains on the departing employee to request an exit interview. The district has a voluntary exit survey for departing employees. The BEA may conduct their own exit interviews.
14 women. 20 months.
Questions remain: How can the district act to mitigate the steady resignations from BHS guidance and the BHS main office if it does not have qualitative data to analyze cause and consequence? Can the Macias’ hearing testimony of McSweeney, Preston, Amblo-Bose, Urban, Peltier, and Racicot serve as that data? Are the resignations from the guidance department related to the resignations in the main office, just twenty feet down the hall? Or is the timing coincidence? Is there a clear pattern of sexism here? Will BSD create policy and practice that seeks to understand how and why employees resign?