Salem teachers approve no confidence vote in superintendent, principal
Salem ― An ongoing and fractious debate about discipline of both students and teachers has led the teachers’ union here to issue a vote of no confidence in Superintendent of Schools Brian Hendrickson.
The union vote, though, did not stop the Board of Education from extending his contract Monday night.
Salem Federation of Teachers (SFT) Local 1833 denounced Hendrickson and Salem School principal Dan Driscoll in a “near unanimous” vote, according to an April 30 letter.
“We have lost trust in their ability to lead,” the union wrote. “Under their leadership, morale has plummeted to depths not felt before.”
Hendrickson replaced nine-year Salem superintendent Joseph D’Onofrio at the start of the 2021-22 school year. Driscoll was promoted from assistant principal when principal Joan Phillips retired at the end of the school year.
SFT vice president Brian Fleming, a social studies teacher in grades seven and eight, said 32 of the union’s 38 members participated in the vote. The union represents certified teachers.
He said there were 29 votes in support of the no confidence vote, two against and one abstention.
“There is a pervasive culture of fear and intimidation at Salem School that stems from a pattern of decisions made by the principal and superintendent that disregard and disrespect staff members,” the union wrote.
The union offensive prompted a letter from Hendrickson to Fleming on Monday. The superintendent called the union allegations “an unwarranted attack” filled with false accusations meant “to bully and intimidate” administrators.
Holding staff accountable
Hendrickson acknowledged a “culture shift” he said comes from holding employees accountable where the previous administration may not have. He described dealing with “very serious personnel issues that threaten the emotional and physical safety of our students.”
The superintendent said those incidents included allegations against staff involving the assault of a special needs student that was investigated by the state Department of Children and Families (DCF), inappropriate touching of students, and threats to “kill” a student.
Hendrickson in a Tuesday phone interview said the staff members in those cases are no longer employed by the district. He said the allegations of inappropriate touching arose during the DCF investigation into the assault allegation.
“There were multiple students that participated in a DCF and police interview and the students raised several concerns about inappropriate touching and rubbing, and admin was present during those interviews with students,” he said.
Fleming in an email Tuesday said the alleged assault of the special education student referenced by Hendrickson was found unsubstantiated in the investigation by the Department of Children and Families. There have been no charges filed.
Fleming said claims about the person alleged to have touched students inappropriately are not documented in the staff member’s personnel file.
“If there were any claims about inappropriate touching it would have been documented, if it had been documented it would be in the staff members personnel file, if it was in their personnel file administration would be required to let the staff member know it is being placed in their file,” he said. “That had not occurred.”
According to Hendrickson, that employee resigned before the district could conduct its own internal investigation, which is separate from the one done by the state agencies.
“School districts will allow DCF and police to run their investigations and districts will generally wait until the conclusion of at least one agency’s investigation before they commence their investigation,” he said.
He said further inquiries about the allegations and investigations should be made in writing under state Freedom of Information provisions.
The school board on Monday voted 8-1, with member Tiffany Cunningham in opposition, to extend Hendrickson’s contract three years. The board took the vote even though it had not been listed on the meeting agenda.
The town’s two resident state troopers and an additional trooper from the Troop K barracks in Colchester were present at the meeting of roughly 75 people. School board Chairman Sean Reith said some comments made by the public during previous meetings “were out of bounds” and beyond what he’d experienced in his six years on the board.
“It’s public knowledge that board of ed meetings could be contentious these days,” he said of national trends. “It’s due diligence. No one made any threats or anything like that.”
The union in its letter announcing the no confidence vote said a disproportionately large number of the small school’s staff members have left unexpectedly or retired, citing the departure of 19 staff members since Hendrickson became superintendent at the start of the 2021 school year. Six staff members have been placed on paid administrative leave since September, according to the letter.
Parents have complained at school board meetings and on Facebook about disruptions to learning that have been attributed to causes ranging from unchecked student behavior problems to staff turnover.
School board Chairman Sean Reith after Monday’s meeting said his board members have heard and noted parents’ calls for more discipline and “follow through” in cases of bad behavior.
“The thing that SFT seems to be having a problem with is the fact that the administration is taking these actions,” he said.
The school board during Monday night’s meeting met for two hours behind closed doors to talk about multiple topics. They emerged with a statement in support of the superintendent and principal before voting to extend Hendrickson’s contract.
The school board in a statement read by Chairman Sean Reith asserted “full confidence” in Hendrickson and Driscoll and how they conducted themselves.
“Furthermore, the Board of Education has seen first hand the willingness of both Dan and Brian to engage with SFT to resolve issues and concerns of the full staff at Salem, which the Board of Education supports,” Reith read.
Hendrickson was hired at $110,000 per year for 28 hours per week. The school board vote did not include changes to any of the contractual terms, though the superintendent on Tuesday said those changes can be negotiated going forward.
Reith said the board has not yet approved Hendrickson’s annual evaluation.
Viewpoints were mixed among those who spoke during the public comment period at the end of the meeting. School board members earlier in the meeting had voted to remove the other public comment section from the meeting agenda which was scheduled to take place prior to the executive session.
Resident Leah Georgens-Fennell cited a lack of discipline at the school that she said has resulted in a “disruptive and sometimes unsafe” learning environment.
“Students are not held accountable for their actions, and the lack of discipline has created a culture of disrespect and disregard for authority,” she said.
Suzanne Gendron stood up to object to the school climate of vulgar language, bullying and physical altercations that make her sixth-grade son dread going to school. She also objected to the decision to call state troopers to the meeting.
“I should never come to voice my opinion at my child’s school and be greeted by three state trooper cars out there,” she said.
Jessica Fletcher, an active parent volunteer at the school, lamented the fractured dynamic in the school.
“I kept feeling like I had to take a side,” she said. “Why am I taking sides? I support teachers here. I am here all the time. I give a ton of my time to this town and everybody knows that about me. I also support the administration because from my own experience here, some of the actions that have been taken have benefited my children. I see both sides, clearly.”