School Committee faces backlash following vote to not renew superintendent’s contract


Melanie Duronio

The School Committee along with Superintendent Bill Olsen discuss his contract at Stony Brook School

Mahi Kandage, Editor-in-Chief

Tensions rose high at the Stony Brook School as the Westford community filled the auditorium for the School Committee Meeting to confront the rumors regarding the lack of extension of Superintendent Bill Olsen’s contract. Though the Committee had voted 6-1, with Sean Kelly as the sole dissenting opinion, not to renew Olsen’s contract at a January 22 executive session, the public support for Olsen prompted them to open the vote to reconsideration. 

The meeting originally began at 7:30 PM with School Committee member Megan Eckroth’s emotional address to the negativity directed towards the School Committee and the impacts the hateful social media comments and emails had upon her, her family, and the rest of the School Committee. 

Following the message, School Committee member Chris Sanders read out a statement regarding Olsen’s contract extension. He said the discussions regarding Olsen’s contract were dealt with in private and kept confidential to preserve Olsen’s legacy, and because individual contracts fall under Executive Session for the committee. Sanders articulated that just cause for the lack of contract renewal does not legally need to be shown, however, the Committee articulated they decided to provide the reasons out of respect for the community. 

The Committee did not intend to reveal the information because it would be damaging to schools and the reputations of the people involved, but they said they had to because Olsen allegedly made the news public.

“The majority of the Committee has lost confidence in his leadership…” Sanders said.

The School Committee had concerns regarding the direction Olsen was taking the school system, and they wanted a change in leadership. They cited budget difficulties as a factor, but focused on an alleged pattern of increasing concerns in the community including an email situation with a parent.

Olsen responded to the incident, agreeing he became personally involved and responded inappropriately to the email, though he concluded the incident happened over one year ago, and he believes it is time to move on. He was met by ringing applause from the community. 

Another reason the Committee cited for their decision was an alleged creation of unnecessary community anxiety Olsen created when he published a potential redistricting map of Westford, which Olsen later decided would not be put into place. They also said Olsen released the proposed budget to school committee just prior to the public, not giving them enough time to process the information. 

Olsen allegedly did not comply with Massachusetts law when approving a flooring purchase that exceeded $132,000. The Committee also took issue with Olsen revealing the nature of the discussions about his employment  contract to the community.

“What is the best for the school district?” Sanders and the Committee questioned when discussing Olsen’s contract. “We will continue to make the right decisions…”

The Committee requested the community’s patience while working things out, and welcomed Olsen’s participation in the discussion.

“I’ve always conducted myself with honesty and integrity,” Olsen said as he began his account.

Olsen said the person the Committee described was not the man the community knows him as. He cited Westford Public Schools’ #1 ranking and continued to explain the timeline leading up to the meeting as he knew it; he was met with strong applause by the audience. 

“[I am the] most hurt I’ve been in my entire career and I’m not going to mask that,” Olsen said.

On July 15, Olsen raised concerns to the Committee because he had not heard any talk of his contract extension. In an executive session on October 7, Olsen informed the Committee he planned to retire at the end of the 2021-22 school year. He also later agreed to mentions of one year contract renewals.

“I was hoping to serve my fiftieth year…” Olsen said.

Olsen stated that on January 4, the Committee told him they had in fact decided not to renew his contract because they wanted to strategically move in a different direction. Olsen wanted to know the reasons behind the decision, a request he made clear both verbally and as a written request, but he was informed at the February 10 meeting along with the public, 15 minutes prior to his words.

“I’m perplexed at how this has all come to be,” Olsen said.

From Olsen’s rendition, the Committee expressed feelings to him that they didn’t receive appropriation of funds they needed because of lack of communication between him and the town manager. However, according to Olsen, the budget issues were unrelated, and the town manager believed they had no such disconnect. 

“I can ask all I want, the school committee can ask all they want; the money just wasn’t there,” Olsen said.

Olsen went on to discourage hateful, threatening emails directed to anyone in the community. On a personal note, he addressed and denounced some of the rumors circulating about him, his leadership style, and his character. He called the situation with the budget destabilizing. Committee member Sean Kelly later echoed that Olsen’s departure would destabilize it further. 

“Whether I am here on July 1st or not, I will always hold my head high…” Olsen said. “I’m very proud of what we, collectively, have done.”

After Olsen’s words incited a wave of support from the community, Kelly revealed himself as the one member who voted to renew Olsen’s contract. Kelly could not reveal the information prior to this meeting due to confidentiality reasons.

“I know Bill to be a kind, intelligent, loving, hardworking leader… he will always have my vote…the best person for the job is standing right in front of us,” Kelly said.

Kelly gave several reasons for his vote. The first was stability in the district, and concerns about who would take over the position after Olsen and bear the burden of a 61 million dollar budget. Olsen’s experience and knowledge of Westford, according to Kelly, is crucial to dealing with the budget crisis.

“There’s too much at stake… we need stability,” Kelly said. 

Secondly, Kelly cited Olsen’s excellent track record and WPS’ high ranking in Massachusetts, as well as his tremendous reputation with the union, as evidence of his competence. He also believed the town and school should support the decision made by the Committee due to the collaborative, democratic nature of the town.  

“We owe it to Bill,” Kelly said.

Following Kelly’s statements, which were met with resounding applause and support, School Committee member MingQuan Zheng made a statement questioning who was to profit by making the information of Olsen’s contracts public, effectively pointing a finger at Olsen. The community reacted explosively, booing and interrupting Zheng. 

“I don’t have to defend my honesty or integrity to anyone,” Olsen responded. 

The palpable tensions and high emotions in the room bubbled over as the meeting opened to public comment. Westford resident Nancy Cook acknowledged that the person who had sent Eckroth the email she read from at the meeting had profusely apologized, prompting the audience to suggest collectively Eckroth had wished to gain attention by reading the email.

In an emotional moment, Eckroth announced her resignation from the School Committee, and exited the auditorium. She was followed shortly by Sanders and Zheng, though both returned to the meeting a few minutes later.

The public comments continued after Eckroth’s resignation and departure with feedback from students, alumni, former School Committee members, former Norman E. Day School Principal Kevin Reagan, WA English teacher Jason Humphrey, and WEA President and history teacher Michael Colson.

“Not once did I ever say to myself, ‘this school system would be better off without him,’” Humphrey said.

Many of the public comments testified to Olsen’s outstanding character and dedication to his community. Westford resident Padma Sonti discussed the value the education system in Westford brings to the town, while Colson raised questions about staff morale after Olsen’s potential departure.

“Today, I’m hurt, I’m heartbroken, I’m angry…” Colson concluded.