Vaillancourt named NHS principal; probe finds no issues with search

  • Lori Vaillancourt talks to her son, Tommy Vaillancourt, during a family program at Easthampton High School in March 2016. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 12/22/2019 11:53:14 PM

NORTHAMPTON — After an independent investigation found that the principal search committee’s work was “proper,” Lori Vaillancourt will be the new principal of Northampton High School, subject to contract negotiations, Superintendent John Provost announced Friday.

After more than a decade at the high school, Principal Bryan Lombardi left over the summer for another position. This fall, two candidates for the principal position emerged — Vaillancourt, interim principal of Northampton High School and previously an associate principal of the school, and Ted McCarthy, principal of Sutton High School.

“Both candidates were favorably received by faculty and staff, but support for Ms. Vaillancourt was stronger, with 89% of her feedback forms indicating a rating of very good or excellent. She was also the clear choice of the Administrative Leadership Team,” Provost wrote in a message to staff sent on Friday.

Vaillancourt, 43 of Easthampton, is in her fourth year at Northampton High School. Previously, she was an assistant principal at Holyoke High School and an English teacher in the Holyoke Public Schools.

Complaints lodged

The district had hoped to name a new principal by Thanksgiving but put the search on hold after receiving a complaint from a member of the search committee alleging that the group had improperly screened candidates. The committee — which included teachers, parents and administrators — reviewed applications and conducted initial interviews.

Through a public records request, the Gazette obtained a copy of the emailed complaint made by Mickey Buhl, a member of the search committee and parent of three children, two of whom are in the district. Buhl lodged a number of complaints, including that the committee did not collect enough feedback from parents and students, and that members were not “able to discuss what qualities they felt were most important in the next leader or how they assessed the qualities of the individual candidates until after the interviews were complete.” Buhl was surprised that his email led to an investigation, he said on Sunday, and that he respected Provost’s final decision.

Stoneman, Chandler & Miller, a Boston employment and education law firm, investigated and concluded that the work of the committee was “proper.”

Under state law, a superintendent can appoint a principal and does not legally have to form a search committee, the investigator, Rebecca Bryant, wrote in a Dec. 16 letter summarizing the investigation. The letter also flagged some potential issues reported by committee members.

Many members said the process was appropriate, and others had concerns, Bryant wrote. One issue was that when interviewing candidates in early November, members weren’t allowed to ask follow-up questions.

“Most, if not all, members found this to be frustrating,” the letter reads. But, “many also viewed it as serving an important means of avoiding bias that might arise from engaging some candidates differently than others.”

Another concern flagged was that members independently rated applicants and used the combined scores to choose interviewees. Most liked the process, but some did not, the letter said.

At least one member had concerns about the makeup of the committee, saying that current school staff may have a conflict because of a personal or professional relationship with one or more candidates. Members submitted disclosure statements under state ethics law saying that they could be fair.

Overall, Bryant said, Provost should consider the candidates the committee brought forward.

“It would appear that the Committee, made up of individuals with diverse roles and perspectives, moved forward in a reasonable manner to identify qualified candidates of diverse experiences and backgrounds,” she wrote.

Still, “As no such protocols are perfect,” Bryant wrote, “I do not fault Committee members for coming forward with concerns. In fact, their input may allow for improved protocols for future searches.”

In his message to school staff, Provost commended Vaillancourt for her leadership philosophy, “which focuses on the principles of love and courage.

“This discussion resonated with me because leadership is not an easy path,” Provost continued. “It is filled with many lonely hours and unpopular decisions that require courage. Leadership also requires maintaining group cohesion, which can effectively be done by reaching out in love, especially to those who may disagree with the leader.”

Vaillancourt accepted the position “with gratitude, appreciation, and humility,” she wrote in a statement to staff and families.

“I also recognize that further relationships need to be nurtured with colleagues and community members who hoped for a different outcome,
she continued. “As principal, my goal is to root our work in kindness, collaboration and the development of positive relationships.”

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com.




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