BENTON’S BACK: Ex-Superintendent Joanne Benton Named Interim Superintendent

WILMINGTON, MA — What’s old is new again!  On Wednesday night, the Wilmington School Committee voted 5-1 to appoint former (retired) Wilmington School Superintendent Joanne Benton to the position of Interim Superintendent, pending contract negotiations.

Earlier in the evening, the School Committee spent nearly 90 minutes interviewing two other candidates for the job — Dr. Joe Connelly, a retired superintendent who, for the past 10 years, has been serving as interim superintendent in school districts across the state — and Michael LaCava, Principal at the Harrington Elementary School in Chelmsford and runner-up in the Committee’s 2014 Superintendent search.  Both men happened to have strong connections Wilmington — Connelly served as a teacher, principal and business administrator in town during the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, while LaCava grew up in Wilmington and graduated from Wilmington High.

While Connelly and LaCava impressed the committee, members ultimately decided that the retired Joanne Benton and her 10 year’s of Central Office experience in Wilmington — 7 as a Superintendent (2007-2014) and 3 as Assistant Superintendent (2004-2007) — made her the best fit for the interim position.

Benton, who is currently serving as a mentor to principals and curriculum directors in both the Burlington and Melrose Public School systems, was unable to attend Wednesday night’s interview session due to a conflict.  Committee members made it clear going into the meeting that Benton, and other candidates who did not interview, would still being considered for the opening.

First, the Committee decided it needed a candidate with Superintendent experience, eliminating LaCava from consideration.

“I was impressed by both candidates, but I have to be honest…, I think it’s important we bring in someone who has experience in this role as an Interim and take our time finding a permanent solution,” said member Manny Mulas.

“The needs of our district right now do speak to experience.  [We need] to stabilize our district and our community,” agreed member MJ Byrnes.

“I think it would be unfair to throw someone in this mix with no experience — 3 weeks without a leader, in the middle of the budget process — I think we need someone with an awful lot of experience and familiarity with the district,” concurred Vice Chair Steve Bjork.

“A retired superintendent would have the experience needed to get us through this year,” said member Ginny Bonish.

“Experience is what we really need at this time,” agreed member Tom Talbot.

“Wilmington would be best suited with someone having the experience vs. someone we might take a risk with,” Chair Julie Broussard summarized.

While favoring Connelly’s candidacy over LaCava, board members were clear that LaCava, who lacks any Central Office experience, was very impressive.  3 board members indicated they hope LaCava applies for the full-time, permanent position once it is posted.

Then, the Committee made comments in evaluating Dr. John Connelly.

“I think he’d be a great Interim Superintendent,” said Tom Talbot.

“I thought he was very good and obviously had a lot of experience in a lot of different roles,” added Ginny Bonish.

“I think Dr. Connelly’s qualifications are impeccable. His reputation proceeds him,” said Steve Bjork.  “Personally, I like the guy very, very much and he’d certainly be a fantastic asset.”

“We can’t go wrong with either [Connelly or Benton],” noted MJ Byrnes, but gave the edge to Benton due to her familiarity with the district and ability to “help in the healing process.”

“I thought Dr. Connelly was impeccable tonight and very good at answering all the questions,” added Manny Mulas, who especially liked the fact that Connelly has roughly 10 years of interim superintendent experience.  “This is what he does now.”

Then, the Committee made comments in evaluating Joanne Benton.

“We’ve got 2 very strong, capable candidates,” admitted Byrnes.  “Wilmington [however] is an investment to [Mrs. Benton]… Her ties and her heart is here in Wilmington.  We’re just not another passing town to her… It would benefit our staff and teachers, which would ultimately benefit our students, by having Mrs. Benton come back.”

“We’re just about to go into the budgeting process, Joanne has done that alongside Paul for a decade.  She’s dealt with the town’s side, knows all the players and worked very well with them for a decade,” noted Bjork.  “She has a grasp, before evening walking in the door, what the faculty and staff needs.

“Nobody else can walk into this district and participate in the Facilities Master Plan Committee,” added Bjork.  “And we’ll be entering into negotiations for the teachers’ contract very soon.  [Joanne] has done that before and, on every occasion, has come up with a mutually beneficial contract.  Quite frankly, I don’t think there’s any other choice.”

“I think there are advantages to both candidates.  Obviously, Benton has a lot of experience in Wilmington as a superintendent.  I do like the specific interim superintendent skill set that Dr. Connelly has,” said Bonish.  “If we were to bring Joanne back, I think it would have to be clear that it’s an interim position” and we expect her to play a role in mentoring and helping with the permanent superintendent search.  “Conditionally, I think Benton would be a good choice.”

“I can’t consider [former Superintendent Joanne Benton] because I don’t know her. I don’t have a resume. I don’t know anything about her.  She couldn’t take the time to show up tonight. My decision would be Dr. Connelly,” declared Talbot.  Later in the meeting, he added, “I’m not going to hire someone sight unseen.  If she really wanted to have this position, she would have been here tonight.”

“We’ve heard a lot from the community.  They’ve made it quite clear what their wishes are [bringing back Superintendent Benton.] [The Committee] has felt that it’s time to get back to business,” said Broussard. “The quicker we can do that, the better off our community will be.  The better off our children will be… I’m very comfortable that Mrs. Benton could easily step in the role and get as back to business as quickly as possible.”

“Let’s right the ship.  Let’s stay the course with the strategic plan.  We’re not looking for massive changes for the rest of the school year,” added Broussard.

The Vote

In a follow-up to Bonish’s comments, Manny Mulas asked how the Committee would know under what conditions Benton would accept the job.  Mulas, along with Byrnes and Talbot, expressed their disappointment that Benton was not present to answer questions and hammer out details.

Steve Bjork responded that the conditions would be spelled out in the contract and agreed upon during contract negotiations.

Bjork soon thereafter made a motion to “appoint Joanne Benton, pending contract negotiations.  If those contact negotiations were to break down, the Committee then offers the appointment to Dr. Connelly’s, pending contract negotiations.”

Byrnes seconded the motion.

“If the board thinks we should bring Joanne back, I think we should work together as a committee and show full support, so I will go along with a vote for Joanne Benton if that’s who the board wants,” said Mulas.  “It’s important that we all support it so we can start the healing process.”

The Committee then voted, 5-1, to support Bjork’s motion.  Bjork, Bonish, Broussard, Byrnes, and Mulas voted in favor.  Talbot, the committee’s newest member, was the sole vote in opposition.  (Member Peggy Kane had to recuse herself from the discussion and vote as she has a family member employed in the district.)

Watch the full meeting, courtesy of Wilmington Community Television, below:

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