Times Record: Panel saw ‘red flag’ in Abelmann (May 29, 2013)

BRUNSWICK

The panel that recommended hiring Art Abelmann as Brunswick High School principal knew about his abrupt 2011 departure from a similar post in Colorado before narrowly endorsing him in a split vote.

Abelmann was selected in Brunswick after resigning in November 2011 as principal of Aspen High School, where he was unpopular with colleagues and was paid $30,000 to leave only 16 weeks into his two-year contract.

He abruptly resigned his Brunswick post May 22, just weeks before graduation and with more than a year remaining on a two-year contract worth $96,000 per year.

The two hasty departures in less than three years have led to questions about Abelmann’s hiring in Brunswick and his conduct while principal at both schools.

As with the Aspen case, officials here have provided no official explanation for Abelmann’s abrupt resignation beyond “personal reasons”; nor have they said whether his resignation was voluntary. Unlike in Aspen, Brunswick officials did not hand Abelmann a payout upon severing his contract.

Two participants on the 2012 search panel — both of whom requested anonymity, citing it as a personnel matter or fearing reprisals from current school officials — said the panel knew as they considered his candidacy to lead Brunswick High School that Abelmann had departed Aspen under a cloud.

Revelations about the $30,000 payout were uncovered online by faculty members of the search committee — not by administrators — and deeply divided the 15-member panel, which voted 8-7 to recommend Abelmann over one other finalist.

The school board unanimously backed the search committee’s split recommendation. Superintendent Paul Perzanoski then hired Abelmann in May 2012.

The search committee “was aware of the situation in Aspen,” said one panelist, who called it “a big red flag.”

School Board Vice Chairwoman Corrinne Perreault, the only currently serving elected official involved in the search, declined to speak about the process that led to Abelmann’s 2012 hiring. Two sources with knowledge of the deliberations said Perreault endorsed Abelmann in the 8-7 vote.

Over the past week, Perreault has declined two requests from The Times Record to describe the search process that led to Abelmann’s hiring.

In an email, Perreault cited “the tone and accusations” in a May 24 editorial as causing “my reluctance to meet with you.”

Citing personal obligations, “… I have no time to meet in the next 2 weeks,” she wrote. Perreault, who represents District 4, wrote she was bound by confidentiality from answering “many if not all of the questions you posed.”

“I will not be answering anything to anyone until I am total (sic) by an attorney that I would not be violating the law,” Perreault wrote.

The 15-member search panel on which Perreault served was comprised of two school board members, two Brunswick Junior High School faculty and 11 members of the Brunswick High School faculty. The panel was augmented by participation from a group of citizens invited to meet and interview the candidates.

The search capped a yearlong process in which the school system’s top two initial candidates declined offers, causing the process to be restarted. The panel then interviewed “five or six” new candidates before arriving at two new finalists, including Abelmann, sources said.

The two finalists spent an entire day at Brunswick High School meeting students, faculty and parents and interviewing with Perzanoski.

According to those with direct knowledge of the search committee’s deliberations, the panel was bitterly divided, with the high school faculty nearly unanimous in voting against Abelmann’s selection.

Becky Shepherd, a Brunswick resident and former school board member who participated in the process as a citizen, said she interviewed Abelmann, and “I did think (he) was the better candidate.”

“He was personable, he had a vision of education, it appeared he worked well with students. I really think he got it,” Shepherd said.

During the interview process, Shepherd said: “I specifically asked whether he had been fully vetted, and was assured (by school officials) that he was.”

“The general knowledge was that the Brunswick School Department, the superintendent’s office, specifically vetted him,” she said.

Regarding Abelmann’s exit from Colorado, Shepherd said “we asked him that” during his interview.

“He said he had gone out to Aspen as an ‘agent of change’ and, when he got there, he didn’t get along with the superintendent at all” and fell into disfavor with parents “because people didn’t really want change.”

A 2011 Colorado Department of Education survey completed in May 2012, in which 100 percent of Aspen High School teachers participated, showed Abelmann was highly unpopular there. The survey asked whether school leaders created “an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect within the school.” Thirty percent of high school teachers said “yes” compared to 91 percent at the local middle school, according to an analysis of the study quoted in the Aspen Times.

Roger Marolt, an Aspen Times columnist, wrote that a Aspen High School staffer had filed a complaint with the superintendent’s office taking offense with “the principal’s repeated comments regarding her personal life.” No legal action was taken and no monetary settlement was involved, but the incident “further cemented the prevailing feeling that Abelmann’s personality and management style were not right for AHS,” Marolt wrote.

In Brunswick, Abelmann again proved a divisive figure.

He greeted students at the school doors in the morning, organized group discussions, and welcomed parents and students to address him with questions or concerns. Students said he regularly visited classrooms, went to games and made efforts to interact with them on a regular basis.

But other observers said Abelmann engaged in conduct that made them nervous.

Citing “a lot of bizarre behaviors taken together that seemed to suggest someone ill-prepared for the job,” Shepherd said she approached school officials last week requesting a copy of Abelmann’s contract.

“He was not showing up to appointments with parents, who had to chase him around town to talk with him, which they thought was bizarre,” she said. “Students had told me some bizarre things he had said to them, or said in assemblies. Some female students had some things said to them that had made them uncomfortable.”

Shortly after arriving in Brunswick, Abelmann crashed his motorcycle on Maquoit Road and missed five weeks of work because of his injuries.

Brunswick Deputy Police Chief Marc Hagan said Abelmann told police he swerved to avoid an oncoming vehicle and lost control of the 2004 Honda motorcycle he was operating on Maquoit Road at 9:10 a.m. Sept. 11, 2012. Police could find no information about the vehicle Abelmann swerved to avoid.

Abelmann, who was not wearing a helmet, complained of back, neck and head pain and was taken to Maine Medical Center in Portland.

On Friday, The Times Record filed a Freedom of Access Act request with the Brunswick School Department requesting information about Abelmann’s hiring, his departure, and an internal investigation undertaken this winter into his conduct.

Among specifics in the request, the newspaper is seeking the written record of deliberations by the search committee; Abelmann’s contract terms; records of any complaints about Abelmann’s conduct while in his official capacity; the written record regarding the decision to accept Abelmann’s resignation; as well as the resignation letter itself.

The newspaper also is seeking to discover whether any official of the Brunswick School Department or member of the school board requested Abelmann’s resignation; and details of whether, why, and for how long Abelmann had been placed on administrative leave during his tenure.

Perzanoski said Tuesday his office had received the request and was consulting legal counsel before responding.

Abelmann, 51, has said he holds a bachelor of arts degree from Dartmouth College, a master’s in business administration from Babson College, principal certification from Plymouth State University; and attended graduate school at Harvard. The Times Record confirmed his Dartmouth degree during an inquiry in February.

Attempts to reach Abelmann were unsuccessful Thursday, Friday and again Monday; he has no local phone number listed. One address and two phone numbers are registered to Abelmann in Laconia, N.H. However, one phone number was out of service and calls to the other went unreturned.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s