Burlington mayor calls for change in school leadership - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

Burlington mayor calls for change in school leadership

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Jeanne Collins Jeanne Collins

A showdown is shaping up over the Burlington schools superintendent. City councilors and the mayor are calling for Jeanne Collins to step down. While she tells us she should stay.

The district is facing a financial crisis, with recent revelations of millions in budget deficits racked up over the last 10 years, an IRS investigation into unpaid payroll taxes and a new budget proposal that some are calling a tough sell. Voters rejected the plan in March, but the latest budget is even bigger as officials hope to cover those old shortfalls.

If there was any doubt about how city councilors feel about Burlington's new school budget plan, it became clear Monday night. Comment after comment questioned the budget and why it is bigger than the one shot down by voters on Town Meeting Day.

"Confidence, I'd say, is at an all-time low," said Kurt Wright, R-Burlington City Council.

Wright is just one of the councilors concerned about the spending plan and the woman in charge of the school district, Jeanne Collins. Several councilors called for her to resign and so did Mayor Miro Weinberger.

"I think it's clear at this point that one of the steps that needs to happen to rebuild public confidence is a change in leadership," said Weinberger, D-Burlington.

"It's unusual for this particular mayor," said Alicia Freese, who covers Burlington politics for Seven Days.

Alicia says the mayor is often reluctant to jump into controversies. But calling for the superintendent's resignation helps the mayor solve a political problem.

"This is a recognition on his part that his reputation could be conflated with the reputation of the school board and what's happening with the district," Freese said.

Reporter Kristin Kelly: Is there a concern on your part that this whole mess with the school system which is separate from your finances could become your problem? That the public will see the two as being interconnected?

Mayor Miro Weinberger: Um, I think the public is right to be concerned about the overall trends that are happening with property taxes. I think the public is right to say that the mayor, even if he doesn't run the school system, needs to care about what happens in our schools.

The mayor says he agrees with some councilors who liken the current school budget mess to what happened during the Burlington Telecom scandal, at least when you look at what that did to public trust in government.

"They lost faith in the direction of city government. During that period ballot initiatives that went to the voters, tax initiatives, increases, were widely rejected. There just was a lack of confidence in leadership, and I fear we are in a comparable period here," Weinberger said.

Collins is resisting the push to step aside. In a statement she defends her leadership, saying she's hired personnel and upgraded technology to avoid future budget problems.

"Miro infers that I have done something wrong and therefore I have lost trust. I haven't done anything wrong and he knows it. In fact, I have put the systems in place that will lead us out of the situation we are currently in... The mayor is making a bad management recommendation. You don't change management personnel in the midst of a crisis."

"If the school district and Superintendent Collins are not able to find a way to part ways here it will be a problem. And not just her relationship with me, her relationship with the Council. You saw numerous city councilors call for her to step down (Monday) night," Weinberger said.

The mayor actually has no power to fire the superintendent; that is the school board's domain. And the board chair cannot comment on personnel issues.

There is a school board meeting Tuesday evening, and on the agenda is whether the district should accept the mayor's offer to have his chief financial officer spend the next two years cleaning up the school district's books.

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