In Marblehead, furor and speculation reign over an ousted superintendent

The Boston Globe

Marblehead Superintendent John Buckey was forced to resign from his post just one month after the School Committee gave him a favorable performance review.
Marblehead Superintendent John Buckey was forced to resign from his post just one month after the School Committee gave him a favorable performance review. Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

MARBLEHEAD — When John Buckey arrived in this charming seaside town in the summer of 2020, hired as superintendent of Marblehead Public Schools, he greeted his new role with optimism, even as the pandemic raged around him.

Buckey, who had spent the previous 15 years as a high school principal, most recently in Nantucket, was ready to make a change. Marblehead had a reputation for cycling through superintendents — with seven permanent or interim leaders since 2005 — and Buckey thought he might reverse the trend and bring some much-needed stability to district leadership. He moved to a condo in the historic Adams House at Fort Sewall Beach and became a regular at the Driftwood diner. He could see himself retiring here at the end of a long career.

“People have been so warm and welcoming and kind,” Buckey told a local realtor during a Zoom interview on the last day of his first month helming the district of roughly 2,600 students. “Perhaps, I’m a glass-half-full-type guy, but maybe it’s the best time to be a new superintendent.”

Buckey, 49, was out of a job a little more than three years later, forced on Aug. 2 to agree to resign, under a cloud of controversy that has outraged townspeople and shaken their faith in the local school system. The School Committee has offered only vague clues as to why its members sought to oust him, prompting widespread speculation about their motives — and whether they were personally or ideologically driven.

Not even Buckey knows why he was pushed out of his nearly $190,000 a year job.

“I have never been given any explanation, reason or motivation,” he said in a written response to questions from the Globe. (Buckey is bound by a non-disparagement clause in his settlement agreement with the district; his answers were reviewed by his attorney.)

Members of the School Committee, meanwhile, have declined to publicly comment.

Where many agree, however, is that a superintendent’s survival these days in a community such as Marblehead hinges as much on the social and political milieu of the district he’s leading as on his competence and leadership skills. Just as school boards have become the center of culture wars across the country, so too have superintendents, caught up in clashes on incendiary issues such as book bans, critical race theory, and gender identity.

Superintendents in several Massachusetts municipalities have, in recent months, exited under similarly strained circumstances. In Saugus, Erin McMahon, the first woman to lead the district, has been forced by the School Committee to remain on leave since January; the committee invoked only vague concerns about her conduct during a particularly acrimonious budget cycle. School Committee members in Everett voted this spring not to renew Priya Tahiliani’s superintendent contract following years of tension between her and the mayor. This month, Michael Morris stepped down as superintendent of Amherst-Pelham Regional Public Schools amid an outside investigation into the treatment of transgender students at a middle school.

“The question is, what’s driving these decisions?” said Vladimir Kogan, an Ohio State University professor who studies school district politics. “To the extent that it’s really adult issues that have nothing to do with student outcomes, that’s when we should start to get concerned because ultimately it’s going to distract from what schools do.”

Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said that “the job has become far too political.” In the past, Scott said, it wasn’t rare to see superintendents serving as many 20 years at the helm of a Massachusetts school district; today, the average tenure of a superintendent in the state is five years.

Buckey was hired as superintendent of Marblehead Public Schools in February 2020, one of two finalists for the job. School Committee members extolled Buckey as a transformational leader. He impressed the town in public forums with his youth and charisma. He was also openly gay and married and planned to plant roots in the town.

“It was just like a breath of fresh air,” said Paul Baker, a Marblehead resident who attended the forums and later made an unsuccessful bid for School Committee. “Just something a small town like Marblehead needs — a wake-up call, a bit of diversity.”

But fissures in Buckey’s support started forming almost as soon as he arrived to the district in the throes of the pandemic, tasked then with reopening schools while navigating the murky terrain of mask mandates and hybrid learning. Public debate in Marblehead about COVID policy gave way to consternation around diversity and inclusion efforts, recalled Sarah Gold, a former Marblehead School Committee member who was committee chair when Buckey was appointed.

“I think COVID is the direct line,” Gold said of the road to Buckey’s departure. “It started as wanting kids to get back to the classroom and then became all about masks and then you had all of the civil rights pieces within it that then created divisions with Black Lives Matter.”

In the 2021, controversy erupted over the display of a Black Lives Matter flag in the high school cafeteria, which Buckey defended, citing his commitment to Marblehead “becoming an anti-racist school district.” (Marblehead, with a population of roughly 20,000 people, is 96 percent white.) Last summer, Buckey urged the town to pass a $3 million tax override for schools that would have allowed the district, in part, to hire a new director of diversity, equity, and inclusion, galvanizing local critics. The override failed, but a vocal contingent of voters took to social media, accusing Buckey of trying to “infiltrate” the schools with his liberal agenda.

“There is definitely a group of folks who were anti-Buckey,” said Leigh Blander, a reporter for the Marblehead Current, an online newspaper. “Buckey was very supportive of DEI…and, as a gay, married man, was very supportive of LGBTQ students and issues, and there definitely was a sense in the community that not everybody was comfortable with that.”

Until last month, Buckey had the support of the five-member School Committee. In July 2021, the School Committee voted 4 to 1 to extend his contract for another two years. Only Sarah Fox, the current chair, opposed the extension. In mid-June, the School Committee approved a “proficient” performance evaluation for Buckey.

But a week later, two new School Committee members were elected — a previous committee member, Jennifer Schaeffner, founder of the local news website Marblehead Beacon, and Brian Ota, a former principal of the district’s Glover Elementary School. (Gold lost her seat.) Another tax override was on the ballot, but it, too, failed, resulting in cuts to school programs and personnel. After the election, the Current’s Blander broke the news that Ota had filed a complaint against Buckey with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination when his contract as Glover’s principal was not renewed — a fact he did not disclose while campaigning.

By early July, and with two new members on the School Committee, it appeared an effort to remove Buckey was underway. On July 7, less than three weeks after the election, Fox had “stopped communicating” with him, Buckey told the Globe. To Buckey’s surprise, he later learned the School Committee planned to meet behind closed doors in executive session on July 21 to discuss the terms of his contract, with Ota agreeing to recuse himself. The School Committee was set to vote on the early termination clause of his contract in a virtual meeting on July 26 before abruptly calling it off in under a minute with no explanation. A week later, Buckey agreed to resign.

Under the terms of his settlement agreement, Buckey will be on paid leave until Dec. 31, at which point he will resign. He will receive a lump sum payment of $94,350 on Jan. 2, 2024. The School Committee, in the meantime, has launched its search for an interim superintendent and the town of Marblehead remains in the dark.

Only one School Committee member, Meagan Taylor, has sided publicly with Buckey. In a letter to the editor of the Current, Taylor chided her colleagues’ plans to remove Buckey from his position.

“The actions of this committee have affected staff morale, disrupted the stability of our schools, detracted from the positive work of the district, and will negatively impact our budget and ability to hire a successor superintendent,” she wrote. “Our community deserves better than this.”

At an unusually lively School Committee meeting at the high school library on Aug. 11, townspeople conjectured openly about Buckey’s abrupt departure and voiced their frustration with their elected school leaders. One woman wondered about a “hidden agenda.” Another accused the School Committee of turning the town into a “laughing stock.”

“I suspect that members of our school board came to this bizarre peremptory dismissal from different motivations,” Mimi Lemay, a Marblehead parent, told the Globe.

Fox, the School Committee chair, has pointed only to the July 21 minutes of the committee’s executive session by way of oblique explanation. The minutes mention a “recent investigative report…on a complaint of bullying on an athletic team in addition to other concerns brought forth to the Committee on other matters in recent weeks.”

The report referenced in the minutes refers to an outside investigation of unintentional “bullying” by former Marblehead High girls soccer coach John Dormer, obtained by the Current and published on July 26. In October, the report said, the school district hired an independent investigator to look into an anonymous complaint about Dormer by the family of a girls soccer player. The investigator determined the coach had inadvertently caused “emotional harm” to non-varsity players who complained about their roles in the soccer program.

Buckey’s lawyer, Michael Long, general counsel to the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said Buckey was never contacted by the investigator or asked to be interviewed, and had only become aware of the complaint in October.

Fox told the Globe the minutes “are as they stand” and she could not comment further before adding that the School Committee had “heard from a lot more people that don’t feel the same way” as those who spoke out at the Aug. 11 meeting.

One those constituents is Megan Sweeney, founder of the local activist group PowerUp. She said she’s satisfied with the School Committee’s level of transparency around Buckey’s removal and that the allegations were “worthy of unseating a superintendent.”

“I don’t know anything more important than our children,” she said.I feel like as adults, we have an inherent responsibility, moral obligation, ethical obligation to to make sure that they are centered in our decisions.”

It’s an explanation not all seem willing to buy. Joe Selby, whose daughter was a player on the girls varsity soccer team, suspects the investigation of Dormer was a “witch hunt” on behalf of parents who felt their children did not get enough playing time, and a convenient pretext for the School Committee to get a rid of Buckey.

I think the School Committee was desperate to fire this guy,” he said, “and I don’t know why.”