District’s 4th in two years says he’s ‘a straight shooter’

By Shaun Moriarty
Citizen Chronicle Writer
shaun@thecitizenchronicle.com

SOUTHBRIDGE — The new school chief’s first public meeting was a quick one, but it was filled with tension and concerns over discipline.

Dr. Jeffrey A. Villar sat in on his first Southbridge School Committee meeting on Tuesday evening. As was noted by two members of the School Committee, Villar is the fourth state-appointed receiver/superintendent for the underperforming public school district over the last two years.

“I’m very happy to be here. I certainly understand and sense there is some tension and concern among members of the School Committee about my selection and role here in the town. All I can say is I come here with good intentions,” Villar said in his opening remarks. “My goal is to only amplify happiness because I do think that every child in this district deserves a high-quality education.”

He later added: “Candidly, I hope we all can work together to accomplish that goal.”

Villar informed committee members and the public that he has spent much of his first two days on the job getting to know the people it employs and serves, as well as touring school buildings. “I saw a heck of a lot of happy kids,” Villar said of his tours, adding that he “felt very welcomed” in each building.

On Jan. 19, Villar was appointed receiver/superintendent by Jeff Wulfson, then the acting commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. He has signed a three-year contract but said on Tuesday he hopes to remain in Southbridge beyond the life of his current employment agreement. Villar’s first official day on the job was Monday. He replaces interim receiver/superintendent Dr. Russell Johnston, and is the second permanent hire for the position since the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education placed the district under its control in 2016.

Several school committee members have been vocal about their disappointment and frustrations with the State control. On Tuesday, committee member Scott Lazo said he and his fellow elected officials have “zero power” and are the equivalent of “potted plants.”

Villar asserted he was no interested in “relitigating the past” issues of the district and pledged to be forthright and open with the School Committee.

“I hope that as you get to know me that I’m a pretty straight shooter,” he said, adding that he considers himself to be “a pretty good listener.”

Villar later said he comes bearing “an olive branch” in hopes of working together.

“I certainly expect a lot of difficult conversations and questions,” he said.

Among those difficulties are concerns over behavior at the secondary level, the announcement that Southbridge High School Principal Dr. Andrae Townsel is resigning, and issues around the high school’s Advance Placement course offerings. Villar described some of the district’s problems as the results of “systemic failure.”

Villar noted that on his first day on the job, he was notified that Townsel had been offered and accepted an assistant superintendent position in Michigan. Townsel is the high school’s seventh principal since 2010.

“My first day I learned of turnover,” Villar said, noting that he is now negotiating Townsel’s release “to figure out what his last day in the district will be.”

Lazo said that while Townsel “put his best efforts forward,” the district was promised a commitment by the now-departing principal.

“Well, Pioneer Family, Daddy is leaving,” Lazo quipped. “Now we have to fill the position.”

He added that he hopes to see a greater commitment from Villar.

“You must stay in position for a period of time to see results,” Lazo said. “I for one will not let you down if I’m on your team.”

Lazo said he has an open mind and is willing to be supportive of Villar but warned that in his view the track record of state-appointed leaders have been problematic.

“You’ll have to excuse my cautious optimism. You’re number four for me, and Mr. Townsel is number three,” Lazo said. “This has been a roller coaster ride since the state got here.”

The veteran school committee member later added: “You will be held on your own merits, not the performance of the previous three people.”

The administrative turnover was also a concern expressed by the panel’s student representative, Frances Garcia.

“We keep having new principals. It’s a problem, everyone knows it,” she said. “It’s worrying. In school today, it was the only talk.”

Villar responded by noting he sees “a need for consistency,” and suggested the district must “market our community” while pursuing “the best and brightest.”

“I understand the complexity of having a new leader all the time,” he continued. “It’s a top priority now that has arrived on day one.”

Lazo expressed concern over the $198,000 currently budgeted for the superintendent’s salary, a figure that he said is “a very large number for a small district.” All the same, he asserted Villar has “good credentials compared to the previous receiver.”

A father of six and a resident of Mansfield, Conn., Villar comes to Southbridge after serving as the executive director of the Connecticut Council for Education Reform (CCER), a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization that, on its website, describes its mission as working “to narrow Connecticut’s achievement gap and raise academic outcomes for all students in Connecticut.”

Villar said on Tuesday that he has made a commitment to the local community, one that is reminiscent of others he has lived and worked in.

“I chose to come here because I think that this town has a lot of great roots,” he said. “I’m a New Englander myself. This reminds me of many towns I’ve been in.”

Villar’s career in education began in the classroom as a bilingual high school history teacher in Hartford, later becoming a school administrator in Connecticut. He became a principal before being elevated to Associate Superintendent for Meriden Public Schools for nearly nine years. He later became the Superintendent of Rocky Hill Public Schools, holding the position for four years. In February 2012, he became superintendent in Windsor, serving for 21 months before heading to CCER in October 2013.

Officials hope the new superintendent can instill a greater handle of student discipline, particularly in the middle and high school levels.

“Discipline is a huge problem in the middle school and the high school,” said Garcia, a senior. “It’s kind of sad because when my brothers went to school it was not like that.”

She added: “It really does affect the classroom a lot.”

Lazo agreed.

“Some of the people that have come here have zero disciplinary standard in the classroom and in the school,” he asserted. “It is a very serious, serious issue with the parents and the students.”

Villar cited his experience as a principal, working with staff to combat behavioral issues among students, and pledged to support faculty members.

“We have to teach kids to behave and how to behave in school,” he explained. “We have to find a way to support teachers because teachers are the ones that teach children.”

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