TRURO — Beth Dietz and Christine Markowski, parents of eight-year-old twins at Truro Central School (TCS), have filed two complaints with the state over the school committee’s hiring earlier this year of Stephanie Costigan as superintendent.
In one complaint, submitted to the state attorney general, they argue that the committee violated the Open Meeting Law. The second complaint, to the Dept. of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), alleges a “lack of equal opportunity and equity” in the committee’s having interviewed only one candidate for the position: Costigan.
“I’ve been completely in the dark about the hiring process,” Dietz said on Aug. 19 during the public comment period of the school committee’s meeting. “It was really not responsible. It was not respectful.”
At least one member of the committee has some sympathy with the complaints. Kolby Blehm, who is also a TCS parent, said that parents’ opinions weren’t necessarily heard. “After public comment closes,” he told the Independent, “the public is just there to observe and not really participate.”
Blehm joined the school committee in July 2020. He knew that a superintendent search was slated for the coming year. “I felt it was important to have parent representation on the committee as this was happening,” he said.
On Nov. 12, Blehm said, the committee floated the idea of advertising the job as a combined director of student services and superintendent position. It occurred to him that this description seemed precisely tailored to Costigan’s credentials. She was already serving full-time as director of student services. The superintendent’s position has been part-time.
Kenneth Oxtoby, the committee chair at the time, explained that Costigan had the proper license to become superintendent, but he agreed to keep the process “fair and equitable.”
The board met on Dec. 3 to discuss a potential survey that the Mass. Association of School Committees (MASC) had prepared for Truro. Blehm said he considered this a good resource for soliciting public feedback. Committee member Christine Roderick was concerned about the length of the survey. “Holy smokes!” she said. “This is a lot of work.”
At the committee’s Dec. 16 meeting, as discussion of the superintendent search was about to start, Costigan left the room.
“What I am going to suggest is that we do the following,” Oxtoby said, “and people can let me know if you think I’m totally out of left field, or in outer space.” He proposed that the committee distribute the MASC survey and post the job internally “for a week and have [Costigan] formally apply.”
Oxtoby described director of student services and superintendent as “complementary positions” that involved similar responsibilities. A benefit of hiring Costigan, he added, was that she was accessible on school grounds five days a week, whereas an external candidate for superintendent would likely be present only two days per week.
Blehm pressed the committee to also do an external posting. But member Dennis Clark disagreed. “That sounds like a mess,” he said. “It would greatly prolong the process and complicate it.”
Oxtoby’s proposal passed 4-1, with Blehm the lone dissenter.
“I’m not going to be able to support it without some kind of guarantee that we’re going to be looking in an area where we actually have something to compare to,” he told his colleagues.
On Jan. 4, TCS families and staff received the survey. The internal posting went live among staff on the 6th. The following day, Blehm asked the rest of the committee, “What difference could any of this possibly make if the outcome of this process has already been predetermined?”
During the committee’s Jan. 21 meeting, Costigan was interviewed and her candidacy was discussed afterwards. There was no job description for the position being offered.
“I’m going to vote yes for this,” said Blehm, but he criticized the decision to delay formalizing the job description until after the hiring. “I feel like we’re continuing to do this backwards,” he said.
A unanimous vote clinched the job for Costigan.
“I was trying to figure out the best way to represent the interests of the community while making sure business got done,” Blehm told the Independent this week. “But if someone wanted to criticize that, then I feel like that would be a fair criticism.”
Costigan is now both director of student services and superintendent, she told the Independent. She and the new principal, Patrick Riley, plan to hold off on formalizing their respective job descriptions until they’ve worked together for a few weeks. “We often wear multiple hats here, so there’s a lot of overlap between the job descriptions,” she said.
When Beth Dietz filled out the Jan. 4 superintendent survey, her primary concern was diversity. According to DESE, 32.7 percent of the students enrolled at TCS in 2020-2021 were nonwhite; among Truro staff that year, there was only one nonwhite staff member for every 31.8 white staff members. “I wanted to make sure that we had a person of color or some kind of diversity represented in [the superintendent] position,” Dietz said.
The Independent asked Blehm what role diversity played during the hiring. “I don’t think you could say that it did much of anything when there’s only one candidate,” he said.
Kenneth Oxtoby maintained that the position was “posted appropriately” as an internal hiring and repeated his support for Costigan. He declined to provide further comment.
This past July, Blehm became chair of the school committee. “What I really want right now is to take these lessons and try to use them as a way to move forward,” he said. “My intention is to not repeat mistakes. They’re definitely at the front of my mind.”