Dick Courcelle is ready to graduate.
After 14 years, the chairman of the Rutland City Public School Board of Commissioners announced last Wednesday he would step down at the board’s April meeting.
While Courcelle still has one year left in his term, he said now feels like the right juncture at which make his exit.
“It’s time,” Courcelle said in an interview last Friday.
Courcelle explained that he had intended only to serve four terms on the board, but decided to run again when former Superintendent Mary Moran announced her retirement toward the end of this last term in 2018.
“I felt that I could help with continuity in leadership and help the board through that particular process,” he said.
Courcelle had planned to step down once a new superintendent was selected, but that didn’t work out as planned.
Moran’s successor, Adam Taylor, had a brief, turbulent tenure that ended abruptly in August. The board then appointed former district superintendent David Wolk last September to fill the position as interim superintendent while the board searched for a permanent replacement.
Last month, the board announced Rutland High School Principal Bill Olsen would take over July 1.
“I couldn’t be happier,” Courcelle said, adding that Olsen and Assistant Superintendent Rob Bliss will make “one heck of a team.”
With the matter settled, Courcelle said he is ready to step back and let others take the reins.
“It’s important to have new leadership emerge,” he said.
Courcelle was elected to the board in 2006. Since then he has served in some leadership capacity — first as clerk and more recently as chairman.
He recalled being encouraged to run for the board by former Northeast Primary School Principal Diane Wolk, who suggested it would be a good way to formalize his increasing involvement in school activities.
Courcelle and his wife, Sharon, have since put two children through the city school system.
He said he didn’t come to the board with any particular agenda.
“There was nothing that I was really seeking to do other than serve Rutland City Schools to the best of my abilities.”
Courcelle said his time on the board has taught him to have patience for people’s viewpoints. In his time in office, he said he has learned to “act more as a facilitator than a director.”
He said leadership experience has benefited him professionally. For the past 13 years, Courcelle has worked as chief executive officer for the Community Care Network, the organization comprised of Rutland Mental Health Services and Rutland Community Programs.
Courcelle said he has seen some difficult times during his leadership. He’s also seen a lot of changes in the education system.
“It is far more complex than it was when I was in school. And far more complex than it was when I joined the board,” he said, explaining that schools are now “expected to have services far beyond what one would consider to be traditional education.”
He said his experience at the Community Care Network has shown him the severity of those needs up close.
“I certainly recognize the increasing needs and acuity within the community for those type of services.”
Courcelle acknowledged the “significant family issues” and trauma that teachers and counselors are dealing with every single day, and how those situations impact a child’s ability to learn” as well as the children around them.
“I have a profound appreciation for how difficult it is now to be a teacher and to be working in the schools,” he said.
He said figuring out how to address those issues presents a challenge to the School Board.
“At the board level there’s only so much we can do,” he said. “So many of these issues are so complex and intractable.”
Explaining his philosophy for being an effective board chairman, Courcelle said it is important to put one’s agenda aside. “It’s developing that sense of neutrality.”
He said it requires having a clear understanding of what the board’s role is.
“If I was to offer any advice to this future board and future board leadership, it’s to stay in your lane,” he said. “Your role is to oversee the superintendent of schools and to help with the provision of resources and the direction of those resources based upon the administration’s recommendations.”
He compared the role of a board to “bumpers in a bowling alley.”
“You help set the direction, but allow a lot of latitude,” he said. “I hope I’ve been able to accomplish that.”
Courcelle noted the board is currently facing a unique set of transitional challenges with three newly elected members, a new superintendent and now a new chair.
Fellow board members acknowledged Courcelle’s absence will be felt.
Hurley Cavacas said Courcelle’s departure is “a great loss for the board.”
He called Courcelle “a wonderful role model as chair” who “kept a steady keel” during the rocky superintendent transition.
“He put the interest of students at the forefront.”
Alison Notte, another board member, said she is sad to see Courcelle go.
“I’ve really appreciated his leadership over (the) years,” she said, noting his institutional knowledge was especially valuable over the last two years.
Speaking to the Herald last Thursday, Interim Superintendent Wolk characterized Courcelle as a “steady hand at the wheel” who exhibited “consistency, decency, diplomacy (and) advocacy for kids.”
“He has handled personnel challenges with respect and patience,” Wolk said. “During discussions related to issues at the schools, he always has shown these qualities in listening to all sides and making guests at board meetings feel welcome and heard.”
Courcelle offered some parting advice to the board: “Listen. Learn. Don’t have an agenda. … You’re representing all the kids, the entire community.”
Another piece of advice: “Allow the new superintendent to do his job. And allow the administration to do its job. Listen to them. Recognize that they are the professionals.”
Courcelle said he’s stepping away from the board with mixed emotions.
“It has been one of the most rewarding and satisfying things that I have ever done.”
Looking back on his 14 years, he pointed to one highlight in particular.
“Unequivocally, it was when I handed my daughter her high school diploma with my signature on it, fighting back tears that those years went by in the blink of an eye.”