In a surprise move during the closed session of its October 12 meeting, the Albemarle County School Board voted unanimously to extend Superintendent Matt Haas’s employment contract for another four years. Though his current contract was not set to expire until 2025, the new extension is effective immediately and allows Haas to stay in the position until the end of June 2027. As part of the employment agreement, Haas’ salary increased to $229,061 effective July 1, 2023.
Board members took turns lauding Haas during the public session of the meeting. “I think the longevity of the people who have been on the cabinet is proof of the fact that you provide good leadership,” said Katrina Callsen, who has since resigned from the board to run for state office. “There are so many public institutions, even right here in our geographic area, that are struggling with maintaining leadership and institutional knowledge, and people are fleeing the education field. So the fact that you have maintained high caliber people dedicated to this profession speaks to the fact that you are doing good work, and I think the public should know that.”
Board member Kate Acuff, who was on the board when it first promoted Haas to Superintendent in 2017, addressed concerns expressed in a recent online Change.org petition that asked the board to begin a search for a replacement for Haas. “The reasons cited in that petition are either erroneous in attributing the decision[s] to Matt, or show a misunderstanding of the issues,” said Acuff. “For example, the effort to replace school names … was the School Board’s decision and the board had final authority over that.”
Other issues brought up by the petition, which garnered over 1,600 signatures, included the failure to provide adequate bus transportation for students, the chronically wide achievement gaps between various student demographic groups, and Haas’ “continual failure to properly communicate to ACPS stakeholders.” Acuff pointed to a recent instructional audit done by outside educational consultant Bellwether that will address student learning deficiencies. “The fact that some in our community have been surprised that the achievement gap exists does not translate into Dr. Haas having caused it or failed to address it appropriately,” she said. “I strongly support extending Dr. Haas’ contract so he can continue to partner with the School Board in the work of promoting the goals of our strategic plan.”
After the meeting, board member Rebecca Berlin, who is running to retain the White Hall seat in this November’s election, said she supported the renewal because the division needs stability as it moves through the implementation phase of the Bellwether recommendations. “He is a caring, compassionate, courageous, and comprehensive leader who has taken this school system through the extremely difficult time of the pandemic and the pandemic aftermath,” said Berlin. “Every time I have brought concerns forward to him that I or my constituents had such as special education, communication, or community engagement, he has immediately worked with me and the leadership team to listen and find a solution, many times a solution that he was personally involved in.”
Berlin’s opponent for the White Hall seat, Joann McDermid, said the board’s action showed contempt for the will of the voters. “Elections have consequences, and you have to wonder if it is a fear of these consequences that prompted this board to schedule a vote in the middle of the Early Voting period,” said McDermid. “It’s as if they’re afraid to hear the voice of the people. What was the rush? One voting board member had resigned and was serving in her last couple of hours. Another voting member will serve only a few weeks longer. The current White Hall District member, an unelected replacement that was appointed by the current board, is running for election as my opponent. And one additional seat that is up for election is also being contested. This adds up to a possible four new board members, a board majority, with the potential to change the outcome of this decision. The White Hall District voters that I have spoken with since learning of this decision say that they certainly have heard the message loud and clear—your voice does not matter, we know best.”
School Board candidate Meg Bryce, running for the At Large seat, said, “The Board’s renewal of Haas’s contract is not surprising—we all knew that this Board would do so if given the chance—but it reflects two important points. First, an unwillingness to listen to the community. This decision is wildly unpopular, as they knew it would be, but they went ahead with it anyway. Second, a disregard for the educational needs of ACPS students. For ten minutes the Board members listed the reasons that they were voting to renew Dr. Haas’s contract. Not once did they mention educational outcomes of ACPS students. Their reasons for supporting him are completely detached from academics, and that is disturbing.”
Allison Spillman, also a candidate for the At Large seat, said, “I was shocked and frankly disappointed by the School Board’s decision to renew Matthew Haas’ contract 18 months early. As public school parents, we were owed the chance to give opinions and weigh in via public comment.”
The timing of the contract extension has also prompted questions about whether Haas asked the current board to act before the election in order to preserve his position. But Haas said the timing was, to him, a surprise. “I was not expecting it,” he said, and deferred to School Board members to describe their thinking on the early renewal. Board chair Judy Le said that members began discussing the contract extension several months ago.
“For me, the most influential catalyst was the upcoming instructional audit and the need to ensure that its recommendations on how to close achievement gaps and enhance academic opportunities for all students would be faithfully implemented,” said Le. “In short, this is not the time to be changing leaders. Stability and consistency are necessary for success if you have the right leader in place, and I believe Dr. Haas is the right leader. He fully embraced the need for constructive criticism of our instructional practices by outside experts and more significantly, he placed a very public spotlight on the division’s underperformance. His commitment to implement the audit’s recommendations is unquestionable.”
Le acknowledged that “some may see our actions in a negative light, and it’s why I asked each board member, including myself, to be transparent in publicly discussing their vote on October 12. We acted when we had consensus on the right decision for our school division. To have delayed this decision to await the results of a future election would lead some to believe that we allowed political considerations to shape our oversight of the school division. I believe we are elected to use our best nonpartisan and professional judgment to serve the future of our school division consistent with our strategic plan and its values. That is what we did on October 12.”
Reflecting on the renewal in an interview with the Gazette, Haas said, “I do not see this job as a lifetime appointment. I’m past retirement age, but I want to see things through. I really want to be here to support our employees and our school staff and provide the resources that they need to do this work so that we can keep moving forward. We’ve worked together to shed light on the achievement gaps that I feel in many ways had been paid short shrift in Albemarle for many years, and there’s a lot more community support now for that work. [Bringing in a new superintendent] would, for me, feel like a waste, because whenever someone new comes in they go through the whole process all over again and may not land on the same priorities.”
Haas feels that the Bellwether audit has given the division a “game plan” that is now on the “front burner.” “I think having an outside group come in and analyze everything and provide these root causes and recommendations really gives us greater confidence that many of the things we were working on are going to help,” he said. “And also, some of the things that we were working on probably were not going to help, so we could let them go.” Haas talked about the ongoing adoption of a new literacy program as mandated by the state and continuing work on closing achievement gaps between student demographic groups.
“One thing I want to emphasize is that when you work on improving instruction and learning for the most marginalized students, you elevate learning for everyone,” he said. “So, it’s not that we are narrowing in on particular students and saying, well, they get more and everybody else gets less. It’s that everybody gets more. It’s really about elevating learning for all students. And then as students get into their secondary programs, our board really wants the students to think about what their passions are for their career goals.”
Haas said that he feels the board has “always got my back. . . Because we have open relationship and very open communication with each other, I can speak my mind to board members about what I think. Every conversation I have with a board member closes with, ‘what feedback do you have for me on my performance right now?’ So, they can talk to me and we’ll try to find what’s going to be the best course moving forward.”