Schools in Lexington open next week, but students and parents at Minuteman High School say they have no idea what’s going on with embattled superintendent Dr. Kathleen Dawson — or who will be running the show when the doors open on Tuesday.
“If Dr. Dawson is allowed to come back to Minuteman there will be a revolt,” said Jinna Penachio, a former head of the Minuteman Parents Association whose daughter is a rising junior at the school. “The students will walk out, the parents will walk out. We’re very, very upset about how things were handled by Dr. Dawson over this last school year, and we do not want her to come back.”
It’s been just over a year since Dawson was hired to lead the award-winning technical and vocational high school. The school is based in Lexington but serves students from nine local towns and is administered separately from Lexington Public Schools, with its own superintendent, school committee, and faculty association.
The Minuteman School Committee unanimously voted to hire Dawson over several other candidates. At first glance, Dawson has an impressive resume, with a Masters in Education from Harvard, an Ed.D from University of Pennsylvania, and experience, most recently, as Deputy Superintendent of the Orange County School District in North Carolina, which serves over 7,000 students.
“I think everybody wanted things to go well,” said Courtney Zwirn, the current head of the Minuteman Parents Association and mom to a senior and an incoming freshman. “My understanding now is that she started alienating teachers and staff from day one.”
Some parents say her resume alone should have raised alarms given her short tenures at multiple schools, including a stint at the underperforming New Bedford High School, where she was hired to lead the school through a state-mandated turnaround program, but resigned in the middle of her first year on the job.
Asked when they first began to question Dawson’s leadership, several parents who spoke to LexObserver described an introductory speech Dawson gave to the Minuteman school community, during which she expressed dismay at the school’s lack of diversity and said she wanted to change that, which some parents found disconcerting. Some felt that Dawson wanted to make Minuteman more academically competitive and didn’t seem to take pride in the school’s technical and vocational mission. Some also pointed to reports, vehemently denied by Dr. Dawson, that she touched students’ shoulders in a way that made them uncomfortable.
But the main problem, Zwirn says, was her leadership style. “She created such a hostile work environment. That was the bigger issue for me.”
By way of example, Zwirn recounted an incident, also mentioned by others, which allegedly occurred in the wake of the untimely death of the husband of one of the school’s vice principals. According to Zwirn, nearly half the staff planned to attend the funeral to show their support for their colleague, who was left to care for two young children on her own. Dawson herself opted not to attend and, instead, sent out an email to the staff announcing that she would be doing classroom observations that day – knowing that many teachers were taking time off to attend the funeral.
Things came to a head last April, when Dawson unexpectedly informed the school’s beloved long-time principal, George Clement, that she would not be renewing his contract, without providing a clear reason to the school community. At least four other faculty members were dismissed or resigned around the same time.
“Minutemen was literally the best school I have ever seen. They taught kids in a way that kids wanted to learn, and even kids who were troubled in other schools came to the Minutemen and they were successful,” Penachio said. “So when she fired Principal Clement, everybody was like, wait a second, what was happening right now?”
Staff and students rallied to Clement’s defense. A “Save Mr. Clement” petition started by student Annie Bronson garnered nearly 1,000 signatures in the first 24 hours. Students staged a walkout that was covered by local TV. The 90-member Minuteman Faculty Association unanimously passed a vote of no confidence in Dawson.
In a letter to school committee members following his ousting, Mr. Clement called Dawson “an insincere, inexperienced, ineffective manager” and accused her of making staff and students uncomfortable by “rubbing their shoulders or back.” (Dawson told the Globe that she had “never touched a student or staff member in a manner that was intended to be or could be construed to be of a sexual nature” and looked forward to clearing her name of the “innuendo and rumors.”)
On May 11, in response to the outrage, the school committee voted to place Dawson on administrative leave, pending an investigation. Keven Mahoney, who had retired as Minuteman’s assistant superintendent in 2019, stepped in as interim superintendent, and Kathleen Bouchard, the school’s director of career and technology education, as acting principal.
Since then, there have been multiple executive sessions of the Minuteman School Committee to discuss “the reputation, character, physical condition, or mental health, rather than professional competence, of the Superintendent-Director, or to discuss the discipline or dismissal of, or complaints or charges brought against, a public officer, employee, staff member, or individual,” according to the publicly posted agendas. A meeting scheduled for this past Wednesday was canceled; the next one is scheduled for Aug. 29.
“I’ve lost track of how many times that closed-door item has been on their agenda,” Zwirn said. “We can’t move on until we know how they’re resolving this.”
Some parents blame the school committee for hiring Dawson in the first place, and are pushing to have some members replaced. “What we really want is school committee members who have the best interests of the staff, the students, the parents, at heart,” Penachio said.
School Committee Chair Jeff Stulin declined an interview request, but said in an email that the committee will continue to meet on this topic over the next several weeks. “As this is a personnel matter, the Committee is not able to share any additional information at this time,” he said. “I am hopeful that we will be able to share more in the near future.”
“I love Minuteman, and Minuteman is in crisis right now,” Penachio said. “We need new leadership, and we need it now.”