Dispatch: Sex and the School District
In 2004, when the Arlington school committee went looking for a new superintendent, it realized it had a momentous opportunity. The reputation of the town’s schools had been slowly improving for decades, but now ambitious parents could finally hire a change agent from beyond the academic bureaucracy, somebody who could finish the transformation of the school system from, as they said, “good to great.” The man they settled on was Nate Levenson, a 44-year-old with a Harvard M.B.A. and more than a decade of experience running a multimillion-dollar company. The outsider seemed like exactly the kind of leader Arlington wanted.
For the first two years of his tenure, as test scores improved and he got the school budget back on track, Levenson’s businesslike approach won him a devoted following. So it was a surprise when, in March 2007, an angry mob poured into a school committee meeting to demand his head.
At issue was Levenson’s decision to get rid of a popular middle school principal named Stavroula Bouris. Wearing a tie decorated with yellow school buses, Levenson sat in the center of the room as the crowd of 250 parents and teachers encircled him, the way teens close ranks around a schoolyard brawl in the hope of seeing some blood.
“It is truly a sad day for Arlington,” a middle school teacher said, when a principal can be subjected to “such a callous and immoral act on the part of the superintendent.” Playing to the crowd, the teacher told them the faculty at Bouris’s school had just taken a unanimous vote of no confidence in Levenson. Then he addressed the superintendent directly: “I know that you think we will go away, but we will not. Realize that truth may be hidden for a while, but it will never die.” The shouts and tears and applause that followed didn’t die down for more than four minutes.
Levenson’s decision—and the reaction to it—caused even one of his strongest allies on the school committee to turn against him. “I could go on and on about how I’ve seen your shortcomings…about your lack of understanding of this community and the people in it…about your self-promotion, and about your hubris,” Martin Thrope said. “Whether or not Stavroula Bouris goes or stays,” he added, “you’re finished in this town.”
What followed over the next few months, in what would come to be known as “Nategate,” was a series of revelations that forced Levenson from his job, divided the town, and even called into question the grand ambitions that had led to his hiring in the first place. In the end, it turned out that Levenson had made the mistake of thinking that when Arlington residents said they were ready for change, they actually meant it.
It’s only a slight exaggeration to say there are two types of people in Arlington, and you can tell them apart by where they do their grocery shopping. The townies prefer the rough-around-the-edges Johnnie’s Foodmaster because, well, it’s good enough. Then there are the newcomers, who go to the newly renovated Stop & Shop (but wish it were a Whole Foods). When it comes to most things, townies tend to like Arlington as it is, thank you very much; newcomers look to neighboring Belmont and Lexington and covet their farm stands, yoga studios, and—most of all—superlative schools.
In 2004, the hunt for a new superintendent seemed the perfect time to remake Arlington’s schools in the image of its neighbors’. “We felt that Arlington was ready,” says Suzanne Baratta Owayda, who chaired the search committee. “With the right leadership, we thought we could compete with the Lexingtons and Needhams, and even the Wellesleys and Westons.”
To fulfill that ambition, in 2005 the committee picked Levenson, making him the first superintendent in the state not to have come up through the ranks of the education system. It was thought he would bring dispassionate business principles to the task of managing cash-strapped schools. And, perhaps in a sign of how badly the committee wanted drastic advances, it was willing to overlook the fact that, save for two years assisting a small-town superintendent, Levenson had never worked in a school system.
Levenson jumped into the new job. He knew he couldn’t compete with wealthier school districts in raising cash, so he had to be creative. He found huge savings when he hired a staffer to troll eBay for used textbooks, and came up with a plan to make thousands in profit by charging foreign exchange students to come to town.
Some thought Levenson was cavalier, however, when it came to stickier personnel decisions. He eventually dismissed a broad swath of school administrators, along with some 15 other employees (and briefly considered shuttering an elementary school). Though he redirected $500,000 of the cash he saved into programs that cut the number of students reading below grade level in half, the layoffs did not sit well with many in town. “These were people, not commodities,” says one longtime resident.
For Levenson, Ottoson Middle School symbolized much of what needed fixing. In 2005, it was the lone Arlington school that failed to meet certain federal standards in math. As much as this frustrated Levenson, he also knew that many of the Ottoson faculty saw him as little more than an MCAS-obsessed theoretician. “Nate was from outside of Arlington,” says Glenn Koocher, executive director of the state’s association of school committees. “He brought a different perspective that posed a threat to the people whose main opposition was never having done it that way before.”
It was inevitable, then, that Levenson would butt heads with Stavroula Bouris, the Ottoson principal, who liked to consider her staff and students part of one big family. She arrived early each morning to greet the kids and teachers, chatted easily with parents, and once stood in the rain to direct traffic when a crossing guard didn’t make it to work. For his part, the balding and bespectacled Levenson would never be mistaken, as one friend admits, for someone “warm and fuzzy.”
When Levenson decided Bouris wasn’t buying into his plans for improving the school, he moved to oust her, a decision that plenty saw as New Arlington trying to get rid of old Arlington.
Shortly after that heated school committee meeting in March 2007, Levenson backed down and agreed to keep Bouris on. But just two months later, something curious happened: A school employee gave Levenson a stack of e-mails between Bouris and one of her teachers, Chuck Coughlin. By the end of that summer, Levenson had fired them both.
At 9:11 a.m. on Tuesday, October 31, 2006, Coughlin sent an e-mail from his school account to Bouris’s. “My privates are killing me,” the married teacher wrote to his married principal. “Should I be concerned?” Similar notes followed, such as this one from April 2007: “You make me feel like a high schooler again. I appreciate everything you do for me. Promise we can continue to play ball and that we will do something for your BDAY. I agree low-key would be wisest as well. Maybe a romantic lunch in downtown Arlington from 10-2??????”
To Levenson, the e-mails suggested the two were carrying on an affair, or at least exchanging sexually charged banter on school time. According to some former colleagues, though, Coughlin was merely a bawdy, back-slapping guy who joked that way with everyone. “There wasn’t an affair, I would bet my life on it,” says one. “If Stav made a mistake, it was not telling him to cut it out.”
Levenson has said he initially didn’t want to do anything with the e-mails, but the school’s attorney told him they needed to be investigated. When Levenson informed Bouris and Coughlin the racy e-mails meant he would have to dismiss them, he hoped they’d go quietly. Instead Coughlin began mobilizing support, and the two educators hired a bulldog lawyer named Frank Mondano.
As rumors of the scandal began to circulate in town, a Levenson supporter on the school committee leaked the e-mails to the local press. The news stories that followed included excerpts from a second packet of e-mails, which Levenson said had turned up anonymously in his office. “You know what would look good on you? Me!” read one that Coughlin addressed to “my hot principal.” “Here is a term you may be familiar with[:] MILF,” he wrote in another. “You would also qualify as a PILF.”
About the only thing that made these e-mails different from the first set was that several had been exchanged after school hours and through personal e-mail programs, including a Gmail account Coughlin had set up for Bouris. It seemed as though someone had used Bouris’s Gmail password, which Coughlin had sent her on school computers, to hack into her private account.
Many came to believe that Levenson had been looking for a way to fire Bouris ever since his failed attempt three months earlier. “My personal opinion is that someone went on a witch hunt,” says Ron Colosi Jr., an Ottoson guidance counselor who heads the Arlington teachers union.
But if Levenson engineered the leak of the e-mails to turn public opinion against Bouris—as her attorney has alleged, and his has denied—the plan backfired. Residents took to the Arlington List, a 4,000-member online bulletin board, to lament the damage done to the town—and to criticize the man they felt responsible. One wrote, “[Levenson] is, for the second time in the space of a few months, once again at the epicenter of a wrenching, bitter, town-wide controversy, which is once again, like a recurring nightmare, pitting teacher against teacher, friend against friend, and neighbor against neighbor.” An Arlington teacher who supported Bouris says some neighbors wouldn’t look him in the eye; a parent who defended Levenson at a playground was berated by other parents.
In the business world, a CEO can unilaterally fire someone and make it stick, but that isn’t a luxury afforded to superintendents like Levenson. Coughlin and Bouris battled his decision at every turn. In a bid to get their jobs back, they each entered into a set of confidential arbitration hearings with the school system.
During Levenson’s testimony at Coughlin’s arbitration last summer, the affair took another unexpected turn. At the lunch break of one hearing, Levenson walked away and didn’t come back; two days later, he resigned.
Explaining his departure in a public letter of resignation, Levenson made oblique reference to personal notes he had taken during the early days of the e-mail scandal. Although he said he didn’t share his notes with anyone, he did say that on one point they contradicted the official record of events he had prepared. The notes, which remain part of the confidential arbitration proceedings, have been the source of much speculation among Levenson’s critics. Many believe that when they come to light, they will call into question his assertion that he does not know where the second batch of e-mails, those from Bouris’s personal account, came from.
In his letter, Levenson said the discrepancy between the two accounts was an innocent mistake. “Based on the last three years, I knew many would find this a small issue,” he wrote, “but those that oppose my decisions and the new direction for the district would turn this into fuel for the ugly division that splits the community.”
Coughlin’s arbitration—which has become the longest of its kind in state history—is expected to conclude by next month. An arbitrator will release a ruling, as well as possibly make public the personal notes that prompted Levenson to resign. Bouris and Coughlin’s attorney, Frank Mondano, claims that what will emerge is that Levenson was behind a plan to hack Bouris’s Gmail account in an attempt to find more evidence he could use to discredit the two. (Through his attorney, Levenson says he never sought out the e-mails, and that the firings were justified.) “Levenson went so far down the road to ruin them that he blew himself up,” Mondano says. “How crazy is that?” If the pair prevails in a civil suit against Levenson and the town, he says, awards could run into the millions. “If this breaks wrong, it will be hurting Arlington for years.”
Nate Levenson turned out to be a change agent after all—just not the kind the town had hoped for. In the year since his resignation, the school committee has split along the predictable lines of Old Arlington versus New Arlington, and its members aren’t even close to choosing a new superintendent. In a school system of some 400 teachers, 67 have resigned over the past two school years, many, says union head Ron Colosi, because they lost faith in the administration. There’s even a rumor going around that some Lesley College professors are urging their education graduates to steer clear of Arlington.
“This is a nice place to live,” says Martin Thrope, the former school committee member. “When this stuff gets on the six o’clock news, it’s not good for the town. It turns us into a laughingstock.”