Business & Economy

Brattleboro circus school’s future balances on high wire

New England Center for Circus Arts
Victoria Quine performs during a rally Sunday in support of the founders of the New England Center for Circus Arts, Elsie Smith and Serenity Smith Forchion, on the Brattleboro Common. Smith and Forchion were “separated from employment” by the organization’s board last week. Photo by Harmony Birch/Brattleboro Reformer

(This story is by Harmony Birch and Bob Audette of the Brattleboro Reformer, in which it first appeared July 16, 2017.)

BRATTLEBORO — Coaches at the New England Center for Circus Arts were still on strike Sunday after a Saturday meeting where they presented terms for ending their walkout to a representative of the organization’s board.

The coaches met with Gordon Bristol, of Gordon Bristol Consulting in Williamsville. Though not a board member, he represented the board Saturday. He has been working with NECCA for the past two years to help the organization obtain funds for and build its new building.

The meeting followed a tense week of revelations and community protests. On July 10, the board informed NECCA founders and twin sisters Elsie Smith and Serenity Smith Forchion that they were fired as artistic directors, effective immediately.

Friday night, following a community rally against the board’s actions, the board announced that Executive Director Michael Helmstadter and board President Elizabeth Warner would resign by July 28.

The board resignations appeared to be an effort to appease coaches, the circus community, and the community at large. Along with two public rallies, the national and local circus community has also protested with petitions and open letters of support for Smith and Forchion.

The board released two letters concerning the resignations, one to Smith and Forchion and one to NECCA coaches.

Both letters stated, “Due to the impact of the sudden withdrawal of students and demands for refunds over the past four days, it is important for you and the community to understand that NECCA is on the verge of closing its doors within a week.” The letters asked that the coaches and founders reach out to their contacts to support NECCA.

The letters also announced that Mel Martin would be taking Warner’s place as president of the board.

In an email forwarded to the Reformer, Warner wrote, “I committed 10 years of my life to NECCA, pouring my heart and soul into the betterment and continued improvement. I feel it is in my best interest for my family and myself to move on from the institution. I was the president for only five weeks, but I saw some things that didn’t look right, so I asked questions.”

Warner’s email was in response to correspondence from community members asking her to step down, but not before reinstating founders Smith and Forchion.

She also urged the public to “further your investigation into the recent terminations for transparency, clarity, and the overall health of the organization going forward if it is to survive.”

In a second email in response to a thank you for resigning, Warner wrote, “You’re welcome. I do hope the lemmings understand. Ask for an audit and see where you get.”

Over the past six days, The Reformer contacted Helmstadter several times. Each time he said he would return the call with a comment. However, he never did.

Helmstadter did tell the Keene (N.H.) Sentinel on Friday that he needed to resign because of the persisting controversy surrounding his role.

“Rightly or wrongly, I have become a polarizing figure, and my concern is to diffuse (sic) as much tension as humanly possible within the organization,” he said, according to the Sentinel. “I’m committed to the organization continuing on, and I’m not going to let my presence get in the way of that. However, [my resignation] will not change the termination of the organization’s co-founders, Elsie Smith and Serenity Smith Forchion, and the contractual offer made to them Monday remains the same.”

Founders respond to board’s offer

“We have seen the press release from NECCA … informing us of changes in the leadership team,” wrote Forchion and Smith in a press release issued at just past 9:30 p.m. Friday.

“Some clarification is necessary regarding the offer to Elsie and Serenity specifically. The board asks that ‘[the founders] accept the option to stay involved with NECCA per the terms outlined in a letter to you dated July 10.’ Those terms, in a letter offering the choice of resignation instead of termination, read ‘NECCA may continue to occasionally contract with Nimble Arts, your for-profit enterprise.’

“This is not a real offer to Serenity and me to work in a collaborative role to rebuild NECCA. We are open to an offer that includes us in planning and participating in the future vision of NECCA.”

Elsie Smith and Serenity Smith Forchion are the identical-twin founders of Brattleboro’s New England Center for Circus Arts. File photo by Kristopher Radder/Brattleboro Reformer

Forchion and Smith also said they are concerned that the “resignation of Michael Helmstadter and Elizabeth Warner, followed by placing Mel Martin in the role of board president of NECCA, is simply a reorganization of the same leadership team that we have been disappointed in.”

Forchion and Smith asked that the current board formally include the voices of the many people who have expressed their concerns over the terminations and the direction of NECCA.

“It is important that this is an open door to including and welcoming the coaches team in the framing of the future of NECCA. It is vital that their voices are both heard and honored as the board seeks to move NECCA forward. We still need specific examples as to how the community will be a part of the decision making process in the next two weeks as plans for the future are made, and we hope that the era of closed board room doors is over.”

Coaches draw line in the sand

Coaches also worried the board would remain unresponsive to them. In Saturday’s meeting with Bristol, the coaches drafted the terms of agreement for their return. In addition to asking that Helmstadter’s resignation occur Wednesday rather than July 28, they demanded Martin’s resignation, as well as the swift resignation of board member Tracy Prentiss, who is Helmstadter’s wife.

The coaches recommended the formation of an interim advisory committee to fulfill executive leadership roles. They also gave a list of potential new board members to fill vacant spots due to resignations, thus allowing the board to continue operating.

Though Smith and Forchion are not interested in resuming their previous roles, the statement said, the coaches asked that the founders work with the organization in a “meaningful capacity” that allows them to advise on NECCA’s next steps.

Sunday morning, Martin released a letter in response to the coaches. The only aspect of the agreement he addressed was the resignation dates for Helmstadter and Prentiss.

“It appears the timing of both Michael and Tracy is a primary concern. Please understand that both will step down as soon as we are certain the organization can operate and govern itself without them. They too are on the same page here. We need to consider them as individuals with different roles to fill, and as such, each will leave as soon as that role has been successfully filled,” Martin wrote. “The two week period for Michael is simply a reasonable time for us to find a solution. If we can manage to do that in half the time, all the better.”

He further asked to speak with the coaches today, Monday.

Past, current NECCA leaders weigh in

Leyna D’Ancona, who served as the communication and technology chair of the capital campaign for NECCA, resigned in 2016 because of the “dysfunction in the organization.”

Now, as an outsider, she believes the current problems come from a lack of trust.

“This is circus. Any circus performer will tell you what trust and confidence mean to them. Life or death,” D’Ancona wrote in a statement to the Reformer. “The board right now should ask themselves, ‘Why haven’t we earned the total trust and confidence of the founders so that they will let go of control and accept our offers?'”

D’Ancona said it’s now up to Martin to earn back the trust the board has lost from the circus community.

“Mel finds himself in a position to prove that he has earned the community’s trust. He is sitting at the center of ‘Everybody’s home for circus,’ the heart of the circus community,” she wrote. He and the board can do this, D’Ancona said, by recognizing that NECCA is not just a building, but also its people — the founders and the coaches.

On June 12, Bob Crego, NECCA’s current managing director, submitted his letter of resignation, which the Reformer received from an independent source.

“While I started this job excited at the prospect of leading the organization in the future, it became apparent in a relatively short amount of time that I had neither the respect nor trust of the board leadership,” wrote Crego.

“Having served as CEO and CFO for several successful nonprofits, and having developed over 40 building projects, I have grown flabbergasted at the level of disregard given by board leadership to my perspectives on the business and the building project. The lines between board, consultants, donors, and staff are muddled.”

Crego wrote that it was his opinion that important decisions were being made “more on the basis of emotion than on a realistic assessment of the situation.”

In an email to the Reformer, a former president of the board, Kate Anderson, said Crego was hired as a general manager, not as a CEO or CFO.

“While his opinion was, indeed, taken with seriousness, the board had been exercising due diligence in its deliberations regarding if and when to build the building for over two years,” wrote Anderson.

Characterizing the decisions as made more by emotion “misrepresents this group of accomplished community members, plus a diverse board …” wrote Anderson. “This was simply not the case, and it is a disservice to these individuals to describe it as such.”

Anderson also said the board of directors assembled a Building Committee that met twice a month over the four-year period leading up to the breaking of ground for NECCA’s Putney Road facility.

Anderson also took umbrage with a coach’s comment that grievances the board had against Smith and Forchion were minor, compared with the upheaval that followed their termination.

“I believe it is highly inappropriate to voice an opinion, i.e. [that the issues were] ‘minor,’ regarding any grievance process. This process was conducted with great attention to privacy.

“Confidentiality was maintained. The board did not ‘use’ this as ‘one of the reasons to move the twins aside.’ That is a misrepresentation.”

Anderson wrote that the situation doesn’t lend itself well to “black and white answers.”

“It is a disservice to paint the board over these last two years with the broad brush stroke of the authoritarian,” wrote Anderson. “The board, in fact, heard the twins ask for the building, in that it would serve NECCA so well. And [the board] heard the twins state that ‘we want to focus on teaching only.’ Much of the board’s energy was spent developing ways to do both. In a short time, a robust fundraising campaign was launched. It’s also important to realize the building was built off of the success of the Capital Campaign, not off of operations.”

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  • Pete Novick

    BUS MGT 302 – Business Management 302: Problems in management transitions, (Professor Darby) fall semester only. Prerequisites: BUS MGT 102, 210, and permission of the instructor. 3 credits.

    This course uses a case study approach to analyze and evaluate the efficacy of management transitions in private and public corporations. The course closely examines the transition from business founders to outside management, including how management uses media and public relations.

    If you like the circus, you will love this course!

  • Bill Gee

    This story has gotten a lot more “press” than it probably deserved, but unfortunately, the cat is out of the bag. I understand the need for privacy over private matters, but both sides here are trying to appeal for public support and without a full accounting on what actually happened to prompt this chain of events, it’s difficult for readers to take sides on this issue without “appealing to emotion” instead of an objective examination of the facts.

    On one side, the Board is accused of mismanagement, and on the other, the founders were accused of endangering the organization’s non-profit status by running a for-profit venture on NECCA property. Both issues should have been easily resolved if that’s all it was, but that’s obviously not the case otherwise things wouldn’t have gotten as out of hand as they have.