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Coaches resign in wake of Circus Arts board’s decision

  • New England Center for Circus Arts’ coaches (left to right) Johna Applestein, Jess Hill, Erin Lovett Sherman, Erika Radcliffe, Victoria Quine, and Billy Higgins stand in solidarity for founding sisters, Elsie and Serenity after being terminated. Brattleboro Reformer Photo/Kristopher Radder



Brattleboro Reformer
Friday, July 14, 2017

BRATTLEBORO — Coaches at the New England Center for Circus Arts are resigning and students are asking that their deposits be returned after NECCA’s board of directors “separated from employment” Elsie Smith and Serenity Smith Forchion, the founders of the organization.

“The coaches of NECCA have always put their students first,” stated a letter signed by a number of coaches. “We have been lucky to be part of an organization where the priority of students’ interests and safety have been paramount. We feel that this is no longer the case under the current leadership and it has put our ability to coach effectively and maintain our standards of safety effectively at risk. ... It is also because of our love and dedication to the students and the art that we are withdrawing our support for the current leadership. Some of us are stepping down to continue the fight from outside; others of us are remaining to advocate from the inside. We are all terribly saddened to see the space we love so dearly diverting from its mission so drastically, and are determined to do what we know is right for our circus family.”

In another letter released to the community, coaches at NECCA accused the board of diverging from NECCA’s mission “and as a result (the board) no longer (has) the confidence of the coaching staff. Recent actions lead us to believe that they are not acting in the best interest of the students and the community and we can no longer support them as leaders of the organization.”

While the growth of NECCA’s programs and its move to its new location on Putney Road requires an adjustment to the mission, noted the letter, “over time this process became fixated on the goal of removing the founders and left other organizational needs and challenges unaddressed. There has been a lack of financial transparency, erratic behavior including the resignation of most of the board members over the last two months, and potential conflicts of interest as the vice president of the board’s husband was hired as an executive director making a large sum of money that most of us feel is inappropriate for that position.”

The coaches also allege that the current board and NECCA’s executive director, Michael C. Helmstadter, “have neglected infrastructure and maintenance, failing to adequately prepare the new building for the move, cutting coaches, staff and the founders out of the conversation. In general, they have been both secretive and combative. The coaching staff has made several attempts to engage with them in meaningful dialogue and address these issues directly to no avail.”

The board responds

In a statement to the community released Wednesday afternoon, the board of directors termed the “separation” of Smith and Forchion as “a leadership reorganization.”

“The past 18 months have been spent working to resolve management and personnel problems to the benefit of the entire organization,” stated Helmstadter, who lives in Montague, Mass. “The board of directors of NECCA has chosen a difficult, yet necessary decision to separate the co-founders of NECCA — Elsie Smith and Serenity Smith Forchion — from the organization as employees. We are bound to sound governance by law. We are also bound to protect the confidentiality of personnel matters.”

Helmstadter also wrote that the board wants the public to know it would not have taken this step “if it were not necessary.”

“We recognize the many accomplishments of the founders and have offered the twins an opportunity to remain involved with the organization,” he stated. “We have received no reply at this time.”

The board’s actions were taken in order to meet NECCA’s mission and students needs, stated Helmstadter. “They are why we, NECCA, exist.”

Amanda Witman, in a public post to her Facebook page, noted that many staff members have resigned in protest of the firing of NECCA’s founders.

“The organization can’t function without staff, students, and parents who provide funding,” wrote Witman. “With a beautiful new building, we need to get back on track and keep moving forward. There are important and necessary changes to be made, but they won’t happen without the important involvement of those who have made NECCA their life’s work.”

Witman also noted that “many students and parents are contacting NECCA ... requesting withdrawal/refund from camps, classes, and fall programs because of the sudden change in NECCA leadership and/or coaching staff.”

“We students are demanding money back from classes paid for,” wrote Sarah Patriquin, in an email to the Reformer. “This is a stand against the executive director and the remaining board members.”

Erika Radcliffe, of Oregon, and a former intensive program student, told the Reformer she was planning on signing up for the intensive program this fall, but has now requested a return of her deposit.

“I came to NECCA for the coaching and because of the reputation that Elsie and Serenity have built for the school throughout the country. It is the best circus school in the United States. Now that almost all of the coaches have resigned, I have zero trust that NECCA will be able to provide what they said they would be able to provide.” Radcliffe noted that she is one of many students who are demanding their deposits back if the sisters are not returned to their positions and the coaches are also allowed back.

James Valente, of Costello Valente and Gentry, said he has been hired by a group of coaches and staffers to advise them on how best to proceed.

“All of the coaches, staff and employees are going to pledge to walk out on a certain date if the executive director and his wife (Tracy Prentiss, board vice president) are not removed,” said Valente.