Entire Board Steps Down As Leadership Changes Continue At New England Center For Circus Arts

Jul 19, 2017

The entire board of trustees of the New England Center for Circus Arts stepped down Wednesday. The board members announced their decisions late in the day after accepting the resignation of the embattled executive director Michael Helmstadter.

Helmstadter and the board have been under heavy pressure ever since the organization fired NECCA founders Elsie Smith and Serenity Smith Forchion.

Most of the NECCA staff supported the two sisters and they demanded that the board resign.

"The board is taking this opportunity to step aside so that new leadership can continue the conversation," board members wrote in a press release. "We look forward to seeing the new building filled with students."

It's been a week of chaos at the Brattleboro circus school.

The board's move opens creates a complete vacuum in leadership of the nonprofit circus arts organization.

The board of directors fired the founders last week, leading to an almost staff-wide strike by employees who supported the founders.

Camp was canceled early this week, but then the two sides had negotiated a tenuous truce to get the doors opened Wednesday.

Mary Welsh's seven-year-old granddaughter lives in Morocco and traveled to Vermont to attend the week-long circus camp. Welsh says they were both pretty disappointed when they heard camp was canceled Monday morning.

"We told her that when you have disputes like this everybody thinks that their side is the right side," Welsh said Wednesday afternoon when she was picking up her granddaughter. "We said when people disagree they really have to keep on, and try to make it work."

A mediator was brought in to try to come up with a solution so camp could open, and the two sides were able to agree to open camp Wednesday.

Casey Haynes works at the front desk at NECCA. He wore a button at work Wednesday that reads, "I Stand With NECCA." The phrase became a rallying cry in support of the founders of the school.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR

But the staff was still demanding that the board step down. Day-staff members wore "I Stand With NECCA" buttons; the rallying cry for supporting the staff and founders.

Keith Marshall has been bringing his daughter to NECCA for four years, and he says it's nothing new to see a nonprofit struggle as it grows.

"It's called mission drift," he said. "And unfortunately, a lot of nonprofit bylaws are written in a way that doesn't safeguard against having a board of directors that has a vision that is different from the founders."

"The board is taking this opportunity to step aside so that new leadership can continue the conversation. We look forward to seeing the new building filled with students. — Mel Martin, former NECCA board member.

"It's sometimes challenging," Marshall continues, "when you have a board of directors who does not hold that vision in their heart."

An internal power struggle between the board and NECCA's founders exploded into the public view after the board fired the two sisters.

The strife has apparently been going on for more than a year. As the board tried to manage a growing $1 million business, the two founding sisters felt increasingly left out of the major decision making.

And all of this was going on as NECCA was moving into its brand new school in north Brattleboro.

Before he resigned board member, Mel Martin says the timing has not been good.

"One of the most pressing needs right now is our financial stability," Martin said. "The impact of last week's actions have simply been severely impactful on the finances of NECCA."