Parents say school board member violated open info laws

One year after parents began unraveling an assortment of problems with school management, transparency and legal compliance through a state complaint, many questions remain unanswered as parents continue to struggle to be heard.

Concerns climaxed at a recent special education subcommittee meeting, during which the Board of Education committee leader, Heather Shea, reportedly restricted parents from being involved in the meeting. Then, after acquiescing to parents’ concerns to be heard, Shea directed the administration to not answer their questions, according to four parents who attended the meeting.

“It’s true, no one can answer every question substantively when it is posed,” wrote parents Kathryn Doran, Debbie Ice, Vickie Riccardo and Kit Savage in a letter to The Darien Times editor last week. “Some answers are not immediately apparent. However, at the barest minimum, government officials should assure their constituents that they will seek answers to their questions, and offer a time-table for follow-up.”

Each part of the meeting’s agenda dealt directly with parent involvement. The first part was to discuss the work groups that are expected to help fix various aspects of the special education department. These groups should include parents and other stakeholders, according to John Verre, the special education ombudsman.

The second part of the meeting dealt with a “discussion on parent and community engagement.”

Doran and her counterparts noted the irony of a meeting intended to discuss community engagement that didn’t allow for dialogue with community members.

“Ironically, at a meeting devoted to the laudable goal of encouraging communication, the audience was told that they would not be recognized,” they said.

In an email, Shea disagreed with this characterization of the meeting.

“As chair of the committee, it is my responsibility to ensure the committee completes the discussion items in the assigned time frame,” Shea told The Times. “I was merely trying to complete the necessary board dialogue without interruption. Dr. Pierson at some point suggested that all comments from the audience be held until the end of the meeting so as to allow the board its discussion time.”

Interim Superintendent Lynne Pierson told this newspaper that in her experience, it is rare for parents to be involved in committee meetings, but under the circumstances, she thought it would be appropriate to take questions.

“I think my impression, is that the conversation that went on, escalated fairly quickly,” Pierson said. “It went from zero to 100. It’s strong emotion.”

As per Pierson’s recommendation, the committee accepted questions at the end of the meeting, but some said that Shea would not allow anyone to answer those questions. Shea later clarified that she wanted to make it clear that the administration might not be able to answer all questions at that time, but would get back with answers “in a timely manner.”

Tom Hennick, a spokesman for the state’s Freedom of Information Commission, said that the statute covering meetings does not require a public body answer, or even hear, questions posed from an audience.

“The Freedom of Information Act only guarantees people have the right to attend,” Hennick said.

Illegal meeting?

The special education subcommittee meeting left Doran, Ice, Riccardo and Savage with an impression of school board opacity. After seeing what they perceived as a lack of engagement with the audience, the women said that board Chairman Betsy Hagerty-Ross, Shea and other Board of Education members “huddled together in front of the… meeting room.” The parents challenged whether this informal gathering violated open meeting laws, which require public notice before more than two board members meet in public to discuss school matters.

“To move forward from the special education crisis, the [school board] must be willing to talk to the people who elect them, and to conduct its business in public view,” the women wrote. “Intentionally preventing pathways to communication and engagement is not the way to rebuild trust within the community.”

Speaking to The Times during Sunshine Week, a time when media celebrate and promote the public’s right to information and open governance, Hagerty-Ross challenged the notion that her board held an illegal meeting.

“While individual board members may have had conversations after the meeting, with other board members and otherwise, none of those conversations were a ‘meeting’ for [Freedom of Information] purposes,” she said.

Hennick of the FOI Commission challenged Hagerty-Ross’s understanding of open meetings law.

“Pinning it on the ‘no quorum’ part doesn’t quash” the allegations, Hennick said. While it’s unclear whether the board was talking about board business, which would have been illegal, the mere appearance of meeting in such a way should be avoided, he said.

“Doing it in public is asking for trouble,” Hennick said. “Even the appearance of a meeting creates a vulnerability that they don’t need.”

Hagerty-Ross said the conversations among board members were “personal in nature.”

“My recollection was a board member’s upcoming vacation, summer camps, a photography class and suggestions on a camera purchase,” she stated in an email. “I hope this puts this to rest.”

It’s not uncommon for board members to gather informally after a meeting, said Kelly Moyer, a senior staff attorney at the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, a group that represents Darien’s school board and others in legislative matters. However, given Darien’s problems over the last year, the board should pay close attention to how its actions are perceived, Moyer said.

“Hopefully the board will now be more aware of whatever they’re discussing and not give that sense of something going on behind closed doors,” she said. “It’s something to be aware of, especially if things aren’t going well.”

Tom Mooney, attorney for the school board, emphasized there was “no discussion of board business… after the meeting,” and declined to comment further.

History

Many questions have gone unanswered since the two investigations found the district broke state and federal special education law on at least 32 occasions. Who will help choose the superintendent? Who will help chose the director of special education? Who will serve on the various work groups proposed by ombudsman Verre? How will those people be chosen?

How many children were harmed as a result of last year’s illegal activity? What services are being offered to them now? Why are there still communication problems? How is data being kept? Has record-keeping improved?

Interim Superintendent Pierson noted that some these questions cannot be currently answered. Some have been answered partially, and the Board of Education has taken unprecedented and expensive steps to fix an assortment of problems. However, many continue to point to a lack of Board of Education leadership that allows many of these issues to go unresolved by further stifling parent involvement.

The day before the special education subcommittee meeting, 10 members of the Special Education Parent Advisory Committee — a group not affiliated with the Board of Education — asked the school board to include a public comment period in its biweekly meetings and to allow for a question-and-answer period during the subcommittee meetings.

This latter request was made again at the special education subcommittee meeting the next day by a different set of parents, yet by then it appeared that the school board was hesitant to engage with members in the audience, according to several parents in attendance.

“It would be helpful if the

time period was printed on the public agenda so that parents can plan accordingly and have an opportunity to provide feedback and have questions addressed,” the 10 SEPAC members, chaired by Courtney Darby, told the Board of Education at its March 12 meeting.

Involvement sought

At that meeting, Christa McNamara, a school board member, pressed the administration on how parents were being involved in various aspects of school decision-making. One of the topics involved a survey on the new math teaching tool called Investigations. This method has drawn scrutiny by both Board of Ed members and parents for its reliance on word problems, which could leave children who are slow readers behind in both math and reading.

Assistant Superintendent Judith Pandolfo said the survey would go to teachers to help the district refine its program. McNamara asked if parents would be surveyed. Pandolfo didn’t immediately respond, so McNamara clarified.

“As I understand it, the reason for choosing it was the parental component,” McNamara said of the new program, which is computer-based and includes parent input as part of its methodology.

“We certainly could use another parent survey,” Pandolfo said, her tone diminished. She then went on to explain that this was “the first year of implementation,” and that “we learn a lot about programming” during that first year.

Despite parental involvement being a key component of Investigations, many parents did not receive any information on the program during its first year of implementation. Michael Harman, Board of Education secretary, said he did not get any information. McNamara said she got a letter.

This happened because the district did not direct math teachers to communicate with parents using a specific method, according to Stephanie Furman, the mathematics coordinator. At the board’s Feb. 25 meeting, Furman said she had not told teachers how to communicate to parents about Investigations, but told them to do it in a manner they saw fit, such as via email or through postal service.

Pierson suggested that the concern for better parent involvement was a “philosophical question” that has broad implications and deserves attention.

“When a new… program is launched, it is not unusual at the conclusion of the first year, you would in fact survey multiple groups because you’re looking for legitimate feedback and information that will inform a change in practice, if that’s appropriate,” Pierson said. “This would be an opportunity, certainly, to ask parents how they perceive the impact and effectiveness of this new math program — or any other program that you’ve chosen to implement.”

McNamara also asked if parents would be offered a chance to give feedback on the six-day rotation, which started this year. This new scheduling platform was implemented as enrollment climbed. However, it has decreased time for PE and music from grades four and five.

Interrupting Pandolfo’s response, Pierson said: “The answer is yes,” to whether or not parents would be surveyed on this issue also.

The six-day rotation gave grades three through five more time for Spanish, despite the administration defending its elementary school Spanish program the year before as adequate, claiming it would not need enhancement in later school years. This enhancement happened with the addition of the six-day rotation.

In an interview, Pierson said she understands that emotions are running high on all sides, but that it’s important for everyone to have perspective.

“My goal is to restore equilibrium and demonstrate that there are people here who can be trusted,” she said. “There are people here of their word who, if they say they are going to do something, do it.”

Originally published in the Darien Times.

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