Allegations and investigations at Region One board meeting
FALLS VILLAGE â€” The Region One Board of Education held a special â€” and tempestuous â€” meeting Monday, Aug. 16, at Housatonic Valley Regional High School.
Close to 100 people attended the two-hour meeting.
The resignations of Housatonic Principal Gretchen Foster Aug. 4 and Vice Principal Mary Anne Buchanan Aug. 10 were the main focus of the 11:15 a.m. meeting, which began with public comments.
Mary Oâ€™Riley of Sharon, who teaches Spanish at Housatonic and whose children attended the school, spoke first and referred to the â€œinjusticeâ€ behind the resignations. She recommended three steps: The resignation of Region One Board of Education Chairman Judge Manning (who represents the town of Sharon) from both the chairmanship and as the Sharon representative; an independent investigation of the resignations as well as those of other Region One administrators in the last several years; and a rejection of Region One Superintendent Patricia Chamberlainâ€™s transition plan for the high school, which calls for a team of Assistant Superintendent Diane Goncalves, Business Manager Sam Herrick, Chamberlain and the faculty department heads to handle the schoolâ€™s operations until interim replacements for Foster and Buchanan can be found.
Riley said that Manning has â€œan obvious conflict of interestâ€ since the board evaluates the superintendent, and the superintendent is responsible for evaluating Region One principals. Manning is married to Karen Manning, principal of Sharon Center School.
â€œThis was identified years ago and ignored,â€ Riley said.
Rileyâ€™s husband is a former Sharon Center School principal.
A great deal of ire was directed at the Region One Central Office administrators. Patricia Mechare, first selectman of Falls Village, said, â€œThe atmosphere that has seemingly been created over the last year and a half by those in the [Region One] Central Office who are supposed to be our educational leaders should be investigated at once given the body of conversations occurring.
â€œThese conversations include concerns about tactics of intimidation, bullying, the threat of retaliation, job loss and even in some cases the threat of a lawsuit if employees breathed a word of what he/she might have heard or seen in situations that apparently lacked ethical behavior and expected professionalism.â€
Mechare went on to say she believes that Goncalves â€œshould not play any role in the operation of the high school.â€
Vance Cannon of Falls Village, who is a library specialist at the school, said Foster and Buchanan were â€œforced out by prominent people who believe the only leadership is their own.â€
Damon Osora, a 15-year veteran at Housatonic and the head of the English department, took issue with a statement from Phil Hart, the Cornwall representative on the regional board, who stated last week his belief that Foster â€œwas shabbily treated in certain quarters at the high school.â€
Osora noted that, by his count, 41 teachers and staff had left during the six years of Fosterâ€™s administration. â€œMany left because they felt they had received shabby treatment from one corner of the high school.â€
Marshall Miles of Salisbury said the resignations â€œindicate to me that something went wrong someplace. I implore the board to find out whatâ€™s wrong, fix it, and hire a new principal.â€
And Jack Mahoney of Falls Village, a former principal at Housatonic, said that having the Central Office in the same building as the high school â€œis a great disadvantage.â€
Mahoney noted that when he was principal and Val Bernardoni was superintendent, â€œHe would sit me down early in the year, analyze things, challenge me, and expect me to meet the standards.
â€œAnd then heâ€™d let me go. But I was still responsible. I beg the board members to look into that relationship.â€
After some confusion over the agenda, which called for a possible executive session, an issue raised by Falls Village representative Gale Toensing came up.
She raised a question about the master schedule for the high school (which it was Fosterâ€™s responsibility to prepare) and said there are concerns that Central Office people â€œhackedâ€ into Fosterâ€™s computer to get the schedule.
She also said that Chamberlain improperly authorized $6,000 in payments to faculty members familiar with the mechanics of creating the schedule.
Chamberlain said the schedule had not been completed by Friday, June 4. Foster was absent that day and the guidance department needed the schedule.
â€œI had to make a decision,â€ said Chamberlain, who checked with the teacherâ€™s union and got their approval to go ahead and have the previous yearâ€™s schedule maker take over.
Chamberlain said Fosterâ€™s draft was not usable, and that the schedule had to be created from scratch.
â€œThe school computer is not the property of the principal,â€ she added, while also noting that the computer in question was a separate machine dedicated solely to scheduling.
â€œHad I not acted we would not have a schedule now.â€
Chamberlain conceded that she should have reported the matter to the Region One board, but did not. â€œI afforded Dr. Foster the dignity she deserved and didnâ€™t report it to the Board of Education.â€
Chamberlain criticized Toensing, saying that the latter has â€œconfused her role as a reporter with that of a board memberâ€ and chastised her for contacting â€œpeople about personnel.â€
â€œAsking employees to evaluate administrators is outside her roleâ€ as a board member.
Toensing responded later in the meeting that she â€œplans to continue speaking to whomever I want to speak to.â€
Committee will investigate
Eventually the board voted to form a committee to decide on how to investigate the resignations and to retroactively approve the expenditure for the schedule rewrite, and authorized the superintendent to begin the process of finding interim replacements for Foster and Buchanan and to post the job of permanent principal in January.
The discussion turned to the question of how to form the investigative committee.
â€œShould a board member form a committee?â€ asked Hart.
â€œAre you willing to do it?â€ asked Manning.
â€œYou want an honest answer?â€ said Hart. â€œIâ€™ll get it started.â€
During the second public comment period, there was a call for greater civility, a pitch from the Student Government Association to be involved in the principal search, and a suggestion from Bob Riva of Salisbury that all concerned might want to seek the advice of the two former principals who attended the meeting: Mahoney and Ed Kirby of Sharon.
â€œItâ€™s amazing what the old school can teach us,â€ Riva said.
Housatonic Valley Regional High School is the regional high school shared by the towns of North Canaan, Falls Village, Kent, Sharon, Salisbury and Cornwall. Each town has its own elementary school, and each elementary school has its own board of education.