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Region One: a crisis of confidence

It was the summer of 1979 when I first heard the phrase. Interest rates were sky high, inflation was soaring and an Arab oil cartel had raised its prices, causing severe shortages and long lines at service stations across America. Tempers were flaring in the summer heat when President Carter took to the airwaves and pronounced that the nation was suffering a “crisis of confidence.â€

That shopworn phrase is now an accurate summation of the state of the Region One School District and its largest institution, Housatonic Valley Regional High School. No, angry consumers of education aren’t assaulting one another in the parking lot in front of the now-vacant principal’s office. But disgruntled parents, faculty members — yes, even some students — are making their voices heard at Board of Education meetings. Some are calling for the resignation of the board chairman. Others are setting their sights on the superintendent and her blunt-talking assistant, Diane Goncalves. Still others want to clean house entirely.

It will be up to an independent probe to determine why both the principal and vice principal resigned within a week of each other to take positions in the Torrington Public Schools, leaving Housatonic without senior leadership less than a month before the opening of school. Even the staunchest defenders of board Chairman Judge Manning and Superintendent Patricia Chamberlain have to concede that something went terribly wrong. How on earth did we get to this point?

Permit me to engage in some informed conjecture. It’s now quite obvious that the recently departed Principal Gretchen Foster had her hands full when she was hired six years ago to clean up after her hands-off predecessor, Kathleen Burkhart. The board was clearly looking for a take-control manager who would do a careful job of evaluating faculty, keep a watchful eye on the budget and boost school spirit, which had sagged considerably in the first half of the decade.

Predictably, Foster stepped on a few toes. Some faculty and administrators were relieved at her exercise of authority; others felt they were being micro-managed. The resulting split among the faculty has been evident at board meetings over the last week. Library media specialist Vance Cannon told the board that Foster and her deputy, Maryann Buchanan, “were not perfect,†but that they always put Housatonic and its students “well ahead of their [own] egos.â€

“They left because the hostility of this place began to impact not only their work, but their very health. They were forced out by a small group of prominent people who believe that the only legitimate leadership is their own.â€

But another veteran educator, English department head Damon Osora, insisted Housatonic was not a hostile work environment and hinted that Foster’s leadership style may have spurred more than 40 faculty members and staff to leave over the last six years — an obvious reference to Foster’s time at the helm.

Others pointed to undue interference in the principal’s office on the part of the superintendent. Jack Mahoney, the beloved former Housy principal, repeated in two different meetings last week that it’s not appropriate for the superintendent’s office to meddle in the principal’s office.

When he was principal from 1983 to 1995, Mahoney would meet with then-Superintendent Val Bernardoni at the beginning of the year to set some goals. As part of the principal’s evaluation, Bernardoni and Mahoney typically met at the end of the year to assess whether those goals had been met.

“The authority and integrity of the principal’s office should not be compromised,†Mahoney stated emphatically.

Others were even more blunt. Falls Village First Selectman Pat Mechare, who taught at at Kent Center School for 37 years, said she was concerned about “about tactics of intimidation, bullying, the threat of retaliation, job loss†and lawsuits against anyone who reported unethical behavior. And, like Mahoney, she was concerned about turf battles:

“The assistant superintendent should not play any role in the operation of the high school.â€

My guess is the superintendent’s office and the board wanted Foster to leave, secure in the knowledge that the capable Buchanan was waiting in the wings. But they were flabbergasted when Buchanan announced her resignation only days later. Now they’re in the midst of a leadership crisis of their own making.

My question is how long it will persist and whether the board can use this opportunity to increase public confidence in its competence and integrity. Will the board merely circle the wagons or will it take positive steps to make the kinds of changes necessary to achieve badly needed stability in a shaken institution?

Lakeville resident Terry Cowgill, who blogs at terrycowgill.blogspot.com, is a former editor and senior writer at The Lakeville Journal Company and host of Conversations With Terry Cowgill on CATV6. He works at The Gilbert School in Winsted; the views expressed here are his own. He can be reached at terrycowgill@gmail.com.

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