Angela Carella: Meeting reveals 'total dysfunction' of Stamford school board
A Feb. 3 special meeting turned into a shouting match.
An online video of the 20-minute meeting shows Vice President Lorraine Olson accusing President Jackie Heftman of withholding information, excluding her from discussions, maligning her, even changing her seat at the boardroom table.
Olson also accuses fellow member Dolores Burgess of emailing false statements about her and interviewing Stamford High staff against legal advice.
At one point, the sound is cut off but the video continues, showing board members in their seats and apparently talking.
According to the agenda, the purpose of the special meeting was voting on whether to approve school trips, unpaid leave requests, a grant for after-school programs, hiring a special education teacher, and some expenditures.
The last item on the agenda, "Board Communication," begins almost eight minutes into the video.
Near the end of the discussion, Heftman asks, "Is there anything else?"
"I have something," Olson says. "My concern is there is no board communication as far as I am concerned ... I am directing this mostly at our president ... I feel like it is a one-man show."
Heftman, and possibly other board members, meet almost weekly with Superintendent Winifred Hamilton, Olson says, but she, and perhaps other members, are not told what is going on.
Olson begins to hand out copies of an email she says was written by Burgess. Heftman tells Olson it should be discussed privately.
"I am going to continue," Olson says. "I want to say this to the whole board."
"No, you are not going to continue," Heftman says.
"Yes, I am going to continue," Olson replies.
"This meeting is adjourned," Heftman says, and "We're off the record." But the meeting and the video go on.
Olson reads from Burgess' email.
"She says that I exploited a horrendous situation at Stamford High for personal gain, that I added to the pain at Stamford High, that I leaked information to the press," Olson says. "I didn't do these things."
Olson says she wants Burgess to apologize publicly.
Burgess says she will not.
Olson also questions her exclusion from a discussion about a grievance. Olson does not explain the grievance, but one was filed last month by former Stamford High Principal Donna Valentine, who was let go after she accepted a special form of probation in connection with the Danielle Watkins case.
Watkins is the teacher who pleaded guilty to having sex with a student. Valentine was charged with failing to report suspicions about the relationship in accordance with state law. Valentine's grievance is that her dismissal violated her union contract.
Olson says in the video that she has been excluded from meetings on the grievance, even though she is a member of the board's Labor Relations Committee.
"You left me out deliberately," Olson tells Heftman.
Olson says it is Burgess, also a committee member, who should be excluded from talks about the grievance. Burgess claims to have "walked the halls of Stamford High," gathering comments from staff, students and parents about what is going on at the school, "which we were told by our attorney not to do," Olson says.
In December Shipman & Goodwin attorney Tom Mooney told board members that only the superintendent may conduct a disciplinary investigation. The board's role is to oversee the superintendent, Mooney said.
Olson accuses Burgess of breaking board rules.
"I can do anything I want," Burgess shoots back. "I'm grown."
"You are on a board and that is not board conduct," Olson replies.
In another part of the video Olson reminds board members that they elected her vice president, an office she's held three times.
"In all my years as vice president I sat in that seat," she says, pointing to the chair next to Hamilton. Addressing Heftman, Olson says, "I am not in kindergarten ... You have no right to say the superintendent and I talk too much."
Besides an apology, she wants her seat, she wants to be included in grievance talks and, as board vice president, "you have to start to inform me about what you are talking to the superintendent about," Olson tells Heftman.
About 15 minutes into the meeting, Heftman says, "We are out of session ... the board is in recess."
The tape goes silent but the video continues, with board members still at the table. Tom Hennick of the state Freedom of Information Commission said Tuesday that board members may not discuss public business during a recess.
The sound on the tape returns for a few seconds during which Heftman says, "If we're done yelling at each other, I will reconvene. There's no reason why the public should be a witness to the total dysfunction of this board."
Then the audio goes silent for two minutes. When it resumes, Heftman motions to adjourn.
The story behind the rift is unknown. But it happens when leadership at Stamford High must be re-established; when the school board faces not only the grievance but pending lawsuits from the two students involved in the Watkins case; when lawyers hired by the city are investigating how Hamilton and other administrators handled the case; and when Hamilton's $258 million 2015-16 budget is about to go before elected officials for approval.