Editorial: Sexual Misconduct, and Taking Responsibility for our Schools

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Young people are the pivot around which everything turns.

In southeast Connecticut, education budgets dwarf the size of most other town expenses. Old Lyme will spend about $27.5 million of the $38.9 million FY 2019/20 budget on education.

Hand me a hot button issue – whether it’s 8-30g affordable housing or the balance of revenues between property taxes and income taxes – and I’ll show you most likely that a good bit of it comes down to how and where we raise our children.

Quality schools are a major driver of property values, which attract the young, but also provide a key nest egg – for better and worse – for aging residents and for retirement.  

And there is a fair bit of data that in terms of outcomes for our children – like much else – it’s location location location.

So, when Julia Werth interviewed for a position at CT Examiner, and I asked her what she could bring to the paper, and she answered that she would like to report on education – and had made a specialty of it in her past work at the Hartford Courant and Connecticut Mirror – I have to say that I was enthusiastic.

A rough count of our coverage turns up more than 16 stories on education since we launched on May 20, and mostly it has been upbeat – we’ve covered positive test trends in New London schools, and glowing evidence of achievement at Lyme-Old Lyme schools. A great many residents, for good reason, are rather proud of our schools.

Taken together that raises a few further points.

One is accountability — in a town like Old Lyme, the elected school board, and the unelected school superintendent, wield significant power almost entirely independent of the first selectman.  Much blame and credit for the schools, and school budgets, rests with this rather independent annex of town government.

To his credit, Lyme-Old Lyme Superintendent Ian Neviaser has been responsible and responsive as we’ve worked with him on a variety of school issues. He picks up the phone. I have yet to hear even his critics — and there are more than a few – question his competence or diligence.

That said, the same approach which riled his critics when it came to the introduction of universal pre-k education, that he was high-handed, is amply evident in his relationship with the elected Lyme-Old Lyme School Board.

In our experience at least, calls and emails to elected Lyme-Old Lyme school board members go unreturned – an experience that is not happenstance, but which apparently reflects a ‘policy’ that Neviaser serves as the sole voice of both elected and unelected officials regarding the schools. In our  experience in other districts that is not at all standard practice.

In my view, it’s entirely unacceptable for elected officials to wholly subordinate themselves to unelected administrators – whether it’s simply a matter of communication, or actual policy.  When everything pivots around these decisions and decision-makers, it’s incumbent on them to pick up the phone. With a large turnover of the board this November, I hope both Democrats and Republicans on the ballot will agree.

Which lastly brings us to our choice to break the story that since August 28 there has been an open investigation by the state police regarding alleged sexual misconduct by a teacher in the Lyme-Old Lyme Schools. I will not mince words.

Despite hesitating, shifting and confusing coverage by The Day – which includes a series of poorly-documented, unexplained and material revisions to their coverage — the nature of this investigation was confirmed and reconfirmed in two separate emails from state police to our staff.

Whether the investigation is filed as a “suspicious incident,” or sexual misconduct, is a matter of the stage of investigation and bureaucratic categorization. A follow up call from the state police helped explain the nature of the confusion, but did nothing to undercut our reporting or that fact.

I take no pleasure in it. But when everything pivots around the young – and much more than spending and policy – we won’t stay silent. Make no mistake, our young people won’t either.

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