Editorial: A Hard look at Region 4 — Essex, Chester and Deep River

in Editorials/Region 4

Perhaps you don’t live in Essex, Chester, or Deep River and have decided to skip over Julia Werth’s remarkably damning news story detailing years of failure to follow state law and to exercise adequate financial oversight, both by the superintendent and the school board. Well don’t.

If ever there was a learning moment… it would be a forensic analysis of how the Region 4 school district managed to spend more than $379,000 on a piece of property, without a public vote as required by law and without having money set aside to pay for it.

We’ll have more on that story in the weeks to come, but let me say first of all that it amazes me that neither elected members of the school board, nor the superintendent, were available to explain what happened (or frankly say anything at all substantive) on the record.

As one longtime board officer explained to CT Examiner:
the Superintendent is hired by the 4 boards, to be “the expert”. A superintendent is like a CEO. The boards provide direction, support, input and oversight of the Superintendent, but the Superintendent is, in addition to being the expert on everything, is the spokesperson. When you think about it, you hear in the news from the CEO of Toyota, or Apple, etc. not from the chairs of the boards or individual board members. If you ever see me quoted in a local paper, it is really just a “fluff” statement.

Is that really what the public should expect from its elected leaders with oversight in the case of Region 4 of a more than $20 million budget?
To be sure, boards of education in Connecticut are exhorted to work in concert and in the matter of responding to complaints to follow the so-called “chain of command.” It’s a code of ethics which can be found in the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education “Standards of Leadership for Members of Boards of Education.”

In the town of Durham, for example, school board members are advised to “be careful not to act or speak in a manner that suggests they are speaking or acting on behalf of the board of education or the school district when they have not been so authorized by the Board.”

In Lyme and Old Lyme, the school district policy states that the “Lyme/Old Lyme Board of Education believes in the widest possible dissemination of news concerning the school and shall fully cooperate with the press, radio, and television to assure that news coverage is complete, balanced, and accurate.” In practice, we’ve yet to find a school board member willing to speak on the record, referring all communication down (or is it up?) the chain to Superintendent Ian Neviaser. Perhaps it’s a case of the tail wagging the dog… but to his credit, the tail is responsive.

Which brings us to Region 4 – Essex, Deep River, Chester – in this case there has been a recent change of leadership, with the hire of Superintendent Brian White. To be sure, the vast majority of the problems outlined in Julia Werth’s story date to before his hire.

In the case of Region 4, it appears that the policy governing school board communications is somewhat different, and expansive to follow “the proper ‘chain of command’ within the system and refer all school/community issues, questions, and/or complaints through the Board Chair to the Superintendent of Schools or other administrator as expressly designated by the Superintendent.

So, not wanting “fluff,” we asked White for a comment regarding the recent problems in Region 4. But unlike Neviaser, in this case White deferred back to the collective authority of each of the individual boards, a process which will likely take some time.

Even respecting White’s relatively short tenure, still it is remarkable that a school district, with oversight over not only our children, but a $20 million budget, could not explain or comment on a two-year-old $379,000 unresolved lapse in spending given a number of days to respond.

I’m not sure exactly how we got here, or how to avoid ending up here again, but speaking to the press – however painful at first – is I think a good place to start.