CLINTON — On September 27, kindergarten teacher Jack Reynolds was put on administrative leave by superintendent of schools Maryann O’Donnell. The next day he was found dead at the Pattaconk Recreation Area.
According to a letter sent on September 27 to Reynolds, O’Donnell was placing him on leave after he allegedly “struck a student on the forehead with [his] hand.”
The day he died, Reynolds was scheduled for a pre-disciplinary hearing to discuss the matter and the potential for “serious disciplinary action.”
After twenty-four years of work in the Clinton Public Schools, Reynolds’ death is a tragedy that cannot be pinned on any one action or event, but after his death a number of teachers and employees, on a number of occasions, reached out to CT Examiner staff to voice concerns about the work environment in the Clinton Public School system.
In the weeks since Reynolds’ death, nine former and current teachers from the Clinton Public School system have reached out to the Connecticut Examiner with similar stories.
One was a science teacher of more than 20 years who left for another district after what he described as repeated negative incidents with the administration. Another was a math teacher of more than 10 years who left for a lower paying job at a private school after multiple unpaid suspensions. Another had three unpaid, 10-day suspensions during his more than 20 years of work for Clinton schools. A fourth was told by former Superintendent Jack Cross’ that a replacement could easily be found and paid half as much.
“It almost felt like they were trying to thin out the top of the herd and pay less in salaries,” said Stephen Redes, a former health education teacher who worked in the district for 34 years and retired in 2017.
In 2016, Redes said he could see that he was the next on the chopping block.
“They called me into an emergency Board of Education meeting on a Monday to tell me that after 34 years my position was now going to be part time,” Redes said. “Instead of teaching a health course to students in all four years, I was told to just teach health in eleventh grade.”
Despite arguing that the change would put the district out of compliance with the state’s requirements for health education, Redes said the administration held to its initial decision. At the time, Jack Cross was Superintendent of schools and Maryann O’Donnell was assistant superintendent.
Redes says he thought about reaching out to students, parents and other staff to speak on his behalf, to protest the change to the curriculum and his position, but at the age of 60 he decided the fight wasn’t worth it.
“I knew this administration,” he said. “Instead of the squeaky wheel gets the oil, it was the squeaky partridge became breakfast.”
Redes described a variety of workplace pressures that were echoed by other teachers who spoke to CT Examiner.
According to Redes, if he had fought for his job, he likely would have been subjected to daily observations of his class by the superintendent, assistant superintendent and principal. There would have been multiple meetings for petty infractions with no opportunity to share his side of the story. He might have been put on unpaid administrative leave for 2 weeks at a time. Despite the protection of tenure, the atmosphere would eventually become so bad that he would have no choice but to leave. Redes says he watched it happen time and time again during his last decade teaching.
“After watching them hunt other teachers, I just wasn’t going to play that game,” Redes said.
According to Krista Karch, a former school administrator in the Portland and Cromwell public schools, the practice of pushing out older, more expensive teachers is commonplace.
“Some superintendents and boards have the mindset, why not get 2 or 3 teachers for the price of one?” Karch told CT Examiner.
Between pressure to reduce budgets and to increase teacher-to-student ratios, the practice makes sense, Karch said. Superintendents, first selectmen and boards of education all like to present taxpayers with a reduced budget, she said, but the resulting human costs are less often publicized.
“In Portland the administration was notorious for driving out veteran teachers,” Karch said.
Superintendent O’Donnell declined to speak on the record about these claims. Members of the Clinton Board of Education, who hired O’Donnell unanimously and approve the budget annually also declined to comment.
“The topic is related to personnel and employment which are confidential topics and not something that I am able to discuss or comment on,” O’Donnell said.
The union and the administration
After years – or decades – of paying union dues, most teachers that end up at odds with the administration expect the union to have their back, said Laurie Clemente, a former math teacher.
Clemente, who left Clinton’s public high school in 2014, says she asked the union for protection after she was suspended twice for alleged inappropriate conversations with students.
“When I asked our representative Gloria for help she told me the superintendent was within his right to do this,” Clemente said. “She said there was no point in filing a grievance.”
Former math teacher, Ali Izadi, recounts a similar experience.
“Gloria seemed chummy in subsequent meetings with Jack Cross and myself,” Izadi said. When I went to check my file at the central office I could hear Jack and Gloria speaking. “Jack came out and noticed me and when he returned to his office, their conversation was much quieter. She exited out a side door and re-entered through the main door, pretending that she had just arrived.”
On a number of occasions, Izadi said he felt as though Cross and Gloria Dimon were on the same team, instead of the union having his back.
Gloria Dimon, the legal representative for Clinton from the Connecticut Education Association, also declined to comment on the claims. Instead Dimon sent the below statement from Michael Meizies, president of the Education Association of Clinton.
“Our school community has experienced a tragic loss of a beloved teacher. This is an extremely difficult time, and we ask that you respect the wishes of the education community, as we need time to help students, teachers and staff heal privately,” Meizies said in an email.
Many of the teachers who reached out to CT Examiner said they wanted answers about why more experienced teachers are repeatedly at odds with the administration, disciplined and eventually resign or retire early from the district.
One of the possible reasons they suggested was the union.
“I’ve been in Naugatuck and New Haven and the unions are totally different here,” said Greg Garb, a former math department head at Clinton’s public high school. “In Clinton it felt like the administration ran the union.”
A Freedom of Information request for documents relating to complaints made against the administration over the last five years, turned up just one instance in which the union did step in. In 2017, John Lampe, a music teacher at the Morgan School, filed a grievance against the administration.
According to the complaint, “Maryann O’Donnell suspended John Lampe for three days without pay and ‘demanded’ that John Lampe pay $5,000 to the Clinton Board of Education without just cause.”
At the time, Lampe had been a part of the school system for more than 30 years. The grievance was eventually settled, and Lampe was suspended without pay for one day. Lampe still teaches at the Morgan School.
According to Karch, how helpful – or unhelpful – a union can be usually comes down to personal politics and friendships.
“Unions always protect themselves. It comes down to who the individual representatives have personal relationships with,” Karch said.
According to Clemente, in her case, the stress of suspensions and constant surveillance by the administration became too much to handle.
“I couldn’t get through a day without taking something for the anxiety,” she said.
After a few months of medical leave, Clemente eventually left Clinton and public schools along with it. Despite 12 years of experience, a 6-year administrative degree and many connections across the shoreline, she said her experience made it difficult to find a job.
“The department head at Coginchaug wanted to hire me, but she was told that she couldn’t look at anyone with more than three years experience,” Clemente said. “People don’t want to hire older teachers, budget wise they just don’t want to go there.”
Any trouble in a school eventually comes back to impact the students, Redes said, and “the culture of fear that many teachers are living in is no different. Students always suffer.”
It’s not only the school day subjects that are impacted, said Garb. When teachers do not feel supported they take fewer risks.
“You’re not going to do the out-of-the-box lesson or volunteer to lead a club,” Garb said. In short, there will be less opportunities for students.
Emilia Otte contributed to the reporting on this story.