MIDDLETOWN — In a meeting on Tuesday night, parents and members of the community, Mayor Benjamin Florsheim and party leaders of the Common Council, implored the city’s Board of Education to pursue a fair and transparent investigation of claims of harassment by current and former employees of the school district.
More than 20 people addressed the board to voice their concerns about the impartiality of the investigation, the perceived lack of transparency by the board, and to offer support to the superintendent of schools.
Those comments are in part a response to a mid-October joint statement by the teacher’s union, the paraeducator’s union and the local AFSCME and UPSEU, which represent district staff, asking city officials to investigate allegations of a hostile work environment in the district and harassment by senior school administrators.
In comments to the board, Brooke Carta, a secretary at Farm Hill Elementary and AFSCME Local 466 Vice President, raised concerns about the contract signed with the legal firm Thompson Hine to conduct the investigation. According to Carta, the board had only agreed to meet with the union on Nov. 8, after the contract had been signed. Carta also voiced concerns about the role that Shipman and Goodwin, the law firm representing the board, would play in the investigation.
Carta said it was disturbing that senior members of the administration, who have been named in the complaints, remained in their jobs, which she called a failure by the board to adequately protect its employees.
“I have witnessed this behavior and I have been victim to this as well,” said Carta.
Carta requested a joint meeting of the Board of Education, the union coalition and the Common Council. She also asked that the investigators be allowed to “draw conclusions and make recommendations,” and that they be asked to produce a report of their findings.
Florsheim, who interrupted his honeymoon to join the meeting virtually, said he was attending out of a “real sense of urgency.”
Florsheim said that he had left a meeting on Thursday with town leaders and the investigating team feeling confident about the direction taken by the board. He said he was disturbed, however, the board had not communicated the same facts to the public and employees in the district.
Florsheim also said that he had board of education employees “crying in his office” last week, saying their concerns were not being heard.
Common Council Majority Leader Eugene Nocera told the board that he was greatly upset by what he had heard in a three-hour meeting with Florshiem, Minority Leader Phil Pessina, and union leaders last Thursday.
“Sadly, I observed membership’s anxiety, despair, and tears as they spoke of their perception … of a negative working relationship with district administration,” said Nocera.
In comments, Pessina urged board members to conduct a fair and transparent investigation. He also said that the behavior of the adults was creating a negative role model for students in the schools.
“Your district employees — remember this — are your most valued assets, and they should be treated as such,” said Pessina.
Board Chair Deborah Cain urged anyone with a complaint to come forward and speak to the investigators, but she said she was not able to provide further detail on “personnel matters.”
“Our hope is to complete this investigation, take next steps and complete the upward trajectory we have taken in the last years,” said Cain.
Molly Salafi, presented the board with what she said was an online petition signed by 400 parents. The petition calls for whistleblower protections for employees who come forward with complaints, asks that state agencies lead the investigation, that Cain remove herself from her current role as a liaison with the team investigating the allegations, and that parents be allowed to speak to investigators.
The petition also requests that four administrators named in an Oct. 6 memo by the city’s Director of Equal Opportunity and Diversity Management, Faith Jackson, be placed on paid leave. The administrators include current acting Superintendent Alberto Vazquez Matos.
Others came forward to make similar claims of harassment and intimidation.
“Many times concerns have been brought up to our supervisors, and they are even afraid to speak up for us because they do not want to be the next target,” said Colleen Alleyne, who said she has worked in the district for 10 years.
Mary Emerling, the school health supervisor, said she had been told that some employees felt they needed to act as though they were in support of members of the administration in fear of “retaliatory” behavior.
“Employees have told me they feel helpless,” she said, adding that these employees felt their options amounted to either quitting or playing the game.”
Emerling suggested that a confidential phone line or a survey be set up “for the unheard, the frightened and the doubtful” so that they could talk with investigators.
But a number of members of the community spoke in support of school Superintendent Michael Connor, who was granted leave by the board under the Family and Medical Leave Act in October, based on what a spokesperson said was advice from his physicians.
Several people wore white t-shirts reading “Together we are strong, we fight for Dr. Mike.”
One of those was 9th grader Briana Davis.
“Every time I see Dr. Conner … he always greets me with a smile,” she said. “I can’t wait to see him again at Middletown High School.”
Robyn Anderson, executive director of the Ministerial Alliance, said that “Middletown has been put on the map, the educational system has been put on the map.”
David Roane, a member of the community, said he believed there were racial implications in the accusations against Conner.
“Things that are being said are being said because this city had the guts enough after 79 years to hire a Black person to be in charge of the Board of Education,” said Roane.
In an ensuing discussion about the role of race in the current debate, some raised social media posts said to contain racial slurs.
Jackson, who is also president of the Middletown chapter of the NAACP, said the comments on social media needed “to cease and desist immediately.”
“This is not a race situation. It is a very serious situation,” said Jackson..
Jackson said she believed that the board was on the right track, but that the investigation needed to move forward.
“It is up to the union members, [of] which there are many, to come forth and state their situation,” she said.