Accountability Keeps Losing to Public Schooling’s Secrecy

Chris Powell

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Secrecy triumphed again this month in “public” education in Connecticut.

First the Connecticut State Colleges and University System refused to make available to the Journal Inquirer the personnel files of three officials who were sued in an employment discrimination case whose settlement recently cost the state $775,000. The newspaper was seeking to discover why the plaintiff, Manchester Community College President Nicole Esposito, was fired, what the defendants did to prompt her lawsuit, and why the college system decided to reinstate her with such expensive damages.

The system has refused to provide an explanation, though nothing in the law prevents the system from coming clean. Now the public will have to wait a year or more for the state Freedom of Information Commission to decide on ordering disclosure of the relevant documents.

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Worse, several state legislators, questioned by the newspaper about the expensive case, just shrugged it off.

The leader of the Democratic majority in the state House of Representatives, Jason Rojas of East Hartford, said he doesn’t like making public the personnel files of government employees, though with very limited exemptions this has been the law in Connecticut since before he was born.

Government employees, Rojas said, “should expect some level of privacy as it relates to their work and their careers.” He added that giving the public access to government employee personnel files “could have a very chilling effect on our ability to attract and retain talent.”

But disclosure was the law when those college officials were hired and the problem now is only the ability of government agencies and employees to delay disclosure until action by the FOI Commission, which is backlogged.

As for any “chilling effect” on attracting talent to state government, the three executives sued in the discrimination case — Robert Steinmetz, Andrew Kripp, and Alice Pritchard — are paid annual salaries of $256,000, $240,000, and $228,000, respectively. Would accountability for the discrimination case really chill them out of their state jobs and luxurious pensions?

The General Assembly could hold a public hearing and call witnesses to fix responsibility in this scandal but prefers to assist the cover-up.

Secrecy also triumphed this month in the Hartford “public” school system, which, after weeks of stalling, released documents showing that Kathleen Cataford, the school nurse suspended in March for supposedly identifying on social media a student undergoing sex-change therapy, was fired in July.

In fact the nurse wrote only that an 11-year-old girl in the school system was undergoing such therapy and that school policy is to conceal the gender dysphoria of students from their parents unless students want it told.

Hartford’s schools have more than one 11-year-old girl, so what really bothered the school administration was the nurse’s publicizing its policy of keeping parents ignorant of their children’s health problems, an increasingly controversial policy being implemented by schools throughout Connecticut and the country.

These circumstances suggest that the nurse’s firing, while politically correct, was improper and that she might win reinstatement by appealing to the state Board of Mediation and Arbitration. After all, the board long has made it almost impossible to fire government employees for any reason.

So has the nurse appealed her firing? Hartford’s school system won’t say, though the state Labor Department, which supervises the mediation board, says no appeal has yet been received. (The nurse has made herself incommunicado since her suspension.)

Is the school system negotiating a financial settlement with the nurse? Again the school system won’t say. Maybe such a settlement won’t even be disclosed. In any case it may be fair to suspect that, as with the case of the community college president, any financial settlement will impair accountability to the public.

If public education isn’t going to be public, there is no need for it. Government can just give vouchers to parents and let them buy education for their children in the market that will quickly develop. In addition to being more accountable to parents, education by voucher probably would be much better and far less expensive.

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Chris Powell is a columnist for the Journal Inquirer in Manchester, Connecticut. (CPowell@JournalInquirer.com.)