NORWICH – Last year, Norwich Public Schools lost 160 of its teachers — nearly half — as well as at least two principals, three assistant principals, a budget manager and a supervisor for student services. Despite these losses, the Board of Education voted unanimously in May to extend Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow’s contract for an additional year, and to grant her a small raise.
Heading into the fall elections, we asked current board members to explain that vote, and asked their challengers for their views on the matter.
Current Republican Board of Education member Heather Fowler, who has been vocal on the issue, told CT Examiner that she now regrets that vote. Fowler said it was critical to hold the administration accountable for their actions.
“I honestly think we should revoke the entire contract until these allegations are handled and investigated properly. I do not think we should move forward with any of it,” said Fowler. “That’s my biggest letdown of myself — is the fact that I felt like I kind of went with the crowd on that vote.”
Less than a month after extending Stringfellow’s contract, the Board of Education received a letter from former Assistant Principal Susan Johnston alleging retaliation against administrators and unfair disciplinary practices toward students.
In July, former Student Services Supervisor Janine Sullivan sent a letter to the board alleging retaliation by the administration, including unwarranted low evaluations.
In August, members of the local teachers union met with state legislators to voice complaints about the work environment in the district.
“I would say the majority, if not all, of the letters from former employees did not come until a day or two at least after our last meeting in June,” said current board Vice-chair Mark Kulos. “I was fairly oblivious to the problem. I’ll admit that.”
Kulos, a Democrat, said he initially supported extending the superintendent’s contract given what he called improved test scores during Stringfellow’s tenure. He also said that many students learning English had been able to transition into mainstream classes.
“As a matter of fact, the state has come to us and said, ‘How are you doing this?’ So that was impressive,” Kulos said.
Democratic board member Gregory Perry said that data relevant to the district’s strategic plan supported extending her contract.
Board member Kevin Saythani, also a Democrat, said Stringfellow had done a lot to return the district to a state of normalcy after COVID.
Board member Carline Charmelus said Stringfellow had followed the board’s directive to create opportunities for additional community outreach and to hire more minority teachers.
“The past couple of years, coming to the pandemic … based upon the information that’s been presented to us as a board, has all been positive,” said Charmelus, also a Democrat.
Charmelus said that she, too, was surprised by the allegations.
“I was taken off guard, because some of those issues have been happening, but they have not been brought to the board as grievances,” said Charmelus.
Republican Board of Education member Christine DiStasio told CT Examiner that, while she would have voted differently if she’d known about the allegations, she felt Stringfellow had confronted a lot of challenges when she arrived, which included “rebuilding” the district’s human resources and business offices.
“The superintendent, when she came into office, had many large obstacles in front of her that … the general public isn’t aware of, that had to be taken care of,” said DiStasio.
Republican board member Jim Paulsen, who joined the board in July — after the vote to extend Stringfellow’s contract — questioned the claim that board members weren’t aware of the situation.
“Did they not know that there were issues? It’s hard to believe that they extended a contract and the board was totally blind to the issues,” said Paulsen.
Several current board members made clear that the district had hired an outside firm, School Climate Consultants LLC of Glastonbury, to investigate the validity of the claims regarding the administration. Kulos said the board expected the results of the investigation in November.
“The board is really, seriously trying to figure out where the problems lie,” said Kulos. “We want to solve this once and for all. We don’t want to keep attacking it every few months.”
“We are being aggressive and handling this. We want things taken care of, and the sooner the better,” said DiStasio.
But Republican candidate Chris Milton, herself a teacher, said she felt that the district should have paid more attention to the concerns that the teachers were bringing forward.
“We’re spending all this money on a consultant when they needed to listen to the teacher’s voices of what’s happened to our district,” she said.
Teacher retention is a concern that remains front and center for the district. Board members Saythany and Charmelus said they wanted to consider a combination of improving the workplace climate, making the schools safer and reevaluating teacher pay.
“There’s a lot of work that we need to do as a school community to continue to build trust and to be building the relationship with the teachers that we currently have in place. And I think that in itself, working internally, will help make our school system a place that’s attractive for others to come,” said Charmelus.
“We want to make Norwich Public Schools a place where new hires can look at our district and be like, ‘Oh, this is what I like. This is the school system that I want to work in.’ added Saythany.
Milton said she felt the board needed to consider hiring bonuses for teachers joining the district. She said Norwich was a “hard district” that could benefit from having experienced teachers working there.
“We just have a lot of families that are transient or maybe have been in other districts. We have a lot of [English learners]. There’s a lot of behavioral issues,” said Milton. “Students in a district like Norwich count on their teachers. Sometimes, maybe, their home life is not always easy for some children … kids need routine and they need places where they know what’s going to happen.”
Kulos said the district had used federal coronavirus relief funding to increase teacher salaries to compete with neighboring school districts. He said that spending had improved the district’s retention rate.
But Paulsen and Fowler attributed the loss of about half of the district’s teachers to a negative work environment.
Republican candidate Yamir Flores pointed to a climate survey, conducted in May and released in late June, suggesting that 95 percent of teachers were afraid of retaliation by Stringfellow and Assistant Superintendent Tamara Gloster if they came forward and voiced their concerns.
“That’s almost the whole entire faculty,” said Flores. “We’re supposed to trust and respect the staff that we hire and their expertise. That’s why we hire them. If they’re afraid to speak up about something that’s not working for them, how can they do their job?”
Perry said there needed to be a way for the board to receive information from teachers about what was happening in the district.
“We need to have a process in place where unfiltered information can get to the board,” he said. “Especially with teachers who are leaving, but even with teachers who are still there. Conversations with our collective bargaining groups where they can tell us what’s going on.”
Mansaku said he thought the board needed to make sure they did their due diligence when hiring a superintendent to make sure that person was the right fit.
“We need to make sure that [teachers] are comfortable with whoever’s supervising them. So hiring the right superintendent, I think, is the most important first step,” said Mansaku.
Iovino said he didn’t know how the district should address the teacher shortages, but that he understood the repercussions of the problem.
“When you lose a teacher, it’s not as simple as just that teacher being gone. It has a ripple effect on any school, particularly when you have teachers that have been there for a couple of years … and they leave.That’s a big void,” he said.
The closing of Bishop
Several board members also said they disagreed with the decision to close Bishop Early Learning Center, a move that was intended to balance an approximately $2.2 million deficit in the district’s budget.
Some candidates said they felt that closing the early learning center should have been avoided.
“I definitely think that parents having access to that program is very, very important for a lot of parents who are working nowadays,” said Mansaku. “Both parents in the household are working, so it’s very tough to make arrangements. Otherwise, I think that that program needs to be refunded. Especially since it was so successful.”
Paulsen said he still questions whether closing Bishop was something the board absolutely had to do.
Milton questioned the decision to spread students across the district and questioned what the cost would be in transportation for the children.
“I feel like that program was perfect. Everybody was set up for that young student. Now you’re going to have preschoolers in different settings. When you have all those teachers that are preschoolers all in one building, working on learning ventures, so much more collaboration — I don’t think that was a positive move,” said Milton.
Other board members said they felt their hands were tied.
Both Distasio and Charmelus said they had been able to place children so they could still enroll in Pre-K.
“I feel that when we were given the options, that was our only option,” said Distasio. “We didn’t want to lose our arts and our sports again and go backwards.”
Perry said that the board chose to close Bishop because they saw it as a large cost savings, and because the building itself posed significant challenges, but he still voiced reservations about the decision.
“We moved too quickly to do that. I’ve said that before. We got information at one moment and voted to investigate that as the option that would give us the most savings to get to the number that we needed. We were trying to avoid elimination of programs, trying to avoid as much elimination of positions and staff as possible,” he said.
Perry said he was glad there were more spots available for full-day Pre-K, but he also expressed concern that dividing the Pre-K students between schools had meant that siblings had been sent to different schools.
“I’ve put the directive out there that we need to do everything that we can to keep families together,” he said.
Bullying and chronic absenteeism
Norwich’s chronic absenteeism rates increased from 22.1 percent two years ago to 29 percent last year, despite participation in the state’s Learner Engagement Attendance Program, which has worked with districts to check on students not regularly attending school.
Kulos said the district experienced a sharp rise in expulsions when students returned to classroom instruction, but that those numbers had dropped “drastically” in the last few years. He said he felt that instances of bullying stemmed from a loss of face-to-face interaction during COVID.
“The administration has actually taken the tack that it’s better for the students to be on a probation basis and to get back into school. These students need the supports and the teaching. They need to be in school. And that seems to be the best way to address many of these issues.”
Fowler said she thought that a negative school climate created by administrators had trickled down to the students, leading to more children acting out.
“The bullying has gotten out of control and I feel like it’s very much possible that it’s because of the culture that the adults are living in, that the kids are reciprocating,” she said.
Fowler said she thought the climate was also related to some parents deciding to keep their children out of school.
“When I had such distrust of the school systems, both of my children have had chronic absences,” said Fowler. “I would hear something that went down at my son’s school and I wasn’t comfortable sending him. So I kept him home, and we did some of our own learning at home. And I think that over the course of the last five years, there’s a lot of parents who feel the exact same way.”
Milton agreed about the need for a positive climate in the schools. She said she wanted to see more mentorship programs available to students.
“There’s a lot of kids that are on their own … more that don’t have that support at home. So they need this positive climate for school. And that comes down to, if the teachers don’t have a positive climate or don’t feel valued … if you’re going in every day feeling like [you’re] knocked down already — it trickles down,” she said.
Paulsen said he thought there should be safety officers present in the schools.
Mansaku said he felt the district needed to “stand up firm” against bullying and support parents of children who had been bullied. He advocated for the district to implement a no-second chances approach toward bullies. He also said teachers should be role models.
“I think it is also kind of a moral stance that teachers need to hold and they need to approach kids the right way with the right message,” he said.
Flores said the teachers would be the best people to address the bullying, since they were the ones who saw the children interact in school everyday.
“We need to speak to the people that are in charge of our kids or the teachers. They will have the answers,” said Flores. “They should not be having to reach out to the Board of Ed to file issues or complaints or grievances. We should be going to the schools.”
Perry said he also saw the teachers as the primary source for changing student behavior.
“We need to have staff at all levels who are working with the students … who are creating a climate where bullying is less likely to happen, and a lot of that is about the way that you prepare your students to interact with each other. You build a community where bullying is less likely and where the students are going to be the ones who, when they see it or when it’s going on, are going to be standing up for each other,” he said.
Many candidates said they felt parents needed to be involved in engaging students in school and addressing the chronic absenteeism rates.
“I don’t think that it’s just the schools [that need] to be doing some of that work.
I think it takes a community to ensure that all of our students are educated to the level that they need to be educated so we can really use our parents’ support in getting that [chronic absenteeism] lower,” said Charmelus.
“Chronic absenteeism and the things we’re talking about are only going to be solved when parents, families, and school systems work together to address those issues,” said Iovino. “If anything’s going to be accomplished, it’s not going to be in silos. It’s going to be working collaboratively.”