NORWICH — Under intense pressure from parents and unions representing public school teachers, he Board of Education voted unanimously Monday to place Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow on an indefinite paid administrative leave until an investigation of her “performance and conduct” is completed.
Current Stanton Elementary School Principal Susan Lessard was named as the acting superintendent.
In a repeat of a demonstration at a Board of Education meeting last week, dozens of educators, parents, community members and district staff crowded the Board of Education meeting room, calling for a change to what union leaders described as a culture of intimidation and fear of retaliation from central office administrators.
Connecticut Education Association President Kate Dias told the crowd before the meeting that she felt that the outcome of last week’s meeting was “a nod in our direction, but that the mark had been missed.” She said she hoped the Board of Education would use this meeting to “do the right thing” and bring change to the district.
“We will honor the Board of Education and celebrate their good decisions. We will critique their bad ones. But we will absolutely celebrate their good ones,” said Dias.
The decision to investigate the workplace climate of the local public schools was sparked by complaints to the board from two former administrators alleging workplace retaliation. In August, members of the teachers union approached local state legislators to complain about the culture in the district. And school Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow has said she would work to create an “open-door policy” with staff and form a “Teacher Climate Advisory Committee” to meet with her on a regular basis.
“We’re just in a climate where we feel we can’t do the best for our children,” one elementary teacher who had been in the district for over 30 years told CT Examiner on Monday. “I’ve seen lots of good teachers leave because they don’t feel safe or because they don’t feel heard.”
Bill Priest, president of the Norwich Teachers League and a teacher at Teachers Memorial Middle School, said he was also struck by the large number of teachers who had left.
“This is my 23rd year, and I’ve never seen this many teachers walk from a district,” said Priest.
Veteran teachers described being “micromanaged” and fearing what would happen if they made even a small mistake. One teacher said they tried to deal with the current school climate by remaining unnoticed.
“We’ve been trying to keep our heads down, stay out of sight. Under the radar,” she said.
Another elementary teacher who had been in the district nearly 30 years said that Stringfellow had done a lot to cut spending in the district, but that it resulted in more work for the teachers.
“We have huge classes,” said the teacher, who said she teaches a class of 25 students. She added that these students were the ones most affected by Covid, meaning that they were most in need of small cohorts.
Paraeducators and a special education teacher also spoke about students who weren’t provided the services necessary under their individualized education plans, or IEPs, and not having enough staff to manage students — something they said places staff members in danger.
Board chair Bob Aldi told the crowd at the board meeting that placing Stringfellow on leave was “without prejudice” and does not mean the board believes Stringfellow has done anything worthy of punishment.
“The board has not reached any conclusion regarding whether Dr. Stringfellow engaged in any improper conduct. Rather, the board determined that it was appropriate and in the best interest of the district to place Dr. Stringfellow on administrative leave at this time during the investigation so that the investigation can proceed effectively, so that the district can move forward during the investigation,” said Aldi.
Stringfellow did not offer comment by the time this article was published.
A veteran teacher praised Lessard as a good choice to lead the district.
“She’s more than well liked. She knows what teachers do because she’s been there herself.
And she identifies with teachers and students and with parents. And she listens,” the teacher told CT Examiner.
Priest told reporters after the meeting that he was happy with the outcome. He said he hoped Lessard would involve teachers when decisions were being made in the district.
“We’re just happy to work with her and help her out and do what we can to bring stability in the district,” he said.