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More study set for controversial changes to school board by-laws

Published 5:39 am, Friday, May 16, 2014
  • Board of Education Chairman Philip Dwyer and board secretary Jessica Gerber review proposed changes to the board's by-laws at a meeting Thursday night. Photo: Andrew Brophy / Fairfield Citizen
    Board of Education Chairman Philip Dwyer and board secretary Jessica Gerber review proposed changes to the board's by-laws at a meeting Thursday night. Photo: Andrew Brophy

 

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Superintendent of Schools David G. Title received a lot of praise at Thursday night's Board of Education meeting.

The praise for Title, who was absent because of a family commitment, came from people in the audience who thought the school board, by changing its by-laws, would usurp Title's authority and responsibilities as the school district's CEO.

Duane Lanham of Veres Street said the idea that nine school board members could run the school district better than Title was "embarrassing."

"It's a dangerous slope, and I really hope you consider what you're contemplating," Lanham said.

Steve Baker of Charles Street described Title as a "professional educator" and said he "should have the ability to work freely within [his] job description." Expecting Title to have "nine bosses" would create "an unhealthy working environment for the Board of Education and the superintendent," Baker said.

Others said shifting power from Title to the school board would make the school district less efficient and that board members are not professionally trained in the field of education.

Eric Newman of Eastfield Drive said Title received his doctorate from Harvard University and was named "Connecticut's Superintendent of the Year" in 2010. "Now we have a board that wants to micromanage superintendents and change by-laws so easily," he said. "Fairfield hires the best and brightest. Let's let him run our school system."

Christine Vitale of Verna Hill Road said school board members, as elected volunteers, may bring a personal agenda to their position. "I would like to see more of a collaborative effort and ask you not to shift power but work better together," she said.

Jill Bargas of Pilgrim Lane also voiced opposition to the proposed by-laws changes. "Running a school district needs to be left to an experienced professional hired to do so," she said.

However, Suzanne Miska of Ryegate Road said the board has a responsibility to hold the administration and school district accountable. Bargas, though, said school board members who weren't happy with Title could always vote not to renew his contract.

The school board's special meeting Thursday was called to consider proposed amendments to its by-laws. The two that sparked the opposition from audience members were referred to a committee. That committee, to be made up of three school board members, will issue its recommendations on what to do with those proposed by-laws changes to the full board in September.

The first such amendment, put forward by school board member John Llewellyn, was designed to "restore specificity and accountability back to the Board of Education by utilizing language based on CABE [Connecticut Association of Boards of Education] guidelines that clearly define the function of Boards of Education," according to Llewellyn's written justification for the amendment.

Llewellyn said he was glad public comment was moved to the top of Thursday's agenda because he didn't intend to remove any of Title's or his administration's responsibilities. "These are nearly verbatim off of the CABE sheet on what does a school board do," he said. "What I'm trying to propose is we take what are our current by-laws, which are not very robust, and fill them out with what is recommended by CABE."

Existing language in the by-laws says the board shall "adopt policies to govern the operation of the School District" and "keep apprised of, evaluate and attend to the School District's present and future educational needs as recommended by the administration."

Llewellyn wanted that language to say the board shall "develop, implement and monitor the district's policies, including short- and long-term goals and objectives."

"These policies serve as the road map for the school district," Llewellyn's requested by-laws' language continued. "These policies give direction to the administration and staff and become the foundation for accountability."

In another section, existing language says the board shall "employ an able and qualified Superintendent of Schools," while Llewellyn wanted it to say the board shall "select, retain and evaluate the superintendent of schools, who serves as the district's chief executive officer and implements board policy."

In another section, existing language says the board shall "in collaboration with the administration, communicate the School District's educational program to the community."

Llewellyn wanted the language instead to say the board shall "build public support and understanding of public education. This means communicating and interpreting the school district's mission to the public, listening to the community, and when appropriate, incorporating citizens' views into the discussions and actions of the Board."

Lastly, Llewellyn wanted the board's responsibility for its budget to be changed from the current "Propose an annual budget and capital improvement project request and advocate for its passage" to "Develop, approve and monitor implementation of the budget, which provides resources for the educational priorities of the school district."

Llewellyn also wanted a new section to say the board "will uphold and enforce all laws, rules, regulations and court orders pertaining to public schools."

School board member Jennifer Maxon-Kennelly said Llewellyn's proposed amendments were "taken out of context" from the full CABE document.

"In only taking out five, a decision is inherently made to leave out the others," she said. "I would think a fuller examination of the whole [CABE] document is what would be merited here."

Eileen Liu-McCormack, a board member, said the board had five to six months to review the full CABE document. "This is a nice abbreviation of what a board is as defined by CABE," she said.

Maxon-Kennelly said she had read the full CABE document, but is interested in a board discussion of it. "That is what I was looking to do at a future meeting," she said.

Llewellyn said he didn't cherry-pick from the CABE document. His proposed amendments came from a CABE section entitled "What Does a School Do?" and Llewellyn said he was supplanting what existed in the by-laws with the CABE language.

Paul Fattibene, the board's vice chairman, made a motion to refer to a committee Llewellyn's proposed amendments, along with separate proposed amendments from Liu-McCormack related to the creation of short-term goals, objectives and action plans.

Fattibene said the proposed amendments by Llewellyn and Liu-McCormack were "sufficiently complicated" and warrant a more extensive review than could be done Thursday night.

The board also decided to postpone action on an amendment that would require a vote by two-thirds of board members -- instead of a simple majority -- to change its by-laws. The board is scheduled to revisit that amendment after deciding what to do with Llewellyn's and Liu-McCormack's proposed amendments.

By-laws changes approved by the board included:

- Moving public comment toward the top of board agendas, instead of the bottom, so audience members don't have to wait until 10:30 or 11 p.m. to offer opinions on non-agenda items. The board would still allow public comment on agenda items before a vote.

- No longer require the board's secretary, in meeting minutes, to "accurately record the essence of discussions during the Board meetings without discrimination based on viewpoint." Supporters said that language in the by-laws, which was added in November, has led to problems due to board members' disagreement on what the essence was. Instead, the board decided the by-laws should say the minutes should contain a list of speakers on each side of a question and an abstract or text of each address.

The board defeated a proposed by-laws change that:

- Would have allowed a topic to be added to an agenda if three board members requested it. Opponents said state law already allows three board members to call a special meeting to discuss a topic. Fattibene, though, said the by-laws amendment "would not be as disruptive as the statutory process."

But Maxon-Kennelly said, "Any three of us could start piling things on [an agenda] because we thought it was of interest."