Deeply divided school board wrangles over bylaw changes
The Board of Education on Tuesday restricted its public comment policy and curtailed the ability of board members to request information from the school district's central office.
The hotly debated changes to the board's bylaws, which drove the board meeting into the wee hours Wednesday morning, were opposed by nearly a dozen members of the audience and again laid bare the 5-4 division among the board's nine members.
During the lengthy debate, one school board member admitted that board members don't trust each other and that some board members don't seem to trust the district's central office.
Critics said the proposed changes would squash the rights of the board's minority and prevent issues important to the public from being brought before the board at a public meeting. Supporters said the changes are needed to prevent the school district's staff from being burdened by responding to excessive requests for information from individual board members and to prevent audience members from maligning school district staff at public meetings.
Right to know or staff harassment?
John Convertito, the board's vice chairman, proposed the first change, which contained seven bullet points. The most controversial point stated individual board members should not request information from the school district's central office "unless the information is readily available and will not redirect staff time." If those criteria are not met, the information could be requested only if a majority of the board also wanted it.
Convertito said the proposed change would eliminate administrators having to respond to requests from board members when the information sought never is used for meeting agendas.
"You want some information, make your case for it," he said.
John Llewellyn, a board member, questioned what "readily available" meant, and Convertito said it pertained to the length of a report that responded to a request for information, how much information would have to be redacted, and whether the information could be assembled in "a reasonable amount of time that doesn't take (school administrators) away from their role."
But board member Eileen Liu-McCormack questioned how Convertito's proposed change would align with the code of ethics from the board and Connecticut Association of Boards of Education that says board members "will strive to ensure the community is fully and accurately informed about our schools."
"I think this sabotages individual members' ability to comply with the code of ethics," she said. She suggested the board's majority could "squash" the board's minority at any time under the proposed change.
"On other boards, the minority voice is respected. I have to question whether that's the case with this board," Liu-McCormack said.
"The majority could potentially abuse its right and squash the minority voice . ... It's why other boards allow something on an agenda if three people request it." Llewellyn said, "For five people to decide that four people can't have information, that's ridiculous."
He suggested Convertito's proposal be changed to say at least two board members are needed to request information, instead of a majority, but Llewellyn's idea wasn't adopted.
Board member Paul Fattibene said Convertito's proposed change would "prevent the dissemination of meaningful information." Fattibene said the board in the past handled frivolous and excessive requests for information by directing requests through the board's chairman. Fattibene said he didn't think it was good to lump all board members together and limit their ability to request information.
But board member Jennifer Maxon-Kennelly said the public wasn't privy to how much a board member's right to request information had been abused in the past.
"I absolutely believe this has been abused," she said. She said requests for information had "become a distraction to student achievement" and constituted "someone looking for a gotcha moment and trying to prove someone wrong.
"I want our administrators focused on their jobs ... It's not our job to do their job."
Supt. of Schools David G. Title said his administration's "default stance" is to provide information to board members.
"When it's not a decision by the board and it's just a whim and it's going to take a lot of time, I would say to the chair(man), `This looks excessive,' " Title said. He said Convertito's proposed change would give "veto power" to the whole board and not just the board's chairman.
If the information sought is related to an agenda item, Title said his office would certainly provide information.
"If it's an agenda item, to me, that's one of the litmus tests," he said.
Jessica Gerber, the board's secretary, said board members do not appear to trust each other and some board members don't trust the school district's central office because no matter how much information they receive, they always want more.
"When it starts to take over their jobs and responsibilities and does impact student achievement, I think it's problematic," she said.
Llewellyn replied, "Trust is a good word, but blind trust is not a good thing."
Convertito's proposed changes were approved on a 5-4 vote, with Chairman Philip Dwyer, Convertito, Gerber, Maxon-Kennelly and board member Marc Patten in favor, and Fattibene, Llewellyn, Liu-McCormack and board member Donna Karnal in opposition.
Scope of public comments debated
The board then took up Dwyer's proposed changes, one of which would eliminate public comment on matters not listed on the school board's agenda. Before Tuesday's meeting, the board allowed general public comment, in which audience members could speak to the board about any issue in the school district.
Dwyer said he was informed by lawyers at a recent CABE conference that he, as chairman, did not have the right to prevent an audience member from identifying and harshly criticizing a member of the school district's staff during general public comment. He said a recommendation by lawyers for CABE and the board was that the Fairfield board follow other boards of education in the state by limiting public comment to agenda items.
Dwyer said other boards in Fairfield, such as the Board of Selectmen, Board of Finance and Representative Town Meeting, allow only public comment on agenda items and that residents are not shy about voicing their opinions in other forums or contacting school board members via email.
Dwyer said his proposed change would allow public comment on any agenda item, regardless of whether it was to be voted upon. Another of his proposed changes was to extend comment from an audience member from two minutes to three minutes.
But Fattibene contended the board is "going in the direction of eroding, incrementally, the right of the public to address this body because they (board members) don't like what some members of the public say. ... It troubles me greatly that this board is systematically going down a road ... of shutting the public out."
Gerber, however, said she is troubled by comments from the public that turned out to be factually wrong, but since they didn't pertain to an agenda item, no one was prepared to dispute them. She said the trend in public comment seemed to be to try to embarrass and belittle board members and district staff.
Dwyer said board members who didn't support restricting public comment to agenda items were "essentially telling the public it's open (season) on our staff." He said the board had a responsibility to protect its staff.
But Dawn Llewellyn, wife of board member John Llewellyn, said she has heard Dwyer at previous meetings cut off the public when they mention staff members by name. She added that Fairfield residents only learned of a previous controversy involving the introduction of a new algebra textbook through general public comment at a board meeting.
Kelly Jacobson, of the Southport section of Fairfield, said Dwyer's proposed change would take away a vehicle for parents to advocate for their children.
The board approved Dwyer's proposed change on a 5-4 vote -- the same split among members as recorded for Convertito's proposed change.
Margin for approving changes up next
The votes on motions by Convertito and Dwyer followed a debate about whether the board should first vote on the third proposed bylaws change, which would require two-thirds of board members to approve changes to the bylaws, instead of a simple majority.
Llewellyn, who made the motion to consider that proposed change first, said the board should "play by the rules" of a two-thirds majority before voting on the other proposed changes. It failed, however, on a 4-5 vote.
Because of the late hour, the board did not take up whether future changes to bylaws should require a two-thirds vote of board members.