School chief’s departure caught many by surprise

By Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff
May 17, 2008

NORTH BRANFORD — Town officials expressed shock Friday at the news that controversial Superintendent of Schools Robert Wolfe will resign at the end of the year.

On Thursday night, the Board of Education voted to accept Wolfe’s resignation, effective Dec. 31. The issue was not on the agenda for the meeting, and Wolfe said he informed most of the board members of his decision during an executive session before the public portion of the meeting.

Board member Marcey Onofrio, who was visibly shaken, made a motion to add a “personnel matter” to the agenda, and then to accept the resignation “with regret.” The board unanimously approved the motions.

Wolfe did not comment on the resignation during the meeting. Afterward, he said he had decided to retire and will stay on until December to give the board time to find a successor.

He said that nothing in particular prompted the decision to retire now, but several projects are under way that he has worked on throughout his time as superintendent.

“It was very important to me to see the beginning of the middle school project,” he said, referring to the renovation of North Branford Intermediate School, which is under construction.

Wolfe did not return a call for comment Friday. He has been superintendent since March 2001 and earns more than $130,000 a year. Prior to arriving in North Branford, he was principal of the Beecher Road School in Woodbridge. He has been an educator for 38 years.

A series of public controversies has dogged the school district during Wolfe’s tenure in North Branford. In 2005, the teachers union cast a resounding vote of no confidence in Wolfe, 103-15. He had come under fire for recommending that the Board of Education not rehire a popular second-grade teacher.

The same year, police investigated allegations that Wolfe had violated the privacy of the principal of Jerome Harrison Elementary School by logging on to her e-mail account while she was out of the building. No charges were filed in the incident.

Most recently, state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal last year investigated allegations, made by the former principal of North Branford High School as well as a teacher and a guidance counselor, that Wolfe had pressured administrators and teachers to change grades to allow students to graduate. In September, Blumenthal issued a report saying that the “he said — he said” case did not present enough evidence of pervasive grade-tampering at the school.

Both past supporters and critics of Wolfe described him as an educational innovator who has brought new direction to the school district. They pointed to his creation of a strategic plan, which lays out year-by-year goals for the district, as a plus for the schools.

“I think he’ll be missed. He had a vast amount of knowledge, but now it gives the school a chance to go in a new direction,” Mayor Michael Doody said. “He’s certainly brought the school system many, many years ahead of where it was.”

In 2005, Doody and a group of residents calling themselves Concerned Citizens Coalition of North Branford filed a complaint with the state Freedom of Information Commission asking it to revoke a contract renewal and raise granted Wolfe by the Board of Education.

The residents said that the board had not given proper notice for the decision and had ignored parent concerns about special education in the district.

The commission said that the board had prepared its agenda incorrectly, but did not void the contract extension.

Doody said he thinks the issues have been mostly resolved.

“There’s good and bad in everything, but I think the majority of his tenure there was more good than there was bad,” he said. “I just wish him well in his retirement.”

Board of Education Chairwoman Deborah Prunier said Wolfe’s accomplishments include the implementation of the strategic plan, and overseeing the construction of a new auditorium at the high school and the ongoing work at the middle school.

The board will meet to discuss choosing a new superintendent, probably before its next regular meeting June 19.

“I think we should look for someone who will move forward with our strategic plan that Dr. Wolfe has implemented, who will continue to be diligent in providing the children of North Branford with the absolute most they can get through our budget,” Prunier said.

Democratic Town Committee Chairman Jerry Juliano said he thinks the board, half of which was elected in November, has been working well together and will make a good decision on the new superintendent. Juliano criticized some board members last year for signing off on Wolfe’s decisions.

“I think we need somebody with new ideas and maybe a different way of doing things,” he said Friday. “The school board is so well balanced that I think they’ll make a terrific choice no matter who it is.”

He added that he heard surprise from many quarters after people learned of Wolfe’s decision.

“I think he caught everyone off guard with it,” Juliano said. “Everybody’s wondering why he left at this time, but that was his decision and I think it was a good decision.”

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