Town scrutinizing school board actions

By Rachael Scarborough King
Sept. 9, 2008

NORTH BRANFORD — The Town Council is investigating whether it was legal for the Board of Education to prevent two parents from speaking at a June meeting.

At a regular meeting last week, several town council members said they were concerned about the decision, and asked Town Attorney Tim Yolen to investigate the laws about residents speaking during the “public comments” section of local meetings.

The issue arose following a June 19 Board of Education meeting at which two parents, Ashley Joiner and Kristen Hart, asked to read separate letters “concerning a North Branford staff member,” according to the meeting’s minutes. The board chairwoman told each woman that the board would not hear a “personnel matter” discussed in public, and that visitors speaking during board meetings should only address items on the meeting’s agenda.

Hart declined to describe her concerns about the teacher. Joiner, who is also a member of the Town Council, could not be reached for comment.

Superintendent of Schools Robert Wolfe said that the board and the superintendent cannot legally discuss concerns about a specific staff member in public.

“That is not a public hearing, that is a Board of Education meeting and personnel have specific rights,” Wolfe said. “We will not take public comment which is derogatory or negative about any personnel. If there is a concern, they need to process that directly (with the school principal or the superintendent).”

He added that he later met with the parents to discuss their concerns. He would not say whether any action was taken against the staff member, but said that the issue was “thoroughly examined and explored.”

“There’s no one that I won’t listen to, but in the final decision it may come down to a decision which is mine,” he said. “Sometimes parents aren’t happy with the superintendent’s decision, but as far as having an opportunity to address any issues that they have they have multiple opportunities for that.”

Wolfe said that he had consulted the Board of Education’s attorney on the question of allowing residents to speak at meetings. The board’s agenda includes two items set aside for “visitors and press,” which usually serves as a time for members of the public to address the board.

At last week’s regular Town Council meeting, council member Al Rose raised the issue and said he thought residents should be able to address local boards with questions about town staff.

Councilors did not discuss the incident in this case or name the teacher involved.

“I tend to think that you can do that as a citizen and that the superintendent and the Board of Education was out of line in shutting them up,” Rose said. He added that people might think they do not have another recourse if they disagree with a decision made by a town official.

Councilor Joseph Faughnan agreed, saying that residents should be able to voice their concerns.

“I think people should have the right to express their opinions whether or not those opinions are all favorable,” Faughnan said.

But Deputy Mayor Joanne Wentworth noted that the perspective of the staff member should also be taken into consideration.

“It’s always been my understanding that if somebody is an employee of the town that they have the right to be notified (if a board is discussing them),” she said. Other councilors said they agreed with that assessment, but wondered if it applied to members of the public as well as town officials.

Yolen, the town attorney, said that his initial reaction to the question was that personnel issues should be discussed only in executive session, but he is continuing to look into the issue and hopes to make a report to the Town Council at its meeting next week.

“I’ve started looking into the charter and the town regulations and I’m now moving into the statute to ensure that I get the right handle on this,” he said. “It seems to me the superintendent may have the ability — and again ‘may’ is the operative word — may not allow something to go forward based upon them being personnel issues specific to the employment of teachers and other school officials.”

Wolfe noted that there are other topics the Board of Education does not discuss in open session, including security and contract negotiations.

“If somebody asks me in public, ‘Could you please detail all the security improvements you’ve made in the school system?’ well, we don’t have to tell the general public what we’ve done or expose them to that,” he said.

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