September 21, 2014

Region 4 School Board Hires Madison Lawyer for High School Investigation

REGION 4— The Region 4 Board of Education has hired a Madison lawyer to investigate reports of a gag order allegedly imposed on students and staff at Valley Regional High School in the wake of the departure of the school principal last month.

Superintendent of Schools Ruth Levy said Stacey Lafferty, a lawyer with a solo practice in Madison, has been hired to conduct the investigation that was authorized by the board at a Nov. 18 special meeting. Levy said Lafferty had served previously as a hearing officer for two student expulsion hearings in the district.

Levy said Lafferty has begun the investigation, and was at the high school Monday. Lafferty is expected to interview students, staff, and Levy herself, about claims by some students and parents that a gag order was imposed on students and staff before and after the Oct. 12 resignation of Eric Rice, the Chester resident who worked briefly as principal at the high school. There have been claims that students were ordered, under threat of sanctions, not to discuss the circumstances of Rice’s departure on school grounds.

Levy has declined to comment on the circumstances of Rice’s departure after less than two months on the job, despite reports that she had given Rice a resign-or-be-fired ultimatum for unspecified reasons in mid-September. The alleged gag order was cited in a complaint filed with the state Department of Education earlier this month by Essex resident Susan Magaziner.  The complaint was dismissed by state Commissioner of Education Mark McQuillan, but district lawyers also recommended the board sponsor a full investigation in to the alleged gag order.

Levy said Rafferty’s investigation would conclude with a written report to the board of education that will also be available to the public. Levy said she is hopeful the investigation would be completed before the school’s Christmas holiday break late next month.

Levy, who assumed the district’s top job in July 2009 after nearly three years as assistant superintendent, Monday also dismissed rumors that she is interviewing for other school administration jobs in preparation for leaving Region 4. Levy said she enjoys working for the Chester-Deep River-Essex school district, and has not interviewed for other positions despite the recent controversy over the principal’s departure and the alleged gag order. “I have not even thought about looking elsewhere,” she said.

Charles Stannard is a lifelong resident of Essex, and has covered various Middlesex County towns for two daily newspapers over the past 30 years.  He worked for the Middletown Press from 1979 to 1995 and the Hartford Courant from 1997 through last summer, and covered Chester, Deep River, Essex and Killingworth for the past decade.  Charlie lives in the Ivoryton section of Essex.

Region 4 School Board to Investigate Alleged Gag Order at Valley Regional High School

REGION 4— The Region 4 Board of Education voted Wednesday to hire an independent party to investigate reports that a gag order was imposed on students and staff at Valley Regional High School in the wake of last month’s departure of the former high school principal.

The board decided at a special meeting to retain an outside attorney to investigate the alleged gag order and report back to the board. The five members present at the meeting, including board treasurer Richard Strauss of Chester, who is Rice’s father-in-law, voted unanimously to begin the investigation as soon as possible.

Reports that students were ordered not to discuss the situation involving the principal under threat of sanctions by school officials surfaced before and after Rice’s Oct. 12 resignation from the principal job he held for less than two months. There were reports that Rice, a Chester resident, had been given a resign-or-be-fired ultimatum from Superintendent of Schools Ruth Levy, who has declined to discuss the circumstances of Rice’s departure. There have been claims by students and some parents that students, including members of school athletic teams, had been ordered not to attend a Sept. 23 rally supporting Rice, and not to discuss the situation on school grounds. Kristina Martineau, who had been assistant principal at the high school for about three years, has been named as acting principal for the remainder of the current academic year.

The alleged gag order had been included in a complaint to the Connecticut Department of Education against Levy and the Region 4 board that was filed by Essex resident Susan Magaziner. State Commissioner of Education Mark McQuillan dismissed the complaint last week, but Magaziner has also submitted the complaint to the U.S. Department of Education’s regional office in Boston, Mass.

Board Chairwoman Linda Hall of Deep River said an independent investigation of the alleged gag order was not required for the dismissal of the state complaint, though she acknowledged the school district’s lawyer, Ann Littlefield, had recommended the board investigate the allegations.

Levy who has denied the claims of a gag order on students or staff, said she wants the investigation. “If there was a gag order I want the truth to come out and quite honestly I deserve the truth to come out,” she said, adding “I want my name cleared.”

Assistant Superintendent of Schools Ian Neviaser, who had been principal at the high school before Rice was hired, said the state Department of Education would not conduct the investigation, though it had suggested the names of individuals qualified to conduct such an investigation. Hiring a lawyer for the investigation would cost the school district about $175 per hour.

District officials are expected to announce the person retained to conduct the investigation next week. The private attorney would interview students and staff at the high school. The individual would be asked to complete the investigation and present a report to the school board as soon as possible, though there is no deadline for completion of the investigation.

Charles Stannard is a lifelong resident of Essex, and has covered various Middlesex County towns for two daily newspapers over the past 30 years.  He worked for the Middletown Press from 1979 to 1995 and the Hartford Courant from 1997 through last summer, and covered Chester, Deep River, Essex and Killingworth for the past decade.  Charlie lives in the Ivoryton section of Essex.

Crowd Challenges Region 4 Board on Handling of Personnel Matters

REGION 4— More than 100 residents turned out for a special meeting Wednesday night to challenge the Region 4 Board of Education over the handling of personnel in the school district, particularly the abrupt departure earlier this month of newly hired Valley Regional High School Principal Eric Rice.

Residents packed the library/media center at John Winthrop Middle School for the meeting that had been forced by a petition signed by more than 180 residents of the district towns of Chester, Deep River, and Essex. Most of the concern was prompted by the departure of Rice, a Chester resident who resigned from the principal position effective Oct. 12. Speculation about Rice’s departure began in mid September, barely three weeks after the start of the school year, with reports that he had been given a resign-or-be-fired ultimatum from Superintendent of Schools Ruth Levy for unspecified reasons.

The crowd wanted to talk about Rice’s departure, but rules established by the board for the meeting directed the crowd to “refrain from discussing specific personnel situations, or specific former or current staff members.” The meeting was run by Anne Littlefield, a lawyer for the school district.

But the ground rules did not stop residents from questioning the circumstances of Rice’s departure, along with the departure last May of a former assistant superintendent. Diane Dugas resigned as assistant superintendent of schools in mid-May without completing her first academic year with Region 4. She had been hired over the summer of 2009, replacing Levy as assistant superintendent after Levy had assumed the district’s top job in June 2009.

While most of the comment from the crowd during the 75-minuite session was limited to questions that were not immediately answered by the board, there were also claims the Rice and Dugas exits included costly severance packages, and that students at the high school are under a “gag order” not to discuss Rice’s departure.

Zack Sanders, a senior from Chester, declared that rumors of a “gag order” at the high school are true and that students were prevented from raising the subject of the principal’s exit during discussion at the Current Issues class that is required for all seniors.

Eileen Steinfeldt, a Chester resident who organized a Sept. 23 protest rally outside the district’s administrative offices after reports about Rice ‘situation surfaced, said she wants to know more about the severance packages received by Rice and Dugas. Steinfeldt said after the meeting she has heard the severances totaled more than $100,000 for Rice and more than $200,000 for Dugas.

During the meeting Steinfeldt noted the severance payments could have helped pay salaries for teachers, or purchased books and supplies for students. Levy and Board Chairwoman Linda Hall of Deep River declined to comment on a possible severance package when announcing Rice’s departure on Oct. 12.

Allison Liggett of Chester said she is concerned about a “lack of continuity” among district administrators. As Littlefield attempted to curtail her comments, Liggett declared the “coerced resignation” of Rice had set a poor example for students, tarnished the district’s reputation, and made it more difficult to recruit qualified educators for Region 4. “Two weeks is not enough time to evaluate anyone,” she said.

Jeffrey Liggett, her husband, told the board, Levy, and Assistant Superintendent Ian Nevaiser that he has lost confidence ‘in everybody that is sitting at that table right now.”

Michael Sanders, Zack’s father, said he son had schooled under four principals during his years at VRHS. “That’s not a lot of continuity as far as an example of leadership.” he said.

Several residents questioned whether the board was fully exercising its role in personnel issues, or giving Levy and Nevaiser too much authority to act independently. “It centralizes too much power outside of the board,” said Leonard Wyeth of Ivoryton.

Hall told residents the board would discuss the concerns raised at the meeting, and attempt to answer some of the questions from residents, at its next regular meeting on Nov. 4.

Charles Stannard is a lifelong resident of Essex, and has covered various Middlesex County towns for two daily newspapers over the past 30 years.  He worked for the Middletown Press from 1979 to 1995 and the Hartford Courant from 1997 through last summer, and covered Chester, Deep River, Essex and Killingworth for the past decade.  Charlie lives in the Ivoryton section of Essex.

Region 4 Issues Statement on High School Principal Matter

REGION 4— Region 4 school officials have issued a statement on the situation involving Valley Regional High School Principal Eric Rice as the recently hired administrator was reported to remain on the job Monday.

The “official statement from Region 4 schools” was issued late Friday, one day after a group of parents, students, and residents gathered outside the district’s administrative offices in Deep River amid reports that Superintendent of Schools Ruth Levy had given Rice a resign-or-be-fired ultimatum. Rice, a Chester resident, had been hired for the principal position over the summer and had been on the job with students for three weeks

The statement is as follows “We are aware of the rumors that have been spreading throughout the community about a confidential personnel matter, and we urge the public to refrain from gossip or speculation about personnel issues. Personnel matters are within the purview of the administration: and the board of education members, as individuals, are not privy to confidential information concerning personnel matters. In rare circumstances, the board as  a whole may have a defined role in certain proceedings regarding personnel. At this time , the board has not been asked to review any specific personnel issue. In the event that the board is asked to review a personnel matter at some point in the future, it is very important that the board have the ability to review such information objectively, without preconceived notions that may be formed through rumor and speculation. For that reason communications with board members about individual employees are not appropriate, as the board’s ability to fulfill its duties may be deleteriously impacted by such communications. Thank you for your cooperation in respecting the board’s role in this regard.”

The statement echoes comments made Friday by Region 4 Board Chairwoman Linda Hall of Deep River confirming that the nine-member board could have to serve as an “impartial jury” in the event Levy seeks dismissal of Rice, and he asks for a formal public hearing on the action. Hall indicated she has no immediate plans to call a special meeting of the board on the principal matter.

Rice was reported to be on the job at the school Monday. There were also reports that some residents may be planning a petition drive in the district towns of Chester, Deep River and Essex on the situation, possibly requesting a public meeting on the situation.

Related Stories:

Valley Regional High School Principal Remains on Job as School Board Awaits Next Step

Parents and Students Protest Move to Dismiss Valley Regional High School Principal

Protest Planned Against VRHS Principal’s Dismissal

Region 4 Hires New Principal, Two Other Positions

Region 4 Goes Back to School Today

REGION 4— Region 4 schools open today for the 2010-2011 academic year with a new principal at Valley Regional High School and 21 new teachers (most replacing retiring teachers) for the five schools in Chester, Deep River, and Essex.

Superintendent of Schools Ruth Levy Thursday praised the efforts of district custodians in preparing the school buildings for opening day. “All of our buildings are ready for children to walk in to and they look absolutely spectacular,” she said. “Our staff is ready and we’re excited about the new school year.”

The principal job at the high school opened up after Ian Neviaser, an Essex resident who had served as principal since 2008, was selected as the district’s new assistant superintendent. Eric Rice, a Chester resident who worked previously as principal of a science and engineering magnet school in Hartford, was selected for the principal job in July.

Peter Foxen, a Rocky Hill resident who has worked for the past decade in the Portland school system, is the new associate principal at John Winthrop Middle School. Thomas Peterlik of Deep River is the new director of food services for the school district.

An early retirement incentive program offered last winter to generate savings in the education budget led to the retirement in June of 17 veteran teachers. Nearly all of those positions have been filled, along with a handful of new positions that were created to meet shifts in student enrollment.

New teachers at the high school include John Harris-social studies, Maryann Donagher-art, Christopher Allegretti-math, and Deborah Montenegro-chemistry. New hires for the middle school include John Woitovich-special education, Matthew Mesite-math, Kathryn Ryan-math, and Cara Rothman as the new director of the school’s library/media center.

Diana Mirante is a new second grade teacher at Essex Elementary School. New teachers at Chester Elementary School include Nicole Larson-grade 4, Kelsey Parente-grade 3, Brian Klasner-teacher’s assistant, and Lori Lenz-art. The new teachers at Deep River Elementary School are Brian Drinkard-physical education, Jennifer Raney-grade 6, Rachel Anderson-grade 5, Jill Shakun-grade 1, and Catherine Miller- remedial reading and language.

Kristin Menard is the new reading and language consultant at Deep River Elementary School.

Three new teachers were hired for the supervision district, providing services for more than one school, including Gary Stevens-art, Dina Monaco-special education, and Angela Fachini-foreign language. There are also six new para-educators, including Jodi Azzinaro, Jill Joes, Kristie Scanlon, and Allison Quagan at Deep River Elementary School, and Lynn Fishkind and Suzanne deJongh at Essex Elementary School.

Levy said the new television station will be in full operation at the high school this year, providing video coverage of athletic events and other school programs. Work is also expected to begin during this school year on a solar photovoltaic unit to be located on the roof at the middle school. The project, which will be paid for by grant funds, is expected to reduce energy costs for the school.