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.