On Nov. 27, the Branford Board of Education voted unanimously to follow the recommendation of an impartial arbitration panel, in which two of three panelists recommended the district terminate teacher Carolyn Lippolis.
A Branford High School (BHS) teacher since 2001, Lippolis was terminated at the panel's recommendation based not on the single action of reportedly brandishing a knife in a classroom with students present last year, but as a result of a combination of factors, including "a series of issues identified by the school administration," BOE Chairperson Frank Carrano told The Sound.
Following state statutes, the impartial panel conducted four hearings before rendering a decision, which was sent to the BOE for review during the week of Nov. 19. When the BOE met and made its vote on Nov. 27, the decision was met with dissent from many at the special meeting, there to support Lippolis.
On Nov. 28, in an interview with The Sound, Carrano said he was surprised by the public reaction at the Nov. 27 meeting, but felt it likely came about due to being "misled."
He said Lippolis's attorney, Eugene Axelrod, "could have brought all those people to the hearings and had them testify on her behalf [about] what kind of teacher she is, [that] she is a wonderful friend...all of those things. He had the opportunity to bring them-and not bring them after the fact. And I think that's part of the reason they were so upset. I think they were misled.
"Because the teacher asked for a public discussion and not an executive session did not mean it was a public meeting," Carrano continued. "The meeting is governed by the statutes. So the purpose of the meeting was to discuss the report of the arbitrators and if we decided to take action one way or another, which happened."
A call to Axelrod's office last week for comments was not returned.
Carrano noted Lippolis chose to have her case, and testimony from others, heard by the impartial panel.
"There were four very long sessions which took place [with] a lot of testimony, and the panel issued a report to the board last week. In that report, the majority-two of the three members of the panel-recommended that the teacher be terminated not just based on one incident, brandishing a knife, but a series of issues that had been identified by the school administration regarding her performance. The combination of all those things-not just the one incident-led the panel to recommend termination," said Carrano.
Carrano further explained that, of the three arbitration panelists, one represents the teacher, one represents the district, and the third is neutral, so the panelists' recommendation can't be unanimous.
"The other arbitrators have to try to sway the neutral, to convince that person to go one way or another. So it could have gone the other way, [with the neutral arbitrator] not convinced it was a matter so serious to support termination, but instead it went the other way. It was a very clear decision," said Carrano.
The panelist representing Lippolis, Martin Gould, did not support the termination decision. On Nov. 27, Gould voiced his concern about the veracity of testimony from three students who'd notified BHS administration of Lippolis's action last year, and his concern that questionable student statements were helping bring about a teacher's termination.
The Nov. 27 special meeting of the BOE to act on the panel's recommendation was a public meeting, attended by Lippolis, her family, attorney Axelrod, and a number of supporters, including past students of Lippolis, a BHS social studies teacher.