North Stonington school board chairman survives ouster bid

North Stonington — A "polarized" Board of Education went back and forth Wednesday about whether to remove member Darren Robert from his post as chairman after member Robert Testa said there is no "trust and confidence" on the board and accused Robert of "working behind (other board members') backs."

The motion to remove Robert from the post eventually failed after much discussion. Robert, at 10 years the longest-serving board member, made the motion himself, saying maybe it was time to take a "cheap seat."

The factions were split along party lines, as Testa, Chris Hundt and Ed Scarchilli — three of four Republicans on the board — spoke out against Robert because "the road is changing," they said, and that the dynamics of the board have changed.

Democrats Crystal Dame and Vice Chairman David McCord spoke in favor of Robert's work as chairman.

Part of the reason for the request to discuss Robert's performance as board chairman, Testa said, were recent financial issues that have come to light. Testa said the issues were discovered despite the fact that Robert tried to cover them up by acting behind the backs of board members.

During a special meeting last week, a partial board of five members voted to request a forensic audit of the district's finances after the board's finance subcommittee became concerned about possible misuse of the district's credit cards, personal reimbursements, grant money and professional development funds by an individual or individuals.

The individual in question has not been named, but references made during Wednesday's meeting indicated it is Superintendent Natalie J. Pukas, who is two months away from retirement.

The board spoke about the possibility of the audit, which Robert said could cost as much as $20,000 or $30,000. But the board ultimately decided 5-3 not to spend board funds for the audit.

About five community members also spoke in favor of Robert at Wednesday's meeting.

Amy Kimball broke down and cried as she spoke about the work and support Robert has committed to her child, who Kimball said has special needs.

And North Stonington teacher Regina McGowan, whose husband Bill Hescock died in early 2010 while a member of the school board, spoke about the animosity she's seen on the board lately.

"I think the town as a whole is suffering because of the divisiveness on the board," she said. "As neighbors, we can either pull together or continue to pull this town apart."

The discussion was initially scheduled for executive session, but Robert asked for it to take place publicly because he said he had "nothing to hide" and is a publicly elected official.

s.goldstein@theday.com

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