The North Stonington Board of Education appears to be approaching the point of dysfunction. Divided by politics and personalities, too many issues become embroiled in an us-against-them struggle rather than a search for common ground. Certainly not every vote should be unanimous, but neither should board business be the focus of constant struggle.
Such animosity is rare on school boards, but unfortunately the situation has been business as usual on the North Stonington board for several years now. Robert Testa, a Republican, leads a faction on the board intent on what it considers a mission to clean things up, ferret out alleged malfeasance and stir up controversy. Democratic Chairman Darren Robert seems equally intent on protecting the status quo and deflecting any and all thrusts from a Testa contingent he considers bent on mayhem.
These dynamics have been in place for several years now and they do not well serve the school system or its students.
The latest dust up involves questions over whether Superintendent Natalie J. Pukas may have used her school system issued credit card for non-education related purposes and whether, having received a stipend for costs associated with professional development, she also sought reimbursement for those expenses, a possible "double dipping," claims Mr. Testa.
At a special meeting last week, the board voted 4-1 for a forensic audit of these and other issues, but absent were Democrats Crystal Dame, Dave McCord and Chairman Robert. When the full board met at yet another contentious meeting Wednesday, the board voted 5-3 not to approve funding for the audit previously authorized.
What a convoluted, embarrassing mess.
The accusations of potential misuse of public funds by the superintendent appear credible enough to require an objective, independent review. Reportedly some funds have already been repaid, which if true would suggest some acknowledgement of misuse. On the other hand, Chairman Robert has suggested a lack of written policies could have led to confusion on what was a proper expenditure and what was not. In any event, a full accounting of what transpired is necessary.
Those board members who want to make this unpleasantness go away by refusing to provide the funding for such a review invite questions about their integrity and that of the administration. Those pushing for the review, on the other hand, need to detail what they are looking for. Right now their general call to seemingly look at anything and everything is too broad. If a review focused on credit card utilization and the use of professional development money finds problems, then a more extensive review may be in order.
Board members should be able to agree on a course of action without making this a contest of wills. Instead, the board spent much of Wednesday's meeting arguing whether Mr. Robert should remain as chairman, an episode that seemed more about theatrics than public policy.
This newspaper was troubled four years ago when the board reacted to an act of apparent plagiarism by the superintendent with a slap on the wrist - a mild letter of reprimand in her personnel file. In a report to the board, Superintendent Pukas had borrowed liberally from another scholarly work, without attribution. Refusing now to take a hard look at these accounting issues would suggest a pattern of being overly protective when it comes to the superintendent.
Dr. Pukas is retiring at the end of June after 38 years in the district, the last dozen as superintendent. But her pending departure does not alleviate the need to determine if any taxpayer money was expended inappropriately.
As the school board prepares to search and hire a new superintendent, it needs to do whatever is reasonably necessary, perhaps seeking the services of a third-party mediator, to figure out a way to work better together. Carrying this feud into a new administration will serve nobody's interests.