Groton superintendent asks school board members not to talk to press

Groton - A school board member and the co-founder of a taxpayer group are disturbed by a request from Superintendent Michael Graner that board members not speak to the media.

"Mike, members of the Board of Education do not work for you. Did you not just attempt to take away our freedom of speech? It is unconstitutional to do so," school board member Shelley Gardner wrote him in an email. "You as an educator and superintendent should be fighting for this right, not suppressing it!"

The anger arose after Graner sent a newsletter to school board members on Feb. 28, announcing that he had submitted the board's proposed $75.1 million budget to Town Manger Mark Oefinger. In the newsletter, Graner also said he spoke to School Board Chairwoman Rita Volkmann.

"We both agreed that all requests from newspaper reporters should be referred to the board chair or to the superintendent," he wrote. "I know that in the past reporters have contacted board members and requested comments; that practice can result in real confusion.

"What Rita would like to do is have the board speak with one voice; so politely referring the reporters' requests to Rita would be the best practice."

Volkmann, reached Monday, said she had discussed the issue with Graner and he would address it.

Graner said he was simply relaying a decision the board made during a retreat in Janurary. He said he was asked to write down the procedure the board chose, so he did so in his internal weekly memo.

Graner said he and the board want an open dialogue and a process for it, and they will continue to have this as they discuss issues publicly. But he said the board felt that once a decision was made, a spokesman for the body should announce it so that it is clear to the public.

He said there is a tendency, particularly when a board has nine people, for the public to become confused and think everyone is speaking for the body when this is not the case. Graner said the board simply wanted a process for communicating decisions clearly, and was not trying to inhibit public discourse.

But Rosanne Kotowski, co-founder of the political action committee Groton Advocates for Tax Efficiency, said in an email she was "very disappointed" by the request. She said she specifically asked candidates seeking election to the board last fall whether "they would 'go along to get along' or be their own person."

"I was assured that they would 'speak out and be their own person'," Kotowski said. "With this new development obviously the (board) members will not be as candid with the press or public. Especially if they must check with the chair or superintendent to get the 'party line,' so to speak."

Board member Kirsten Hoyt, a former board chairwoman, said in an email that the board's policy and bylaws call for the chairman to act as spokesman. She said she accepted this when she was elected.

"Therefore, if I am voicing my own view … I could speak," she said. "However the (board) is not one individual. … It is a body and must act and speak as a body." She added that if someone doesn't like the policy, they should ask that it be referred to the board's policy committee for review.

Board members Andrea Ackerman and Joey Schick, reached by phone, referred questions about the letter to Volkmann. Board members Patricia Doyle, Elizabeth Gianacoplos, Mary Kelly and Kim Watson did not return an email or phone message seeking comment.

Scott Aument, chairman of the political action committee, said he believes board members should speak to whomever they wish.

"I think it's a little bit odd," Aument said. "I just think they've got to be careful what they're doing. Because I know with the previous administration, (former superintendent Paul) Kadri, he was running the show and not the board. So I hope it doesn't trend toward that, because we know where that got us."

Kadri was fired by the board last March.

d.straszheim@theday.com

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