Emotions run high between Salem School officials, parents

Salem — During better times, it might have been surprising for a school board meeting to end with the parent of a first-grader holding back tears. But Suzanne Gendron's passionate speech at the end of Monday's Board of Education meeting was only the latest in a series of emotional moments that have punctuated the school's budgeting process.

The past two months have featured tense exchanges between members of the town's school board and board of finance, spontaneous gatherings of unhappy parents, a four-hour public hearing on the budget, board members quoting Sun Tzu's "The Art of War," an act of "civil disobedience" by the school board and, most recently, Gendron's admission that she has cried herself to sleep over issues at Salem School and is planning to send her son elsewhere next year.

The discussion, which often has veered away from the budget and become an opportunity for parents to criticize Salem School management, will continue at a town meeting in the school gymnasium at 7 tonight.

A budget is, in a way, a reflection of a school's priorities, and parents first began speaking up when they saw beloved programs being threatened because of limited funds. But parent concerns go beyond a budget number, said Gendron on Monday. They address "the way we're conducting business."

Among the issues, some of the most frequently cited by parents include what they say is excessive spending on administration, a lack of professionalism from some members of the administration, a decreasing school quality, a restrictive school environment and a dismissive attitude from officials when concerns are raised.

The same few parents, including Gendron, speak regularly at public meetings. But silent parents have packed the room, providing applause and murmurs of agreement, and the regular speakers claim to be the voice of many in town.

A proportional response

Board members and administrators have said at town meetings that they are aware of parents' concerns but are hesitant to rush into any major changes.

"I don't feel that it's wise to make a long-term decision based on short-term input," Board of Education Chairman Stephen Buck said, addressing one of the most frequent complaints - the idea that a principal, director of student development, director of student services, part-time superintendent and five administrative assistants is too large an administrative staff for a K-8 school.

It's a complaint that has come up year after year, not only from parents but from other town officials. It seems to have reached a tipping point during this budget season, when the school and finance boards went head-to-head over education spending and Board of Finance Chairman T.J. Butcher questioned the school's top-heavy budget.

The school board has started to respond. On Monday, it assigned a subcommittee to study the administrative structure and report back in October. The committee will be armed with five pages that list the responsibilities of the three full-time administrators, from specific tasks, such as making morning announcements, to broad duties, such as "the continuous assessment of curriculum effectiveness and institution practices."

"The board needs to make data-driven decisions," Buck said, adding that members must consider the district's long-term goals - a process that takes time.

But some parents feel as if they've been pouring their troubles out to the board and not receiving a proportional response.

The way they see it, their kids' education is suffering, the budget is being cut in all the wrong places - textbooks rather than administrators - and some officials are hostile. Forming a subcommittee isn't a satisfying response to what Gendron called the "immense pain in this town."

"The townspeople are furious that the Board of Education is not taking us seriously," said Diba Khan-Bureau, who has a 13-year-old daughter at Salem School.

She and Gendron said they have been considering sending their children to other schools next year. Gendron said her son has not received an adequate education and she's had to pay for tutors to bring him up to speed. Khan-Bureau said she feels the school doesn't teach social responsibility and is too restrictive - for instance, students are not allowed to get up during lunch to throw away their trash.

"Don't tell me that I have to be patient, and don't tell me not to be negative, because I'm fighting for the education of our children," Gendron said. "We are exhausted. We're beaten down. … I don't feel like we've ever been heard."

'Very sad'

Superintendent Joseph Onofrio said he's doing all he can to alter that perception.

He's held meetings with parents, both one-on-one and in large groups. He's proposed forming a parental advisory committee to meet regularly with school administration officials. When parents complained about budget cuts that affected world languages, sports and music instruction, the board was able to restore those items and find other ways to reduce the budget.

"I take this very seriously," he said. "It's very sad to me. It breaks my heart that we have these kind of divisions going on. There are a lot of good things to celebrate and we run the risk of throwing the baby out with the bath water if we just focus on the negative."

It falls to Onofrio to handle one of the most sensitive issues to come out during the budget discussions: the claim, raised by Khan-Bureau during an April meeting, that parents fear retaliation from administrators for speaking up.

Onofrio said that issue is "very solvable," and he recommends addressing it by having frank discussions between individual parents and the administrator in question, which he would moderate. So far, he said, no parents have taken him up on that offer.

Some people in town, watching the tension between parents and school officials increase, have tried to take an impartial stance.

First Selectman Kevin Lyden said he thinks the two sides need to sit down, have some coffee and try to understand each other, while Board of Education member Sam Rindell told other board members that they have not done their due diligence by responding to the community's concerns.

And members of the Board of Finance, as they pored through the budget with dispassionate, mathematical efficiency, sometimes spoke with startling clarity.

"It's hard to think (of), it's hard to plan, it's hard to implement transformational changes," finance board member Gregory Preston told school officials in March. "But we're at the point now where it's got to be done."

k.catalfamo@theday.com

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