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Salem school board member resigns, blames insufficient response to parents' concerns

By Kelly Catalfamo

Publication: The Day

Published May 21. 2014 4:00AM

Salem - The 2014-15 spending plan may have passed, but the effects of the budgeting process are still playing out in the town's school system.

Criticisms of the school board that arose during the process have not faded away, and they have become so widespread that at least one Board of Education member said he plans to resign. George Jackson, a Republican, said he's unhappy that the board has not sufficiently responded to parents' concerns.

Jackson said he submitted a letter of resignation to Superintendent Joseph Onofrio following a school board retreat Monday night. During that retreat, Chairman Stephen Buck said he initiated a "frank and open" discussion during executive session designed to gauge whether school board members wanted a leadership change.

The majority did not, said Buck, who is also a Republican. But Jackson does not feel that the board should continue under Buck's leadership.

"George is entitled to his opinion," said Buck on Tuesday. "As of right now, the leadership on the board will remain as is."

The leadership discussion and letter of resignation come the week after voters narrowly approved the $14.9 million spending plan. There are numbers that hint at the controversy surrounding it - it passed by only 19 votes, and turnout was close to 6 percent higher than in 2013 - but the clearest evidence of resident dissatisfaction showed up in the comment box.

Each year, the Board of Finance places a comment box in Town Hall during the budget referendum. It receives four to six responses on average, said First Selectman Kevin Lyden.

This year, the box was full when Board of Finance Chairman T.J. Butcher opened it. There were 89 comments, far more than any election Butcher or Lyden can recall. Many were signed.

A large number of comments said Salem School has too much administration, which eats up a large portion of the budget - a complaint commonly heard at recent town meetings. By Butcher's count, 16 comments specifically mentioned poor communication by the school board, and several called board members "arrogant" and "rude."

Fifteen called on Buck to resign, Butcher said.

Buck acknowledged that it has been an emotionally charged process, but "we have a budget, and we will now move to the next phase of trying to shore up our communication" with the town.

Jackson called Buck a "lifelong educator" with tremendous credentials in special education. But, he said, that kind of experience doesn't always translate to being a good board chairman.

There was a moment during the budgeting process when the school board had what members called an act of "civil disobedience" - refusing to produce a $10.5 million budget as requested by the Board of Finance.

That was a unanimous decision. Jackson said, however, that he didn't realize the school board was required by town charter to accept the Board of Finance's decision, and he wasn't pleased when he discovered that was the case during a public hearing on the budget.

As chairman, Buck should have realized this and encouraged the board to handle the situation differently, said Jackson, who has been a school board member for 2½ years.

He was also concerned because, in a nonbinding question on Wednesday's referendum, 203 voters said the Board of Education budget was too high. Only 135 said it was adequate.

That would seem to indicate that if school and general government budgets had been voted on separately, the school's budget would have failed.

After Monday's honest conversation, Jackson felt his presence on the board would create tension.

He decided to resign because he didn't want "personalities to be an impediment to smooth and harmonious working."

Lyden said he was disappointed when he heard Jackson considered resigning. He said townspeople look up to him and find him approachable.

"There is some healing has to be done in the town," said the first selectman, who is trying to convince Jackson to stay on the school board. "It would be a shame if he did resign."

The next school board meeting will be at 7:30 p.m. on June 2 in the Salem School Media Center.

k.catalfamo@theday.com

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