New London education official criticized for spreading misinformation

New London — Frustrations over what school officials say are misleading claims and inaccurate social media posts led to a rare public scolding this week of a New London school board member.

Jason Catala, no stranger to confrontations with fellow school board members, was taken to task for penning a letter to the editor alleging misdeeds by a school administrator and a social media post insinuating misuse of funds by the school district.

“Should we be sending people to Italy when we are in such a budget crisis? Notice the line item the funds are coming from?? $12,500 ? #morehiddenmoney,” Catala wrote in a recent Facebook post.

Laurelle Texidor, director of the Science and Technology Magnet High School, showed up at Thursday’s school board meeting to tell Catala he was misinformed about the exchange student program. The school recently had shifted about $4,500 in its budget to assist in costs for the trip, which included a chaperone. Another $8,000 was being shifted to a custodial supplies line item.

Texidor started to explain the program that involves a sister school in Montecatini, Italy, and how much of the trip is funded through a mix of student fundraisers, magnet funds and other sources.

“You don’t have to give me a history,” Catala said, cutting her off, before questioning the use of funding for a chaperone on the trip, which he said had never been done in the past.

“Absolutely we have,” Texidor countered.

Catala later admitted his reading of the financial document he posted to Facebook was incorrect and that he supports the exchange program. But he said Friday he has no regrets about the “#morehiddenmoney” part of the post, “because I still think the district has hidden money.”

Interim Superintendent Stephen Tracy said Catala’s post inferred something sinister but that the line item shift was done during a public meeting and was contained in a public document.

“It’s my hope that these kinds of concerns can be addressed in a more appropriate and respectful manner in the future, not on the pages of social media,” Tracy said.

Board member Jefferey Hart, head of the Finance Committee, said the money had not even hit the threshold for reporting to the board but that Texidor had gone above and beyond in reporting to his committee.

Catala’s most recent letter to the editor also raised some hackles.

“A central office staff member did something I have never seen before, she tried to circumvent the policy process,” he wrote in the letter. “This is unacceptable.”

Catala, chairman of the Policy Committee, was alluding to how Kate McCoy, the executive director for strategic planning, government and media relations, had pointed out a contradiction in a transportation policy and brought it to the attention of the board and not the policy committee.

School board Chairwoman Mirna Martinez said while Catala has implied McCoy circumvented the process, it was up to the superintendent or board chairman to bring stuff forward on the agenda.

“A member of our staff did not do anything inappropriate,” Martinez said. “These are false claims.”

Tracy said, “she did what any district employee is expected to do when they notice a problem or inconsistency with a board policy.”

Catala’s response: “Board members are allowed their own opinion. This was my opinion and I stand by that.”

On Friday, Catala said the letter was a reaction to the fact the item had not been brought to his committee first.

“I was taken aback. I guess being the new chair of the policy (committee), I felt slighted it hadn’t come to policy,” Catala said.

The board later voted to send the transportation policy to his committee.

Board member Manuel Rivera took exception to both Catala’s media post and letter to the editor.

“Information is being shared that is factually incorrect. Once a board member puts something out either publicly through the newspaper or in social media, I think it crosses the line when it attacks staff, or when it misleads the public with incorrect information,” Rivera said.

Rivera said he would ask the board to censure Catala if it happened again.

“Go ahead, I’ll sue you,” Catala responded.

It’s not the first time Catala has hinted at alleged misdeeds in the district. When a local Facebook page known for posting conspiracy theories alleged Tracy was making money as a consultant for a math program at the middle school, Catala wrote, “Youre making this up. Can’t be true. If it is, it’s criminal and the reason there is so much push back on the Audit!!!”

Catala has consistently pushed for an audit since the retirement of Rivera as superintendent. A yearly audit is completed annually in conjunction with the city.

Despite the displeasure from fellow board members, Catala was back at it Friday, posting to Facebook his problems with the board’s decision Thursday to hire an operations manager for the visual and performing arts magnet school program, which is expanding to ninth-grade next year. The cost, $29,000 plus benefits, is being taken from unused funds in the magnet pathways budget.

“Keep in mind a few months ago a operations director was added to support all of the pathways (this person makes six figures) I don’t know what to say but something smells fishy !!” Catala wrote on his Facebook page.

Catala remains unapologetic even when his information is incorrect, he said, because “I feel like things are being hidden. Money keeps coming out of the woodwork.”

Martinez said the back and forth involving Catala was “a bit distracting,” but the new board “is a group of strong individuals that are in it for the right reasons.”

“We won’t get derailed,” Martinez said.

g.smith@theday.com

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