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Some Stonington school board members want to evaluate superintendent in public

Stonington — Breaking with tradition, three Board of Education members on Tuesday night said they wanted to conduct their annual evaluation of Superintendent of Schools Van Riley in open session and not behind closed doors.

The board had an executive session on its agenda to evaluate Riley but board member Jack Morehouse, who, along with board members Alisa Morrison and Heidi Simmons, has criticized how Riley has handled the controversy involving former high school teacher and coach Timothy Chokas, suggested the board conduct the evaluation in public.

State Freedom of Information law gives public agencies the option of holding executive, or closed-door, sessions for a limited number of reasons, including discussion of personnel matters, but does not require such a session to be held in private. In addition, a board has to vote by a two-thirds ratio to enter executive session.

Morehouse told the board that anything he would say about Riley in executive session he would say in public.

“I have plenty of compliments for Dr. Riley but I also have some criticism and I’m happy to share them publicly,” he said.

But Board member Candace Anderson, a strong Riley supporter, said it was not fair to both the board, which thought the evaluation would be a private discussion, and to Riley to now hold the discussion in public. She also questioned Morehouse’s information on the legality of holding the discussion in public.

She also said that if the discussion was done in public Tuesday, The Day would publish details of it while the board was still working on the evaluation.

“It’s not fair to do it the way we’ve been doing it,” Morehouse countered. “The more open we are, the better. I believe in being open and honest and say what I have to say in public."

Simmons said she liked the idea of a public evaluation because the objective of the board is to be more transparent.

Board member Craig Esposito said that changing the way the board has always conducted the evaluation at the last minute was not fair to Riley and to board members who may have prepared differently if they knew it would be in public.

Board Chairwoman Alexa Garvey said she could ask the board’s attorney if holding a public evaluation was something the board could do but suggested members still go into executive session to discuss possible changes to the wording of the superintendent’s contract.

The board then voted 6-1, with Morehouse opposed, to do that.

It was unclear when the board will decide whether it will conduct the evaluation in public or in executive session.

Garvey said the evaluation process needs to be mutually agreed upon by the superintendent and the board of education members.

Riley’s evaluation comes after a more than yearlong controversy over how he, high school Principal Mark Friese and other administrators and staff members handled the numerous allegations of sexual harassment against Chokas.

Some residents have called on the school board to fire Riley over his handling of the complaints against Chokas, who was allowed to resign in January 2019 after another female student complained about his behavior. None of the many complaints by female students that date back to at least 2013 were ever placed in Chokas’ personnel file.

The school board is also waiting for two reports on the subject: an independent investigation being done for the school board by attorney Christine Chinni of how school officials handled the allegations, and a review by the state Office of the Child Advocate of whether school officials followed their own policies and procedures regarding the complaints against Chokas.

Garvey announced Tuesday that the board will not complete Riley’s written evaluation until it receives Chinni’s report.

Both the report and Riley’s written evaluation will be released to the public. The board also will vote on whether to give Riley a raise and extend his contract so he continues to have a three-year deal. He currently earns $200,700 annually after receiving a 2% raise last summer.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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