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    Sunday, May 26, 2024

    Norwich school board hears complaints that superintendent fosters hostile work climate

    Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow speaks Tuesday, June 13, 2023, during a Norwich Board of Education meeting at Kelly Middle School. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Norwich ― After hearing allegations of a hostile working climate of intimidation, threats and fear, the Board of Education delayed releasing a written evaluation of Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow to allow time to discuss “other concerns,” the board chairman said.

    The board voted unanimously May 9 to approve a positive evaluation of Stringfellow and award a one-year extension on her three-year contract. Chairman Robert Aldi and Vice Chairman Mark Kulos initially said the written evaluation letter would be released June 19 and did not need board review.

    But on June 19, Aldi said the letter would be reviewed by the board at a July 5 special meeting to address budget cuts. Aldi said the superintendent’s goals for next year would be part of the discussion.

    “We will talk about other issues going on in our school district,” Aldi said.

    Stringfellow was hired in spring of 2019 and has received glowing evaluations each year. Her salary this year was $197,866 and is budgeted at $204,000 for 2023-24.

    During the June 13 board meeting, some board members raised complaints they have received from school staff or former staff alleging Stringfellow has fostered an atmosphere of fear and intimidation, forcing staff to leave, either willingly or forcibly.

    In e-mail comments to The Day, Stringfellow denied the allegations and said she welcomed feedback from staff. She said no one has brought complaints directly.

    The board has received at least two letters from former administrators who resigned and cited a toxic work environment. They pleaded with the board to investigate and interview staff and former staff. Board member Heather Fowler said she has heard similar concerns from teachers at various schools.

    “They fear retaliation in the schools, and preventing their future employment,” Fowler said. “It has come to our attention by numerous employees that have been employed here, that they do feel like that is an issue with retaliation. They feel like certain people in the school district will come after them or tarnish their name, and we need to protect that.”

    Board member Christine Distasio proposed creating a board exit interview committee to meet with departing employees and discuss their reasons for leaving and the climate in Norwich schools. No administrators would be on the committee.

    Aldi, Kulos and board member Carline Charmelus expressed concern about legal issues, including whether a committee would interfere with the school board’s role in hearing employee grievances. Kulos suggested limiting the committee to one or two board members, who would recuse themselves if the employee filed a grievance.

    Stringfellow did not discuss the alleged complaints during the meeting but told the board the administration has had little success when offering exit interviews or surveys to departing employees.

    “They got a job, they just wanted to go and not put down why,” Stringfellow told the board.

    Responding to an e-mail from The Day requesting comment on the allegations she has created a hostile working environment; Stringfellow wrote that Fowler had not shared any specifics with her.

    “When complaints or concerns are brought to my attention, I take them very seriously and try to solve them to the parent or staff member's satisfaction,” Stringfellow wrote. “But if I am never made aware of a concern then it is impossible for me to problem solve with teachers and staff.”

    Stringfellow wrote that this year, “some very difficult personnel situations” have arisen that cannot be disclosed, along with details of student disciplinary matters.

    “That leads to speculation and rumors,” she wrote. “When there is a lack of communication, and people do not know why something is happening, it contributes to worry and discomfort amongst staff for their own jobs, unnecessarily.”

    She added that the recent budget crisis and need to cut $2.2 million for the 2023-24 fiscal year is contributing to staff anxiety. She pledged to hold open coffee hours in every school to hear firsthand from staff about any issues.

    “While it is human nature to be worried and uncomfortable about bringing issues to your supervisor, I want all NPS staff to feel safe in doing so with me,” Stringfellow wrote. “Their opinions and happiness matters a great deal to me and I will always make myself available to meet with them and I will always do my best to ensure that they feel safe, comfortable and heard.”

    The board tabled discussion of the proposed exit interview committee until its Sept. 12 meeting after speaking with board attorney Peter Maher during an Aug. 7 board retreat.

    “If only 5% of the employees choose to do that,” Kulos said of a board exit interview committee, “that’s still a base level of information we would have. Right now, we’re operating from zero.”

    Fowler and Distasio said they are worried about high turnover among Norwich schools staff. Reports to the board listed 14 staff resignations or retirements in May and another 22 in June. Another bar graph reported improvements in staff retention rates, 92.1% for staff with 10 years in the district; 83.9% for those with one to nine years and 82.5% for first-year employees, all up from a year ago.

    “Pervasive feelings of fear and intimidation’

    Two former school administrators wrote letters to the Board of Education recently describing widespread fear among staff about being targeted by Stringfellow with falsified poor performance or disciplinary action. Several current and former staff spoke or wrote anonymously to The Day, relaying similar complaints.

    Following the June 13 meeting, one person wrote he or she was “NEVER” offered an exit interview.

    Former Norwich schools Director of Academics Ashley Eichorn wrote that she wanted to make the board aware of pervasive feelings of fear and intimidation among staff. Eichorn started in Norwich in July 2021 and resigned March 1 to pursue her own business as an education professional development consultant.

    “As advocates for the district, you all are expected to be aware of the state of the organization and require the right people to make the necessary changes,” Eichorn wrote.

    Former Samuel Huntington School Assistant Principal Susan Johnson sent a strongly worded five-page letter to the school board criticizing Stringfellow and Assistant Superintendent Tamara Gloster. Johnson recounted experiences involving herself and other staff and accused Stringfellow of falsely accusing and disciplining students.

    Stringfellow told The Day in an email that she never directly received the letters from Eichorn and Johnson, who resigned effective June 30, and the two former administrators never brought their concerns to her.

    “If they had concerns that they truly wished to resolve, I wish they would have brought them to my attention (before or after they resigned),” Stringfellow wrote. “I do not agree with the characterizations or representations that they have made.”

    Stringfellow said she could not address student or personnel matters. But Stringfellow wrote that Johnson’s information was inaccurate and Johnson “appears to be speculating” on student matters she either was not involved in, or only had “surface-level or miniscule” involvement.

    In her letter, Johnson said she and another staff member were asked to view school bus video following alleged behavior violations. Johnson and the other staff person found the video cleared two students, but Stringfellow suspended one of the students. Johnson wrote that a third student later admitted to the wrongdoing, but the suspension was not rescinded.

    In an accompanying e-mail to board Chairman Aldi, Johnson wrote that Stringfellow has levied “outrageous accusations” against some administrators, forcing them to resign and to sign non-disclosure agreements. Other staff who contacted The Day anonymously also said non-disclosure agreements are common in the district.

    The Day filed a state Freedom of Information Act request for copies of all non-disclosure agreements and separation agreements during the past two years.

    On Thursday, The Day received copies of six “Release Agreements” for three former principals, one teacher, a custodian and a food services worker. The parties agreed to keep terms of the agreements confidential, except for mutually agreed-upon public announcements. The Day also received one settlement agreement for a complaint filed with the Connecticut Human Rights and Opportunities Commission.

    Johnson wrote that she received no performance evaluations as a first-year assistant principal at Huntington this year until spring, after administrators learned she was seeking another position elsewhere. Then she received two negative reviews in less than two weeks and was placed on a performance plan, what Johnson referred to as “a huge red flag” for her career. She filed a grievance and won her case, she wrote.

    Johnson wrote that Stringfellow, Gloster and others who report directly to them “are ruining your district’s reputation, trying to ruin the professional careers of very capable and caring people in education because they are vindictive and narcissistic.”

    Eichorn told The Day in an interview that while educators are leaving the field across the industry, she felt the Norwich departures were “100%” caused by the toxic working environment.

    Norwich Teachers’ League President William Priest did not respond to a request for comment.

    The Day contacted Connecticut Education Association union representative Gloria Dimon, who said she did not have any information to share regarding the Norwich school district at this time but will have information in the future.

    c.bessette@theday.com

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