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    Saturday, March 02, 2024

    Union reps: Surveys of Norwich teachers show culture of fear

    Superintendent Kristen Stingfellow 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 ― The state’s largest teachers’ union will ask the Board of Education to bring in an outside firm to investigate allegations by current and former employees that Public Schools Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow has created a hostile work environment.

    The school board is scheduled to hold a special meeting Wednesday to finalize budget cuts and discuss a written performance evaluation of Stringfellow in a closed-door session.

    Union representatives for the Connecticut Education Association last week released partial results of surveys conducted with current and former Norwich Teachers League members. The surveys were part of the union’s internal investigation into member complaints that Stringfellow has created a climate of fear and intimidation, CEA officials said last week.

    In an email response to The Day seeking comments on some survey results, Stringfellow wrote that she has not seen the survey results and could not comment on them.

    CEA union representatives Michael Casey and Gloria Dimon on Thursday said the surveys were sent in May to the 333 current Norwich teachers and 113 former teachers who have left the school district.

    Dimon said the union could not release the full surveys, as they also contain comments that could identify some of the respondents.

    The CEA officials said they have been working with Norwich Teachers League members since last August, when local union representatives continued to hear complaints about Stringfellow’s leadership.

    CEA representatives said Norwich union members would not speak publicly or to news media. The Day has received multiple complaints from anonymous current and former Norwich school staff this spring about intimidation and targeting employees, some of whom allegedly were forced to resign.

    Three former administrators have sent signed letters to the Board of Education describing their experiences, outlining similar issues and asking the board to intervene.

    At the June 13 school board meeting, board members Christine Distasio and Heather Fowler said they have heard complaints. Distasio proposed creating an independent exit interview committee to meet with departing staff about their reasons for leaving. The board will meet with its attorney in August to discuss the legal aspects of the proposed committee before voting in September to establish it.

    Board Chairman Robert Aldi said he has not seen the union survey results and the board only recently has heard directly from former staff. The board voted in May to extend Stringfellow’s contract but delayed releasing a positive evaluation of Stringfellow until it reviews the issues at Wednesday’s meeting.

    “From my standpoint, I will not advocate for anyone to work in a facility that is toxic, or where there is a fear of retaliation or a hostile work environment,” Aldi said last week.

    Stringfellow wrote in an email that she had met with Casey in March to discuss concerns about teacher turnover they both shared. Stringfellow wrote that she had not heard from Casey, so on June 8, she emailed Casey and asked for a meeting to discuss results with union leaders.

    She said it was disappointing to learn about the survey from the news media.

    “I look forward to sitting down with the Norwich Teacher League leadership team to review the information,” Stringfellow wrote. “I hope they reach out to me to schedule a time to meet, as I have offered. I am always looking for ways to improve and better support our teachers.”

    Dimon and Casey said the survey results speak to employees’ fear of coming forward to discuss freely their concerns or criticisms. Former employees fear that the Norwich administrators could harm their chances at positions in other districts or their future careers.

    “They might not have wanted to talk to them about it, but they were willing to talk to us,” Casey said.

    The union received 64 responses to the 18-question exit surveys from former teachers who have left since June 2022, a nearly 57% response rate.

    In the exit survey, 99% of respondents either disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement: “The superintendent reaches out to teachers leaving the district to ascertain why they are leaving and what can be done to retain them.”

    Also in the exit survey, 95% said they disagreed or strongly disagreed that: “The superintendent created an environment where certified staff felt comfortable expressing their views or disagreement without fear of retaliation by the superintendent.”

    On the statement: “High staff turnover has created an environment that undermines student education and social and emotional support,” 96.88% agreed or strongly agreed.

    “These people no longer work in (Norwich Public Schools), but they are still afraid that the NPS specifically can harm their careers,” Dimon said, “that the NPS leadership team can hurt their chances of securing employment or hurt their jobs in another district.”

    Fear of retaliation

    Former elementary school teacher Heather Garosshen provided union officials with a statement she authorized for release to The Day. Garosshen called fear of retaliation “real” in Norwich Public Schools.

    She wrote that she witnessed her former well-respected principal being disrespected and “rudely questioned” in front of his entire staff by Stringfellow and Assistant Superintendent Tamara Gloster. She wrote that the incident was very uncomfortable for staff and convinced her to leave the district after 10 years in Norwich.

    “I am now one of the happiest teachers you will ever meet,” Garosshen wrote. “I am in a district with an amazing superintendent who works WITH her administrators while supporting all staff and fostering a positive work environment. I knew it was bad in Norwich, but I actually didn’t know how bad it was until I began my new job and saw how amazing teaching can be in an incredible district.”

    Separately, former Norwich Adult Education Director Jody Lefkowitz sent a four-page letter to the Board of Education June 28 offering to provide documentation regarding her situation as the board investigates allegations of fear of retaliation by current and former employees, some of whom have signed nondisclosure agreements, she wrote.

    Lefkowitz wrote that she was accused of insubordination in a meeting with Stringfellow and Gloster after she raised concerns of alleged misuse of state adult education grants. She wrote that the local administrators ignored her concerns and threatened her with termination if she continued to communicate those concerns with the state Department of Education. She was told to have no contact with the state agency, which was very difficult as Lefkowitz oversaw state grants to the program.

    “When I look back, I can see the pattern of retaliation toward me since the letter of reprimand,” Lefkowitz wrote. “There were so many new demands and mandates from the time with Dr. Stringfellow and Ms. Gloster such that, by August 2022, working there became untenable. Lucky for me, l could leave and collect my pension.”

    The 30-question climate survey to the 333 current Norwich Teachers League members had a 70% response rate, with 233 responses.

    In response to the statement: “Teachers are fearful of retaliation by the superintendent if they express disagreement with her,” 96.11% agreed or strongly agreed. In a similar statement, 95.6% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that: “Teachers are fearful of retaliation by the superintendent if they speak up about workplace issues.”

    On a question: “Have you recently considered leaving NPS for a position in a different district?” 78.17% said yes.

    Dimon and Casey said they have been meeting with union members since April to form a plan on how to address the complaints. The Norwich Teachers League will now form a climate task force to work with union leaders.

    The survey results will be presented to the committee along with the “voluminous” comments respondents added, Dimon said.

    “Our ask to (the Board of Education) is to bring in an independent, outside investigator agreed upon by unions and the board to conduct an investigation,” Dimon said. “We believe they have enough information to conduct an investigation. Their obligation is to protect their employees from retaliation by the administration.”

    c.bessette@theday.com

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