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    Monday, March 04, 2024

    Norwich school board to conduct workplace climate study, delays superintendent evaluation

    Norwich Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow listens while Chairperson Robert Aldi speaks Tuesday, June 13, 2023, during a Board of Education meeting at Kelly Middle School in Norwich. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Norwich ― The Board of Education will hire an outside firm to conduct a work climate and culture study of the school system following ongoing complaints by union officials and former employees that Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow leads with intimidation, threats and false accusations.

    The board voted unanimously late Wednesday to hire an outside firm after meeting in a closed-door session for more than 90 minutes to discuss Stringfellow’s performance evaluation. The board delayed a written evaluation Wednesday until receiving the outside consultant’s report.

    The board in May had voted unanimously to give Stringfellow a positive evaluation and a raise after a verbal closed-door evaluation session, but delayed releasing the written evaluation to the superintendent after receiving complaints and letters from former administrators who said Stringfellow created a toxic work environment that resulted in widespread employee departures. Some said they were forced out and some resigned to work in other school districts.

    On Monday, leaders at the Connecticut Education Association sent the Board of Education full results of two surveys conducted in May, one for former teachers and one for current members of the Norwich Teachers League. The union said 64 former teachers and 233 current teachers responded to the surveys.

    In an email to board Chairman Robert Aldi accompanying the survey results, CEA union representative Michael Casey listed four requests by the Norwich Teachers League’s recently formed Climate Task Force.

    The task force asked that the board rescind the one-year contract extension awarded to Stringfellow in the May vote; use the survey results to finalize Stringfellow’s evaluation; hire an outside, independent investigator mutually selected by the board and the union; and “protect all employees from further retaliation or reprisal” from Stringfellow and Assistant Superintendent Tamara Gloster.

    The Climate Task Force invited board members to meet with the union to discuss other information it has gathered and what the next steps should be.

    The surveys presented to the board did not include information that could identify individual respondents.

    “As you can see from the Exit Survey, we have additional evidence we would like to share with you,” Casey wrote to the board, “but our members (and even those who have left the district) are concerned they would be identified and face reprisal from the Superintendent and Assistant Superintendent.”

    Stringfellow attended the closed-door session Wednesday night for the first 10 minutes and then waited in the hallway outside the meeting. At times during the session, raised voices could be heard from board members in the meeting.

    Afterward, Stringfellow said she could not comment on the board’s actions until she had more information about the upcoming investigation.

    The board authorized Vice Chairman Mark Kulos to work with board attorney Peter Maher to select an outside investigation firm, making no mention of consulting with the Norwich Teachers League on the selection.

    Kulos said after the meeting that he hopes the board can select a firm soon and anticipated the investigation could take about 60 days. Board Chairman Aldi said he hopes it can be done before the November elections, which could change the makeup of the board. But Kulos speculated the investigation might have to wait until staff return in late August.

    Aldi said the board doesn’t yet know how much the study would cost but that the board would find the money.

    In addition to the survey results, the board received a second letter from former Samuel Huntington School Assistant Principal Susan Johnston responding to comments made by Stringfellow in a story in The Day responding to Johnston’s first letter to the board.

    Johnston objected to Stringfellow characterizing Johnston’s involvement in one student discipline issue she raised as being only “surface-level.” Johnston had told the board Stringfellow directly asked her to investigate the student’s alleged actions and wrote that her investigation cleared the student. But the student was disciplined, and the discipline was not removed even after another student came forward and admitted the wrongdoing.

    Johnston also said Stringfellow’s comments offering to meet with staff to discuss issues was disingenuous, as most staff would fear retaliation and targeting if they met with her.

    “I can not control the outcome of the decision of the BOE, but I will do my best to be heard and to make you realize these situations are real, and not just grumblings from ‘disgruntled employees,’” Johnston wrote in her second email to the board.

    Union representative Casey told The Day last week he represented a group of teachers who were being questioned by Assistant Superintendent Gloster as part of an internal investigation of actions by an administrator. Casey said one teacher reported that she had watched Gloster type different answers than what the teacher provided to questions.

    Casey accompanied the teacher when Stringfellow asked to meet individually with the teachers who had been interviewed by Gloster. Casey said the teacher was asked to affirm her “testimony” but was not allowed to see a written transcript. Casey said when he demanded that the teacher be allowed to review the written transcript before affirming it, Stringfellow abruptly canceled the interview and those scheduled with other teachers afterward.

    “It is with great urgency that I send these survey results to you,” Casey wrote to the Board of Education. “The results of the surveys speak for themselves, and the situation in the NPS is dire. You must act quicky.”

    c.bessette@theday.com

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