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    Thursday, June 20, 2024

    Norwich teachers, parents rally and urge school board to take action against superintendent

    People react as vehicles honk their horns as they pass by the rally outside Kelly Middle School on Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2023, before a special meeting regarding the climate and culture of the Norwich Public School system. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    People participate in a rally outside Kelly Middle School on Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2023, before a special meeting regarding the climate and culture of the Norwich Public School system. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    People pick up signs or make their own before the rally outside Kelly Middle School on Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2023, before a special meeting regarding the climate and culture of the Norwich Public School system. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    People participating in the rally outside Kelly Middle School on Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2023, listen to Kate Dias, CEA president, right, with Bill Priest, left, president of the Norwich Teachers League Union and a teacher at Kelly Middle School, while they stand before the crowd at Kelly Middle School, before a special meeting regarding the climate and culture of the Norwich school system. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Norwich ― Waving signs and chanting “Enough is Enough,” more than 150 teachers, parents, students and supporters rallied outside Kelly Middle School on Tuesday night to urge the Board of Education to take action on widespread complaints that Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow fosters a toxic work environment of fear and intimidation.

    Demonstrators wore red shirts with logos for the Norwich Teachers League, Connecticut Education Association and “#Red for Ed” slogans. They gathered about 45 minutes prior to a special closed-door meeting in which the Board of Education was set to discuss the workplace climate and culture of the schools beginning at 6:30 p.m.

    Three hours later, the board emerged from the executive session and voted unanimously without comment to expand the scope of a commissioned culture and climate study to include “investigation of personnel complaints.” State law requires the board board to return to open session to vote on any proposed decision.

    The motion authorized board Vice Chairman Mark Kulos to expand the scope of the existing climate study or to engage a separate investigator to investigate the personnel complaints.

    The school board in August hired School Climate Consultants of Glastonbury, to conduct a climate and culture study, with results due in late October or early November. But three board Republicans called Tuesday’s special meeting to discuss the scope of the study and information on climate and culture.

    After the meeting, Kulos said he hopes to have an answer by next week wherther the Glastonbury firm is able to “meet our requirements” for the expanded investigation and whether the board will need to find another firm, or potentially a separate firm for the personnel investigation.

    Union members gave subdued reactions to the vote, questioning why Stringfellow was allowed to remain in charge during the investigation.

    CEA President Kate Dias pledged to monitor closely the actions of the superintendent to ensure that the teachers who attended the rally and spoke out are protected from potential retaliation.

    At the start of the meeting, rally participants poured into the meeting, still chanting, to listen to the board vote to go into executive session and then left to resume their positions outside the board meeting room windows in front of the school.

    “While we thank everyone for coming here this evening, the issues and confidential attorney-client communications, we must conduct our meeting in executive session, board Vice Chairman Mark Kulos said. ”We do acknowledge your presence and community interest in our deliberations.”

    Chanting resumed as participants left the room, with board Chairman Robert Aldi instructing staff to keep audience members away from the immediate hallway outside the meeting room.

    A half hour later, with the hallways quiet, police arrived, saying they were called with a report that there was a disturbance inside the school. Three officers inspected the hallways, and a police cruiser remained parked outside the school during the meeting.

    Rallygoers resumed their outdoor positions, some enjoying pizza as they waited for the meeting to reopen.

    Complaints have surfaced for the past several months accusing Stringfellow and Assistant Superintendent Tamara Gloster of fostering a climate of fear and intimidation. The CEA conducted a survey of current and former Norwich teachers in the spring, with 96% of respondents saying they did not feel safe expressing their opinions or criticism of the school system.

    Stringfellow and Gloster did not attend the meeting.

    On Wednesday, Stringfellow issued an email statement to The Day on the board’s actions and the rally.

    “We support the expansion of the study and any efforts to participate, learn and address specific concerns as a result,” the statement said.

    Stringfello wrote that to date she has not received concerns from the Norwich Teachers League or CEA and has offered to meet with union leaders monthly.

    “We take these matters seriously,” Stringfellow wrote, “maintaining a positive workplace climate is an ongoing process, and we remain committed to fostering a healthy environment for our faculty and students.”

    “Being present here tonight sends a message to the Board of Education that you deserve to be supported,” CEA President Kate Dias said to the crowd gathered in front of the school prior to the meeting.

    Referring to the teachers’ survey, Dias said it was “most startling” that 96% of Norwich teachers do not feel that they can talk. She said that clearly indicates the school system has a climate problem.

    “Let’s be honest, if 96% of your class refused to talk, what would your evaluation look like?” Dias said, addressing teachers. “I suspect you would be in a ‘needs improvement’ category. I think we need improvement in Norwich.”

    Norwich Teachers League President Bill Priest said he was hoping the board would look into the allegations of a toxic work environment and take them seriously.

    Board members Kevin Saythany and Heather Fowler greeted rallygoers before the meeting, as did City Council members Stacy Gould and Tracey Burto and state Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague.

    “All the teachers are doing what they think is right,” Saythany said, “and that allows the Norwich Board of Education to get a perspective of the situation. As a board member, it’s important to see all this. The board’s mission is to look out for the students and the teachers.”

    Parent Alyssa Pendleton, who has a child at the Kelly Middle School and one at John Moriarty Elementary School, said she was one of many parents who learned just a week before school started that her younger child was being shifted from the Samuel Huntington School to Moriarty. Students were shifted abruptly as class space became limited after the district closed the Bishop Early Learning Center and moved 400 preschool students into four elementary schools.

    Pendleton said she attended the rally to support the teachers. “I hear it firsthand from the teachers,” she said about problems with the school workplace environment.

    CEA representatives brought 100 pre-printed signs for participants to carry, bearing different messages, including, “STOP the Abuse,” “Support our Students and Teachers,” “96% of Teachers Fear Retaliation” and “Norwich Schools Deserve Better.”

    Handwritten signs were added to the mix, such as “Stringfellow Must Go,” and “Bring our Teachers Back.”

    Shannon Ozkan, a representative of Favor Inc., a student mental health advocacy group, grabbed a large poster board and markers to create a sign: “The Leader of the Pack Should have Everyone’s Back. It’s Time to Cut the Stringfellow out of the Equation.”

    c.bessette@theday.com

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