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    Thursday, February 29, 2024

    Norwich school board places Superintendent Stringfellow on paid leave

    Norwich school staff, parents and supporters cheered when the Norwich Board of Education placed Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow on paid administrative leave and appointed Principal Susan Lessard as acting superintendent Monday, Sept. 18, 2023. Claire Bessette/The Day
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    Susan Lessard, right, is greeted by a Norwich school staffer after Lessard was named acting Norwich school superintendent Monday, Sept. 18, 2023. The Board of Education voted unanimously to place Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow on paid administrative leave pending an investigation into personnel complaints. Claire Bessette/The Day
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    Norwich ― Teachers, parents and supporters cheered as the Board of Education voted unanimously Monday night to place embattled Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow on leave and then appointed veteran principal Susan Lessard as acting superintendent as it investigates personnel complaints.

    Lessard is co-president of the Norwich Administrator's Association, the school administrators’ union.

    The board met for nearly two hours behind closed doors before emerging and taking the votes in public session.

    The move came as Norwich school staff and parents had increased their criticism of Stringfellow and called for the school board to take action. Rain did not dwindle attendance at a second pre-meeting rally outside Kelly Middle School as participants carried signs that read: “Enough is Enough,” “Do the Right Thing,” and “We Need Change.”

    Following the vote, board Chairman Robert Aldi read the following statement:

    “Tonight, the board adopted a motion to place Dr. Stringfellow on paid administrative leave without prejudice pending an investigation into personnel complaints,” he said. “I want to be very clear that in placing Dr. Stringfellow on administrative leave pending this investigation, the board has not reached any conclusion regarding whether Dr. Stringfellow engaged in any improper conduct. Rather, the board determined that it was appropriate and in the best interest of the district to place Dr. Stringfellow on administrative leave at this time during the investigation, so that the investigation can proceed effectively, and the district can move forward during the investigation.”

    Lessard was greeted with hugs by staff and parents at the back of the board meeting room.

    Lessard, a 25-year educator, has been principal of the John B. Stanton elementary school for the past six years. She taught in East Lyme schools and was an assistant principal in Cheshire before being hired as Stanton principal in 2017.

    “I am humbled and honored to have been asked to help Norwich Public Schools at this time,” Lessard wrote in a statement. “I remain deeply committed to the students, to the families, and to the faculty and staff as well as local and state officials in working together to ensure a successful, rewarding school year for all.”

    Lessard said her role as acting superintendent will be to focus on a smooth transition and will help students and families, faculty and staff to move forward.

    The board motion appointing Lessard noted that her appointment is subject to approval by the state education commissioner. Aldi was authorized to reach a contract with Lessard for her term as acting superintendent and to work with the administrators’ union on the appointment.

    Complaints have surfaced for the past several months accusing Stringfellow and Assistant Superintendent Tamara Gloster of fostering a climate of fear and intimidation. Initially, current and former school staff said they were reluctant to speak publicly, fearing retaliation. The Connecticut Education Association, parent of the Norwich Teachers League conducted a survey of current and former Norwich teachers in spring, with 96% of respondents saying they did not feel safe expressing their opinions or criticism of the school system.

    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. The board held a similar special meeting last Wednesday, also mostly in executive session, and then voted to expand the climate investigation to include personnel complaints. Rallygoers expressed disappointment at that time that Stringfellow was not placed on leave during the investigation.

    Norwich Teachers League President William Priest said prior to Monday’s meeting that school staff now should feel more comfortable speaking to the consultant. Despite pledges of confidentiality, Priest said some staff would be afraid to speak out with Stringfellow still in charge.

    At the start of Monday’s meeting, the board voted to go into executive session to discuss the status of the superintendent’s employment, and invited Stringfellow to participate in part of the meeting. She did not attend in person.

    District communications director Zakkyya Williams said prior to the meeting that Stringfellow would have no comment.

    Stringfellow was hired in the spring of 2019 upon the retirement of former Superintendent Abby Dolliver. Previously, Stringfellow worked as superintendent in South Kingstown, R.I.

    Two weeks after she was hired, the Norwich school board reaffirmed its selection after learning Stringfellow was placed on paid leave in South Kingstown over her handling of staff layoffs there. Complaints surfaced in that district about how Stringfellow treated staff.

    c.bessette@theday.com

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