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    Monday, July 22, 2024

    Norwich extends acting superintendent contract as Stringfellow probe continues

    Norwich ― The Board of Education voted late Tuesday to extend the contract of Acting Superintendent Susan Lessard through Dec. 31, as Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow remains on paid leave during an investigation into allegations that she led a toxic work environment.

    The board also voted after a lengthy executive session discussion Tuesday to authorize Lessard to negotiate an extension of Acting Assistant Superintendent Jamie Bender through Dec. 31. Assistant Superintendent Tamara Gloster also is on paid leave for her conduct.

    The two were placed on leave last September following months of complaints by union leaders that Stringfellow and Gloster fostered a climate of fear and intimidation, retaliating against staff who complained about their decisions or policies.

    Lessard’s and Bender’s interim contracts were set to expire at the end of June. They will receive the same compensation in the extended contract, board Chairman Mark Kulos said after the vote. Lessard’s acting superintendent’s salary is $204,000, the same as Stringfellow’s, although Stringfellow receives additional stipends based on her doctoral degree.

    Bender receives per diem pay of $892 per day worked, without benefits. Bender retired as the district’s director of student services prior to being appointed acting assistant superintendent. Her contract extension must comply with Retired Teachers’ Board regulations, Kulos said.

    “We’re at a delicate point in the investigation,” Kulos said after the meeting. He said the board hopes the investigation will conclude “fairly quickly,” but could not give a target date.

    He then read a brief statement:

    “I understand it’s been a long process,” he said. “It’s important that the investigation is done properly. It can take some time. We must allow it to proceed. And I don’t have any additional updates at this time and will not be making any further comments at this time.”

    At the May board meeting, some board members expressed frustration that the Hartford attorney hired to conduct the investigation, Kyle McClain, was proceeding slowly while the board has been forced to carry double salaries during a difficult budget period.

    Lessard, who has not been involved in the investigation, later Tuesday said she is focusing on preparing the school district for the 2024-25 school year. She credited school staff for helping her and Bender settle into their positions and for their help in tackling difficult budget decisions.

    “Throughout this whole time, I’ve been in the position, since Sept.17, I’ve felt supported by the City Council, the Board of Education and the school staff,” Lessard said Tuesday night. “I feel like we’re in a good place moving forward.”

    She said she is pleased that the board now has an approved budget of $95.6 million. Board members and City Council members both credited Lessard and her leadership team for cutting nearly $5 million from the initial budget.

    “I think that Jamie and I are moving in the right direction,” said Lessard, who had been principal at the John B. Stanton School. “Moving forward, I will do whatever the district needs me to do for as long as they need me. I’m happy to be in this position as long as they need me.”

    She cited efforts underway for the next school year to combat the rising special education costs that caused much of the budget increase and a looming deficit in this year’s budget.

    The district will start a second elementary school special education program at Veterans’ Memorial School to serve students who had been placed in outside specialty districts. The district also moved administrative offices out of the Bishop School to create space to launch the Rose City School for at least five special education students who had been placed in outside programs with high tuition costs.

    c.bessette@theday.com

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