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Decision Due This Fall-FOI Hears School Bd Complaint



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Decision Due This Fall—

FOI Hears School Bd Complaint

By Eliza Hallabeck

Board of Education members went before the Freedom of Information Commission in Hartford Friday, July 30, for a hearing on school board Vice Chair Kathy Fetchick’s complaint regarding a meeting of the board last spring.

At its April 6 meeting, the school board unanimously voted to enter into an executive session for a board evaluation at 11:22 pm, according to meeting minutes. While the school board was in the executive session, which lasted roughly an hour and 20 minutes, Ms Fetchick’s actions as a board member were called into question.

Following the April 6 meeting, Ms Fetchick filed an appeal with the Freedom of Information Commission against the Newtown Board of Education and Lillian Bittman in her capacity as its board chair.

“I had assumed that item under our executive session had something to do with the board in its entirety,” said Ms Fetchick during the FOI hearing. “When we went into executive session we had a discussion about some other items, but then it turned to the board’s self-evaluation. And the self-evaluation turned into a critical examination of myself, Kathy Fetchick, as a board member.”

But, she said, only her actions as a board member were critically evaluated during the executive session. When she became aware of the situation, Ms Fetchick said she mentioned it was not legal to hold an executive session to evaluate one member of a board without notifying that person of the purpose beforehand. Superintendent of Schools Janet Robinson was also asked to participate in the executive session.

The executive session had been added to a revised agenda for the meeting after school board member Richard Gaines spoke to Ms Bittman requesting discussion on school board practices be added to the agenda.

“I should have walked out of the room,” said Ms Fetchick. “That’s what I should have done.”

Ms Fetchick explained to FOI hearing officer Lisa Siegal, who conducted the hearing, that she stayed because other items were to be discussed during the executive session.

Discussion, according to Ms Fetchick’s testimony, centered around her speaking to the press and members of the public on subjects on which the school board had already voted.

As Board of Education member Richard Gaines testified during the hearing, the Board of Ed follows a practice that all members support the board once a decision is made, regardless of whether that board member was in the minority on a decision.

When speaking to Board of Education Chair Lillian Bittman on the matter before the revised April 6 meeting agenda was written, Mr Gaines said he did not name Ms Fetchick or another member of the school board as examples of his concern. He also testified he did not request an executive session, but requested the discussion be added to the agenda.

“I am a public official,” said Ms Fetchick. “It is not right to censor me, and that is what is going on here.”

Ms Bittman and Mr Gaines both said multiple board members were discussed during the executive session, but Ms Fetchick and school board secretary Debbie Leidlein said it was focused on Ms Fetchick.

Floyd Dugas, the school board’s attorney, was present for the hearing and cross-examined all speakers.

Ms Bittman testified that when she submitted the revised agenda for the April 6 meeting, she acted under the guidance of Dr Robinson, who, she said, told her executive sessions are frequently held for board evaluations.

“We had had a very contentious time over several weeks proceeding this time [when the revised agenda was made] concerning our budget,” said Ms Bittman, “and there was a lot of discussion in the public press. And I had two different board members call me with concerns. So I made a decision to call [Superintendent of Schools Janet Robinson] and ask if we could do a self-evaluation of the board in executive session, because of these concerns which had to do with multiple board members.”

Some things mentioned, according to Ms Bittman, to the press and to members of the public by board members was either information that was not ready for the public or was presented as “the voice of the board.”

Ms Fetchick later testified that she explains she is sharing her personal opinion when speaking to both the press and members of the public.

Multiple new board members had also not attended a retreat last spring, according to Ms Bittman’s testimony, that emphasized acting as a board, not as an individual.

According to Ms Fetchick, she was approached with an offer to settle the complaint by Mr Dugas moments before the hearing began. She said Mr Dugas did not specify the offer as confidential. The school board and Ms Bittman, according to Ms Fetchick, were willing to concede to her request for an apology and having the school board attend an FOI learning session.

Ms Fetchick said she did not accept the offer, because Mr Dugas specified the apology would be for inadvertently singling Ms Fetchick out, and she questioned why the school board was willing to agree to the terms months after the complaint was filed.

“I personally do not feel it was inadvertent, and I don’t want there to be a question about how anyone else on other boards and this board should be treated,” said Ms Fetchick following the hearing. She later added, “I don’t think anyone should go through what I did.”

Filing the complaint has not hindered school board work, according to Ms Fetchick, who believes there is no problem is having a difference of opinion as long as there is still respect between the individuals.

Ms Fetchick also said she believes the school board is a public board, and its business should be conducted in public.

“And I think people lose sight of that,” she said. 

Ms Siegal said her report on the hearing should be filed by early September, and once her report is filed, the Freedom of Information Commission will decide whether her recommended conclusions are valid. The report must be adopted by the Freedom of Information Commission to be finalized.

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