BOE Extends Schools Chief Contract 2 Years Despite Reluctance of Two Members

At Thursday night’s Board of Education meeting many mentions were made of the district’s Superintendent “revolving door.”

That may now be a thing of the past.

After some angry voices during the public hearing, Dr. Toni Jones was given mostly glowing reviews from board members.

During public comment parents criticized the district’s curriculum.

Jessica Maloney criticized the administration for allowing GHS and CMS to be vaccination sites for Covid-19 given the vaccination was only approved for emergency use for children 12-15.

Megan Galletta referred to experimental vaccines, and said using the schools as vaccination clinics placed undue pressure on children.

“The GPS has been irresponsible. The emails are coercive by suggesting that a vaccinated community will help us get back to normal. This is an irresponsible move by the administration and the board.”

She also said the district was teaching critical race theory and revisionist history based on the the New York Times 1619 Project, which she said, “pushes divisiveness in sneaky and misleading ways.”

“The district has placed a wedge between the students and parents by communicating directly with students. This is not acceptable and it must stop,” said Galletta who is a member of the GHS vestibule committee. “There has been a major shift in curriculum over the past two years by introducing explicit, inappropriate and divisive narratives.”

Wendy Walsh said, “The federal government is expected to pressure schools to adopt critical race theory and anti-racism practices into our schools. Is Greenwich going along with this? These policies are imposing toxic new curricula and forcing our children into divisive identity groups based on race, ethnicity, religion and gender. This new educational mission, derived from Marxism, divides our children into oppressor and oppressed groups.”

Barbara O’Neill testified in support of Dr. Jones.

Ms O’Neill has been associated with Greenwich Schools for over 46 years. She has been a teacher, administrator, member of BOE for 8 years and chair of the board for two years. Currently she is a member of the RTM Education committee.

O’Neill said she had worked with over 20 superintendents.

“I know the qualities required of an outstanding superintendent. Dr. Jones exhibits those essential leadership qualities,” O’Neill said. “She is resilient and remains positive, even when faced with refusal of the BET to fund various capital projects, and with BET budget guidelines that, among other things, don’t commit to hiring of essential custodians and mental health personnel.”

“Above all, Dr. Jones kept our schools open and our students safe during Covid. This permitted students to continue their education, and maintain their social interactions, which is critical to their social- emotional health. This was an enormous achievement, requiring working 24/7 to keep logistics and communication protocols appropriate in a constantly changing Covid environment.”

Barbara O’Neill, former Greenwich Schools teacher, administrator, BOE member, BOE chair

O’Neill encouraged the board to extend Dr. Jones’ contract.

Vice chair Kathleen Stowe explained Jones’ current contract runs through June 30 2022. To extend the contract to June 30, 2024 would reflect a two year extension.

She described Dr. Jones as a thoughtful, strong leader, particularly during the once-in-a-lifetime pandemic.

“She has accomplished so much and moved our school system forward while doing what many other districts are still struggling to accomplish: opening their doors during Covid,” Stowe said. “Dr. Jones listened to the community, worked tirelessly with her team and us last summer, and I know how appreciative we all are.”

BOE Chair Peter Bernstein said Dr. Jones had a calm, cool and collected demeanor even in the face of adversity.

“Any discussion around this year must start with the response to COVID and the return to school. The lessons of last spring and summer school certainly guided Dr. Jones and the district in developing a plan and ensuring regular communication with the Board and the Community throughout the process.

You took our feedback and criticism from last year on wanting live learning and better remote learning and responded.

You kept us informed as the state guidance regularly shifted.

You held multiple forums with the parents to allay fears and explain options.

You were accessible, you listened, and you were responsive to our needs.

Peter Bernstein, BOE Chair

Bernstein said Dr. Jones had exhibited grace during the budget season. And he said, She “did not get flustered by the number of questions posed by the Board or other town bodies. You and your team were lauded for providing detailed written responses and for forging strong relationships with other town departments.”

After many comments, the board voted to extend Dr. Jones contract by 2 years to June 30, 2024, but only after board members Peter Sherr and Karen Kowalski argued that the contract extension would be unfair to incoming board members next November.

Ms Kowalski suggested a one year extension, rather than two.

“There will potentially be four new board members that should be added to that decision, as opposed to strapping that newly seated board with a superintendent that they don’t like,” Kowalski said.

She suggested conducting an anonymous survey of the community before deciding to extend the contract.

“…I think it makes sense for the board to send out an anonymous survey – otherwise I could call it a ‘360 review’ for those in the business world – to the administrators, staff and parents. We’ve heard from parents this evening from both sides to give us a clear approval and disapproval,” Kowalski said.

Also, Kowalski said the board and community were at a disadvantage because the contract lacked a reciprocal provision to terminate.

“Dr. Jones is able to, under section B8, to terminate and walk away, and we, as a board and community don’t have that ability. We only have the ability under a mutual release.”

Peter Sherr, who is leaving the board at the end of his term this fall, said he agreed with Ms Kowalski that the contract was “one sided” and should only be extended one year.

“…it’s not a good idea for an outgoing board to tie the hands of the incoming board,” he said.

As for an anonymous survey, Mr. Sherr said, “I’m not arrogant enough…I’m not Napoleon complex enough to say I have any idea what the staff thinks about their leader. I’d really like to know that.”

“I don’t know where the public is,” he said. “A lot of my mail is from unhappy people, and there’s a lot of it. And my telephone rings a lot.”

Christina Downey disagreed.

“I think there is a bit of irony as we talk about how much we hear from the community and then saying we don’t have enough information to make a decision,” Downey said. “We, as elected officials, that is our job is to make decisions based on the information we’ve gathered over an extensive period of time.”

She pointed out that half the board turns over every other year.

“Frankly, half this board is new, and we could have said, ‘You shouldn’t have hired Dr. Jones,’ and where would we all be sitting now based on that analysis?”

“We do have a termination clause – we don’t have a termination-for-no-reason clause. I’m satisfied that should there be an issue with Dr. Jones – which I do not anticipate happening – we would be able to avail ourselves of that opportunity.”

Mr. Bernstein agreed.

“I can’t imagine the message we would send to a community saying, ‘Well we want to be able to get rid of you any time we feel like getting rid of you. Or we only want you for one year because the next group is going to toss you out on your ear.”

Karen Hirsh said the true test of leadership was how well a person functioned in a crisis.

“This year we’ve had several crises and Dr. Jones has handled each and every one professionally,” she said, citing the pandemic and budget uncertainty specifically.

“You’ve met every challenge and answered every question,” Hirsh said. “You’ve helped our teachers navigate you’ve created an entirely new remote school and filled them with teachers and substitute roles amidst a teacher shortage. That’s pretty impressive.”

She said during the pandemic Greenwich was commended as a model by other districts, and that Dr. Jones had been responsive to criticism.

In the end Bernstein, Stowe, Hirsh, Kelly and Olsson voted to approve the two year contract extension.

Kowalski and Sherr voted no.

The board also voted unanimously on a two percent salary increase for Dr. Jones for the period July 1, 2021 to June 30, 2022 moving from $236,640 to $241,372.80.

“I think this is a no brainer. Toni took a zero last year,” Ms Stowe said. “Two percent seems more than reasonable. It’s in the budget. It’s what the rest of the cabinet are getting. I believe it is in line with the town management employees.”