Is Election Silly Season Creating a Stalemate on Superintendent Contract Renewal?

The last week of the school year was hectic with parties, ceremonies and GHS graduation.

It was also a week of acrimonious comments over hateful signs erected in the overnight hours under the Pride flag outside town hall.

And, of course, the town is gearing up for municipal elections in November. The DTC announced its recommended candidates on Thursday night in a standing room only meeting at town hall. Their candidates for BOE are incumbent Karen Hirsh and Sophie Koven.

Several Republican candidates have already kicked off their campaigns. The First Selectman, Selectwoman and Town Clerk announced the first week of May and the tax collector announced two weeks ago, though the RTC has yet to announce their recommended candidates, including for Board of Education.

Amid the eventful week was Thursday’s scarcely attended Board of Education meeting at Central Middle School, the final meeting of the school year.

But the meeting, however, is available to watch on the district’s YouTube channel.

Public comment at the beginning of the meeting signaled the opposing views that would come at the end during discussion of a contract renewal for Superintendent Dr. Toni Jones who has led the district for four years.

The recently re-elected teacher’s union president, Lil Perrone, said the student government leaders had hit the mark with their comments, including Mitch Goldstein’s observations about diversity and Isabella Gega’s advice to, ‘Trust the educational process and trust the teachers that are professionals.’

Perrone said she could not have said it better herself, and then walked over to Dr. Jones and presented her with flowers.

“Every year I say to Dr. Jones, next year is going to be better. It’s going to be smoother, and then this year I said the same thing. The great thing about teaching is that every year is new and starts something fresh. Thank you Dr. Jones, we’ve been through a lot and we’re going to get it done.”

Outgoing PTA Council president Frances Wu Nobay warned against “rabble rousing.”

She urged the board to renew Dr. Jones’s contract.

“Upon taking the Superintendent role she immediately had to shepherd the district through a worldwide pandemic, rolled out K-12 remote and hybrid learning, managed through multiple building calamities, and kept our academics strong and our school doors open. Under her leadership the curriculum has been standardized and enhanced. The GPS’s third party ratings have improved. GPS has become an employer of choice for professional educators. In addition, Dr. Jones has been an excellent communicator with the community, welcoming our questions and considerate of our suggestions.”

“We ask the board to extend Dr. Jones’s contract and stop the rabble-rousing,” Nobay said.

Then, incoming PTAC president John Fisher said, “We will be hearing people involved in the politics of this election year talk about their support for our schools and their support for education. PTAC will be listening carefully.”

Fisher defended PTA parents, saying they were more like “Puss ‘N Boots and Kitty Softpaws” than “jackbooted thugs.”

Fisher’s comments may have been a reference to the May BOE meeting which was punctuated by criticism of CMS PTA by former BOE chair Peter Sherr.

“I’m always surprised by the things we see and hear on Twitter, op-eds and public comments suggesting that PTAC and PTAs are somehow malicious,” Fisher said.

“PTA members’ actions are more like herding ducks,” he added.

Jackie Homan brought up the contract renewal. She read a list of “what if” scenarios (also published as a LTE the next day on GFP) and accused Dr. Jones of creating a politically charged and divisive environment.

“Do any of those scenarios feel uncomfortable?” she asked. “Because if any of them did, and you answered yes, then I wonder why tonight’s debate is over how many more years are added to the Superintendent’s contract for the sake of continuity, when perhaps the discussion should be about holding the superintendent accountable for breaking the board’s policies, violating education law and creating a politically charged and divisive environment.”

Joe Solari said the contract renewal was a big decision for the board.

“As I understand it you have new metrics that you’ll be measuring the superintendent with,” he said. “I hope those metrics include greater transparency, a greater focus on academic, athletic and arts excellence over a lot of the divisive nonsense that many parents across the community have been troubled by.”

David Lancaster was even more blunt when he urged the board not to renew Dr. Jones’s contract and instead hire a new superintendent.

“The continued presence of social engineering in curriculum, a lack of transparency and respect for parental rights, academic results and discriminatory hiring practices. Superintendent Jones repeatedly says GPS does not teach Critical Race Theory. This is only a proximate truth, more like a sin of omission – what a Jesuit would call a mental reservation. Either way the intent is to deceive.”

“The fact of the matter is Dr. Jones doesn’t need to promote classical CRT if she can till the academic soil using its many intellectual capillaries like social-emotional learning. This is what she has done.”

“She also promotes radical gender ideology,” he said. “This neo-Marxist poison is evil and is corroding the minds and souls of our young. A toxic combination of gender ideology and race grievance focus on the evil of whiteness.”

Aimee Muth, who co-chairs the PTAC DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) committee which is in its first year as a standing committee, said, “We would like to remind everyone that June is LGBTQ+ pride month, a time when we celebrate the progress made in equality, diversity and LGBTQ identities, and recognizing that barriers still exist to true universal equity.”

She said what had started a human rights protest 50 years ago in New York City, had grown into marches and events and celebrations around the world.

“June is also Caribbean-American Heritage Month, and importantly, Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, the day that Major General Gordon Granger rode into Galveston, TX, the last city still held by Confederate forces, and freed the last people still held in slavery two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed.”

“These significant representations of our diverse American heritage exist because for so long they were missing from our history books and our broader discussions and awareness,” Muth said.

“The small number of loud voices expressing intolerance and exclusion only have power when we let them shout over all the rest of us,” she added. “Let’s instead work to make sure the historically under-represented voices are heard. It helps us all when we hear the stories of those who for so long have been left out…”

Kara Philbin, who was an unsuccessful Republican write-in candidate for BOE at the last municipal election, said the superintendent did not deserve a raise given what she described as “poor performance.” She went on to talk about declining test scores and said too many initiatives that distract from the primary goal of educating the children were directly reflected in the test data, which she said were “overall trending down.”

“You can not solve ideological differences, and it is not your job,” Philbin warned the board. “The common ground is more direct instruction, less technology use, especially in the younger years, and a focus on academics first. It is absolutely time for mandating opt-in for all controversial programming.”

Janet McMahon urged the contract extension for, “our wonderful, extremely effective, hard-working and dedicated superintendent, Dr. Toni Jones.”

“During my nine years in GPS I’ve seen four superintendents come and go,” McMahon said. “Dr. Jones has not only stood the test of time, but a global pandemic, countless school shootings across the country and scares close to home, budget cuts, multiple building closures, and a thankfully short bus strike and more. Dr. Jones has managed all of these obstacles with aplomb, while always being empathetic and forthcoming with information to the GPS community at large.”

She said Greenwich Schools’ academic ranking in and US News & World Reports and Public School Review had advanced which she said was in large part due to Dr. Jones’s “thoughtful and visionary leadership.”

Old Greenwich School principal Jen Bencivengo noted she had worked for 17 superintendents during her 25 years in the district and described how how Jones had been concerned about the air quality in the OGS building last week when their was poor air quality due to wildfires in Canada.

Clare Kilgallen supported the contract extension for Dr. Jones.

“The communication we get from Dr. Jones is unparalleled,” Kilgallen said. “The weekly messages. All of the publications that have put together within her tenure to keep parents as informed as they want to be.”

Diana Martinez thanked Dr. Jones for condemning the “desecration” of the rainbow Pride flag at town hall last week. She said it was important to give equal representation to all groups in our curriculum and to teach children the stories of their people.

That said, Martinez recalled how she was disappointed about her son’s fifth grade literature selections and what happened when she asked to read a book about gay pride to her son’s fifth grade class, which she described as “an obvious gap in his curriculum,” even though two of his peers in his classroom have parents that identify as LGBTQ+.

“I chose a historically accurate children’s book about the Stonewall Riots which tells about the courageous acts of rioters in 1969, which led to the designation of June as gay pride month, but we were told the book did not portray police officers in a positive light. We were given a list of books featuring gay characters that we could choose instead, which we did.”

But, she said, she had been told parents would have to opt-in to allow their children to hear the book being read aloud. “And we could only do it in the courtyard unless it rained,” she said.

She read aloud an excerpt from a letter her son had written to the principal.

“You say the Stonewall book shows police were portrayed in a negative light, but it’s the truth. Police were destroying the community that gay people built – the one and only place they could go to be free and be themselves. The only negative thing about that was the police imprisoning them, not the author telling about it.”

Martinez said Pride wasn’t just a flag to wave to create the illusion of diversity.

“It’s a commitment to embrace people who have been stigmatized and marginalized,” Martinez continued. “If we want to avoid incidents of hatred to the LGBTQ+ community so brazenly posted on our lawn, we will have to tell the truth about history.”

She said her son’s fifth grade literature selections included selections about racism, the struggle of Mexican-American farm laborers, yet his teachers had to present the option to opt-out to parents.

“And I know they received criticisms. Teachers have to walk on egg shells to teach what are considered classic young adult texts. It shouldn’t be this hard to tell the stories of underrepresented and marginalized groups.”

Thomas Kania said having a unique family structure with two fathers had never been an issue with his children’s classmates in Greenwich Schools.

“We never felt any sort of discrimination until the last year when I was approached by another parent to read a book about the rainbow flag that highlighted the diversity in the gay community,” he recalled. “Despite teacher support we were told that such a book could not be read in Greenwich due to BOE policy.”

He said he did not believe that policy could be illegal in Connecticut and confirmed it was not when he reached out to Lt Governor Susan Bysiewicz.

From there, he said he was told it would be permitted to read the book in a secondary location but that parents would have to opt their children in.

“In the end, 100% of the parents opted in,” he said. “And we were allowed to read the book in the classroom.”

This year, he said they again approached school administration about reading a book to his son’s 5th grade class, this time about the Stonewall Riots, again at a secondary location, and again parents could opt out.

“The Stonewall Riots are a critical part of the US human rights expansion in the US history, serving as the home of the modern gay rights movement but also as a model how rights can be gained by all marginalized and targeted Americans.”

“Not only are gays being targeted and laws being passed to once again marginalize us, but also worse for our transgender brothers and sisters who have been even further targeted and marginalized,” he said. “Given the history of Stonewall, the gay community will not take these matters sitting down, and we will use our resources, energy and intellect to beat back all these laws based solely on hate and ignorance.”

He said policies requiring the opt-in and having to read the book about Stonewall Riots to 5th graders in the courtyard indicated the board viewed LGBTQ gay students, parents and allies as third class citizens.

“My 10-year-old boys are collateral damage. They are so proud of their fathers and their family and family structure, and this woman sat on national public television condemning us,” he said, pointing to Karen Kowalski.

Contract Renewal – Tie Votes Down Party Lines Fail to Carry

Four hours into the meeting, the board first discussed a motion to extend the superintendent’s contract for one year, from June 2024 to June 2025,

Kathleen Stowe said she would be voting no on a 1-year extension, instead preferring a 2-year extension.

Ms Stowe recalled that she had led the executive search for a new superintendent in 2019 with an eye to stopping superintendent turnover.

She noted the committee had searched countrywide for someone who was “student centered, a strong manager, a track record of success, great communicator and had superintendent experience in a similar district.”

She said Dr. Jones led the 10,000 person organization tirelessly and seamlessly, and that while focused on students, she had also created $2.5 million in savings by redeploying and reducing overhead, and had also recruited a great team “and that’s because people want to be around her.”

Stowe said a 2-year renewal was customary, and that anything less was was a vote of no confidence for Dr. Jones and her team. “That is not the message I want to deliver.”

Christina Downey also opposed a 1-year contract extension.

“I think a 2-year extension of Dr. Jones’s contract is warranted. Two weeks ago the board met to give Dr. Jones her review, which was overwhelmingly positive. At that same meeting we unanimously voted on a salary increase for her for next year.”

“Those are the actions of a board that believes the superintendent is doing a good job,” Downey added.

“Some of my colleagues have articulated no reason whatsoever why a 1-year extension is more appropriate than a two-year,” Downey added. “I’d like to hear a precise explanation…”

“How does a 1-year extension versus a 2-year serve the strategic and long-term needs of the school district to provide for stability and planning, or how is that beneficial to our students?”

“Our district has been characterized by turnover. We finally have stability, and do you want to jeopardize that?” Downey asked. “One could surmise there’s some political motivations involved – or personal or professional?”

Michael Joseph Mercanti-Anthony said the board had recently gone through its strategic plan process that was tied to the superintendent’s performance, and for that reason, he recommended a 1-year extension.

“My vote for this 1-year extension is a vote in favor of Dr. Jones and the excellent works she’s been doing on the board as well as an endorsement of increased systems in accountability and governance we are doing as a Board of Education.”

Cody Kittle, who participated by Zoom, said the 1-year extension was well deserved.

“I think it’s worth reminding the public that these contracts do not contain no-fault termination clauses which is more common in the public sector. I would never give anyone a 2-year extension – it doesn’t matter who they are.”

Karen Hirsh said Dr. Jones had made more forward movement than any superintendent she could remember in her 15 years of advocating for our schools.

“She has been integral in the process and direction of our recently approved strategic plan and helping keep us focused on student achievement and special education.”

BOE chair Joe Kelly said his number one goal was to extend Dr. Jones’s contract, but he wanted any vote to be unanimous.

“I want to renew your contract. I want everyone to vote 1-year. I want everyone to vote 2-years. Whatever we can get everyone to vote on. I’m struggling to find the ability to get everyone to vote 2-years.”

Mr. Kelly said he would not be seeking another term in the November election and that was more reason for the superintendent’s contract extension to be one year, not two.

“It’s not my job to make the decision for the future of another board. That board has to make the decision on their one and only employee.”

The board voted 4-4 down party lines on a one-year extension, Republicans voting yes for one year and Democrats voting no. The motion failed to pass.

On a motion to extend the contract for two years, there was another tie vote down party lines. That motion also failed to pass.

Karen Kowalski made a motion to extend Dr. Jones contract for one year “and authorize the chair of the board to sign that so that extends it to June of 2025.”

That motion was 4-4 along party lines and failed as well.

Then, during an agenda discussion, Mr. Kittle suggested including plans for a superintendent search.

Laura Kostin pushed back. “That is not the consensus of this board. The consensus of this board is we want to keep Toni (Jones). “I don’t think we are at the superintendent search stage.”