Contradictions Surface in Litchfield

September 26, 2014
by Lynne Ober

The mystery surrounding the termination of Litchfield Superintendent Brian Cochrane may never be settled, but some residents are openly discussing one man’s attempt to undermine the superintendent.  This process began 18 months ago when current School Board Chairman Dennis Miller took issue that his wife, Dawn Miller, was denied additional hours and was sent home by the SAU office since her budget hours and expense line had been exceeded.

Nearly 18 months ago, as the sports season came to an end for the school year, the athletic administrative assistant to the athletic director was sent home because her salary line item was overspent.  According to both one current and one former school board member, at the time Mrs. Miller was sent home, the action was taken because her salary budget line had been overspent, and the athletic programming for the school district was winding down with few teams still participating.  As a result, there was less work for the admin assistant.

Sending his wife home because the budget line was overspent did not meet with Dennis Miller’s approval and he took action.  On Monday, May 13, 2013 at 3:29 p.m. school board member Dennis Miller wrote an e-mail to Cochrane.  (The entire text of the e-mail is printed on page X)  “I understand you have rejected the request to transfer dollars from other areas of the athletic budget to cover additional hours for Dawn Miller to finish out the remainder of the year.”

Although Miller began his e-mail stating that he wrote as a private citizen, he ended with expectations that the board would investigate his wife’s budget status, so it appeared that he ended the e-mail as a school board member and not a private citizen.  “I expect there will be a request for the board to consider allowing Dawn to finish out the year at using her 15 hours/week at their next meeting.  (Especially based on the fact you specifically requested she research items for the superintendent’s office and you presented that information to the board at a recent meeting – which has taken hours away from her expected 15 hours/week that have not been backfilled.)”

As a school board member, Miller and all the other members must sign the manifests for all expenditures and yet his e-mail consistently asked about other expenditures.  It is unclear to the reader of the e-mail if Miller actually reads the manifests to check expenditures or just signs off on them.  If he read the manifests and checked against monthly reports, he would have been able to answer those questions.

Miller also wrote, “I intend to ask specifically about these (and other) line items as they compare to other budgetary line items during the next meeting’s community input agenda time, to get the questions and responses on the public record.  If the line items mentioned above have gone from overspent to available funds, I will ask where the monies were transferred from, and why it is permissible in some cases and not in others to transfer funds to cover salary line items.”

At the time, the Litchfield School Board had a practice of reading all e-mails sent to the board into the record.  Although this e-mail was sent to all board members, then Chairman Derek Barka chose not to read this e-mail into the public record at a school board meeting.

After Miller’s e-mail was received by the superintendent and members of the school board, the AD did provide a detailed explanation of why Dawn Miller worked more hours than budgeted.  Business Administrator Steve Martin’s recommendation to add some money to this line item was made after Dennis Miller sent his e-mail and raised the issue of his wife’s hours.

While the superintendent did allocate more dollars to the ‘Admin Assistant’ salary line, a number of people believe that the current vote to not renew the contract occurred because Miller felt the hours for his wife should have just been increased without any back up for the increase.  Because that did not happen, some current school board members believe that is when Miller started a program of convincing school board members to not support the renewal of Superintendent Cochrane’s contract.

When the recent publicity about the recognition of the excellent academic programming at Campbell High School, there has also been publicity about additional coming improvements to academics in the district.

Jason Guerrette, a former school board member as well as a concerned parent, openly questioned how much academic programming would stagnate in the district.  “Now the superintendent is basically a lame duck.  It will take a while to hire his replacement and, there is a great deal of research about how long it takes someone to become effective in a new job.  How will our kids suffer and what improvements that should have been made will not be made for two or more years?”

York shares that concern and openly talks about the improvements that Cochrane has made and what will happen with a two-year hiatus while the board sorts things out.  “The vote was not to renew.  He was not terminated, so he will be here through June 2015.  Then we’ll need another superintendent.”

Other parents, who asked not to be named, agreed with this concern.  One said that the Millers no longer have children in the Litchfield schools so it won’t affect their families directly.

York said the board had been discussing making changes to Cochrane’s contract – changes that were positive.  “We didn’t take a vote because we were only four board members, but we seemingly had agreed on some positive changes and keeping Cochrane in our school district for the future.”

When asked which board member was missing at that meeting, York said, “Dennis Miller.”  At the next meeting York expected to have a positive vote and move forward.  “However, it was clear, when the vote came that the three who voted not to renew, came to the meeting prepared to vote not to renew.”

When the HLN asked York if he believed the three school board members who voted no had been exchanging e-mails prior to the meeting, he did not know, but did indicate they were united in their vote.

As a result, the HLN filed a freedom of information request with the district to obtain e-mails.  Under state law when a quorum of a board exchanges e-mails or has phone conversations outside of meetings in order to conduct business (for example, to determine a vote), those e-mails must be filed with the governing body and notes of any such discussions must be kept and filed with the governing body.

York went on to say, “I was stunned by the vote.  I was further stunned when it seemed their vote was not about performance but conversations they had with district employees.  In doing this, these school board members violated many written and approved school board polices and engaged in unethical contact as referenced in school board policy BHC Social Interaction, which states ‘… Therefore, discussions of personalities or personal grievances by either party will be considered unethical conduct.’”

“This past week, as the board faced a great deal of negative community input about the vote, the board finally had to announce who had voted for the termination (Dennis Miller, Derek Barak, Janine Lepore in favor of termination with John York and Brian Bourque against),” said York, who was obviously troubled not only by the incident but also by board member behaviors.

Public input given at the most recent school board meeting only further served to keep the issue alive.  More community discussions about the reasons behind the vote continued and copies of Miller’s May 2013 e-mail began filtering through the community, which is how the HLN got its copy.

The HLN asked York, “What is the next step?”  York hopes the board will reconsider and keep Cochrane.  “It is obvious that he has been doing a great job for us and for our kids.  He’s done what we asked.  Our schools are better.  He has worked with the board.   This has been a sad period for Litchfield.”

Guerrette wondered why the board would cause the two-year delay in continued academic improvements.  “If he isn’t worthy of the job, shouldn’t we pay out his contract and hire someone else now rather than at the end of next June?”

 
 
Full email:

From: Dennis Miller

Sent: Monday, May 13, 2013 3:29 PM

To: Brian Cochrane

Cc: Derek Barka; John York; Patricia D’Alleva

Subject: Athletic Admin Assistant Hours

Dr Cochrane,

I am sending this email as a private citizen through my personal email account.  I am copying the board so they are aware of the situation.

I understand you have rejected the request to transfer dollars from other areas of the athletic budget to cover additional hours for Dawn Miller to finish out the remainder of the year.  On her request I provided the March monthly report from Mr Martin showing the details of the current year budget (overall as well as athletics specifically).

Based on the April report (just received) , there is over $6700 “available” in the athletic salaries line item.  There is also $17,000+ available in the athletic budget, and $55,000 available overall in the budget, which is a bottom line budget. (Clearly the salaries line item is being used to cover overruns in other places, as the April report shows $85,000+ of underspends in salaries across the entire district)

Based on the analysis of the March report from Mr Martin, Building and Grounds overtime (1000263000 130 OVERTIME) is already over expended.  How has this line item, which is salary based, being overspent while others may not be?  Also, it increased month over month – in fact, doubling this month to over 55% overspent!  Why is this acceptable?

How is it that CHS Administration Salaries (1031241000 110 SALARIES) is overspent?  Why would the district allow this line item to be overspent and not others?

How is it that CHS Administration Overtime(1031241000 130 OVERTIME) is overspent?  Why would the district allow this line item to be overspent and not others?

How is it that LMS Administration Salary (1021241000 112 ADMINISTRATION SALARY) is overspent?  Why would the district allow this line item to be overspent and not others?

Also, there are several line items for overtime which are very nearly 100% expended.  Will the same rationale be applied here – once these are fully expended there will be no transfer of monies to cover additional hours?

Is there any consistency as to how these decisions are made?  Are they completely arbitrary?  Can the rationale please be provided?

Is the principal not in charge of their bottom line budget?  Can they not request transfers between lines as long as they stay within their bottom line number?

With this action you have taken a person who is passionate and committed to her work at CHS and is directly involved in student activities and you have told her in no uncertain terms that she is not important.  Not in so many words, but by the actions of the administration.  I believe the amount requested was less than $2,000 until the end of the year – or about 1% of the expected unreserved fund balance, or .01% of the total budget for the year.

I expect there will be a request for the board to consider allowing Dawn to finish out the year at using her 15 hours/week at their next meeting.  [Especially based on the fact you specifically requested she research items for the superintendent’s office and you presented that information to the board at a recent meeting – which has taken hours away from her expected 15 hours/week that have not been backfilled.]

I intend to ask specifically about these (and other) line items as they compare to other budgetary line items during the next meeting’s community input agenda time, to get the questions and responses on the public record.  If the line items mentioned above have gone from overspent to available funds, I will ask where the monies were transferred from, and why it is permissible in some cases and not in others to transfer funds to cover salary line items.

Thank you in advance.

Dennis Miller