Exploring the Policy for Board Members Visiting Schools

December 31, 2015


by Barbara O’Brien

The sitting Windham School Board has been sharing the same table for more than nine months now, yet, despite repeated promises to one another and to the public to work together more cooperatively, as a team, contentious interactions continue to occur on a regular basis.  It’s not just the loud voices and angry words that indicate the divisiveness, but the repetitive eye-rolling, snickering under the breath and refusal to look one another in the face that speaks loudest.

It’s not just the school board members who are being affected by the dissension, however.  Most recently, it was resident Jerry Rufo, who is also a member of the building and grounds committee, who came to the podium to address the dilemma.

Several weeks ago, School Board Chairman Ken Eyring and Vice-Chairman Tom Murray visited a couple of the schools, seeking information pertaining to the proposed construction project at Golden Brook School; the need for a full-service kitchen, to be precise.  While there, Murray and Eyring spoke with a couple of employees on the topic.  They both said they had told the principal in advance that they were going to be visiting the school, but, apparently, neither notified the superintendent beforehand.  Learning of the visit, after-the-fact, Interim Superintendent Tina McCoy sent an email to all five board members explaining her position and asking that in the future she be advised in advance of any visits by them.

Following their visit, school board member Dennis Senibaldi took exception with Murray’s and Eyring’s actions, saying they violated school district policy, and then posting his opinion and Dr. McCoy’s correspondence on Facebook.  The situation only escalated from there, with numerous comments being posted by a variety of other people, as well.

It was this chain of events that brought Rufo to the microphone earlier this month.  “Are there any rules I need to follow when visiting schools?”  Rufo asked.  “What about communicating with school board members outside of meetings?”  Referring to Murray’s and Eyring’s decision to find out information on their own time, Rufo said, “Some people might see this as a violation of policy, while others might see it as a show of leadership, by not waiting around to get things done. There’s too much drama (among school board members).  We have a job to get done here.”  Rufo wanted to know if the same policy that applies to school board members also applies to committee members, such as building and grounds.

The policy in question reads:  “Individual School Board members interested in visiting schools on an informal basis will inform the superintendent of such visits and make arrangements through the principals.”  Murray claimed that this is exactly what he did.  “The policy doesn’t say I need the superintendent’s permission.  It doesn’t say when the superintendent is to be informed,” Murray said.  “I have been visiting these schools regularly and the issue has never come up until now.  I do not wander through the schools unaccompanied.”

Murray said he was troubled by Senibaldi bringing up employee names in his postings and continually casting aspersions on certain other school board members.  As for his visits to the schools, “Part of my duty is to inform myself in advance of making educational decisions,” Murray said.

Eyring said he feels the policy should just pertain to school board members, not the members of the building and grounds committee.  School board member Rob Breton disagreed, however, saying it was his opinion that committee members should follow the same policies as school board members.  Senibaldi also said he believes committee members should be held to the same accountability as the school board.  Senibaldi said he would rather that committees visit schools as a group, rather than individually.

While Eyring said he believes the existing policy is open to interpretation, Senibaldi said he didn’t see “any cloudiness” in what is meant.  “Call the superintendent ahead of time and make arrangements with the principal,” Senibaldi said.  “It’s that simple,” he said.  Senibaldi said he has no problem with “chance meetings” of board members or staff.

Murray said he “wholeheartedly believes in transparency and in adhering to policies,” but has begun to feel “apprehension about what’s okay to ask and when.”  Murray noted that he is not just a school board member, but a taxpayer and a parent of several children attending Windham public schools, as well.

Longtime resident Paul Therrien expressed deep disappointment in the squabbling among board members.  “I’ve lived here in Windham since 1980 and never felt the desire to address the school board before, but you guys have gone over the top,” he said.  Therrien said he was tired of hearing about “petty protocol violations.”  “What’s wrong with all of you?  You act like a bunch of kids.  Suck it up and get your job done!”

“It’s not petty protocol,” former school board member Michael Joanis said.  “It’s school board policy.”

Eyring said he feels the pertinent policy is “ambiguous,” which leads to confusion in how to interpret it.  “It needs to be revised,” Eyring said.  “I felt I had an open invitation to visit the schools.”

Joanis adamantly disagreed with Eyring, stating that he feels the policy “is brutally clear.”

Resident Cynthia Finn said the issue has deeply troubled her as well, noting that the quibbling among board members and others has slowed down the budgeting process, thereby hurting students in the long run.  Finn also said she is very appreciative of the countless hours Eyring and Murray have spent working on the construction proposal.  Finn was also disturbed by the fact that several employee names were included in the emails bandied about on social media and elsewhere.  “It’s alarming,” Finn said, referring to the violation of these people’s privacy.  “It makes them feel like targets,” Finn said.

Resident Donna Sawyer, a former school district treasurer, reminded school board members that they “need to be an impeccable role model.”  “You need to find a way to establish trust as a whole board!”

Senibaldi said he brought his accusation of policy violation into the public arena because, previously, when he attempted to discuss issues in private it didn’t work out well.  “All I want is a public eye on the issue, so it stops,” Senibaldi said.  In response to the contention that he had violated employees’ rights to privacy by including certain names in correspondence, Senibaldi said he had gotten a legal opinion stating that the emails do not constitute personnel files and, therefore, are not exempt from the Right to Know Law.  “They were all public documents,” Senibaldi said, referring to the emails circulated during the controversy.

“I read the policy.  I think it’s pretty clear,” Breton added.  “They (Murray and Eyring) should have talked to the superintendent ahead of time, but it didn’t happen; although the reasons for their visits were completely valid,” Breton said.  “However, when policies are not followed, it takes up valuable time.”  In conclusion, he added, “We need to move on before we derail everything” we’re trying to accomplish here.

“Policies are like the law.  It’s not black or white,” Popovici-Muller said.  “There are massive gray areas.”  “As a matter of practice, however, I inform the superintendent before each visit. “  Give a heads-up in the future,” he told Eyring and Murray.  “We need to make sure we are all on the same page.”

“I take my oath of office very seriously,” Murray said.  “I truly feel that I did not violate the policy.  I had no ill intent to violate policy,” he said.  “In hindsight, I wish we had made that phone call to the superintendent in advance of our visit,” he said.  “But, there was no ill intent.  Certain people are making a mountain out of a molehill.  There is ambiguity in these policies.”

Plans are for the school district policy committee to review these policies in the near future and to make recommendations to the full school board for any proposed alterations or clarifications.  The revised policies will be discussed during public session.