Published: Wednesday, June 19, 2013 – Meg Learson Grosso
The discussion was sometimes heated as the Fairfield Board of Education talked about the state’s decision to investigate Fairfield’s use of a controversial Algebra I textbook without the approval of the board. According to state law, there must be such approval.
Board member Jennifer Kennelly started off the discussion at the May 11 meeting. She had chaired a committee that looked into the board’s policy on pilot programs, since the use of the math text, CPM, for 850 students for the whole year, had been called “a pilot program.”
Kennelly said her committee of three had decided that they needed to define the term pilot, define the length of a pilot study, differentiate between instructional method and a pilot, and talk about how data on a pilot should be reported.
“We were fairly unequivocal in our opposition to what happened in or district this past year. We don’t want it to happen again. We want to give guidance so it doesn’t happen again,” said Kennelly.
Board and committee member Paul Fattibene said of the state inquiry, “This whole thing bothered me quite a bit, but I really think it was a lot of miscommunication, misstatements and misrepresentations as to what the facts and issues are.”
Fattibene, an attorney, said he hadn’t received a copy of the response that was filed in Hartford, before it was filed. The response took certain positions “I may have disagreed with,” he said.
“I agree with what Mr. Fattibene said,” responded board member Perry Liu, adding, “I think this is a very serious matter and it’s troubling to me that it’s being embraced as not being such a big deal … It’s troubling because the board is being charged here and we didn’t get to weigh in on how this is going to be handled.”
Liu said there were communications between Fairfield and Hartford that he never saw, but Chairman Phil Dwyer said, “Each of the documents sent to us, were given to the board.” The only things not sent were the “transmittal emails,” added Dwyer.
Board member Pamela Iacono said, “I clearly feel left out of the loop and would welcome an executive session to be filled in on the feelings Mr. Fattibene had.”
“In my opinion, we approved the continuation of the pilot and text book use by not exercising a vote against the book use. We had two opportunities to do so and declined,” Iacono said.
Iacono then read from the minutes of the December and January board meetings.
In December, Jennifer Kennelly asked that the board vote to instruct the Superintendent to cease the use of the math book. Board member John Convertito stated he wouldn’t vote on that because there wasn’t enough information on the text and “This would leave a whole population of the educational system out on a limb.”
Tim Kery said his concern is that it wouldn’t be appropriately noticed so the public could speak. Iacono said the same. “Mr. Fattibene stated he feels it would do more harm than good when dropping the text so quickly and he is not certain that it is an unauthorized text. Mrs. Brand supports putting it on the agenda. “Kennelly asked for a special meeting on January 8, but didn’t get one.
Iacono then read from the January meeting where many board members “thanked” Dr. Title for having a review of the math curriculum, but Iacono did not add comments such as “Mr. Gerber stated that her concern is that there is still half of the school year remaining, and she would like to see more support for students this year, so that it won’t be a lost year.”
“Here’s where I’m not dismissing this as a big deal. We’re not using the book anymore,” said Iacono, but there was murmuring from those in the audience who knew that it was still in use. Iacono said there would be a new book for fall.
“Lets … stop beating each other up,” said Iacono.
Kennelly said that one of the things that had prevented the board “from outright voting” was that the old text was given back to students for their use. A silver lining to the entire incident was that “we know what we don’t want a future pilot to look like,” said Kennelly.
Board member Sue Brand suggested having the town attorney address the board on the coming litigation. Dwyer said it was not “litigation,” but an administrative hearing and that the state was still trying to figure out how to do it.
Fattibene said there was actually a very specific procedure and Fairfield could present evidence to support its claims. He asked for an executive session.
Kery said he preferred to have the board’s attorney with his expertise in education.
Fattibene said he thought it would be advisable for Fairfield’s board to have its own counsel. “I have some concerns over how the board was represented (concerning) the state’s complaint. I did not see it before it was filed.”
Liu said that the state attorney in Hartford had said things happen from time to time, but they are dealt with and then they’re over. “Instead of the board being able to answer why we let this pilot go on, it was the superintendent who answered for us. He believed he was 100 percent right.”
“When the board tried to get information, it was given this way, that way,” said Liu, who added, “That’s why I believe we had such a difficult time deciding how we should vote on this.”
John Convertito said, “What we need to do is have a strategy and have this work for us.” He proposed going into executive session. The Minuteman reporter objected, saying that Dwyer had already said that it was not a matter for litigation. The board decided it would have an executive session in the future, after properly noticing it.
When the Minuteman spoke to Thomas Hennick, of the Freedom of Information Commission in Hartford, Hennick said that it would not be proper for the board to go into executive session to “understand Mr. Fattibene’s feelings,” nor would it be proper to discuss who said what when, or who was to blame.
If the board wanted to discuss those things, it should do so in public, however, if it wanted to discuss “a pending claim” with a demand for legal relief, it could do so in executive session.
Supt of School Dr. David Title asked for time to speak, if it would not mean there would be many more comments from board members in response. Dwyer asked for the board’s “forbearance” in allowing Title to do so. They did not object.
“We took the matter seriously all the way around,” said Title, adding that at the January meeting, “I told you what steps we were taking to remedy the situation, including the process that we were going to use for the adoption of a text book, including a completely new review of books.”
Title said he had shared student’s performance information with the board in April.
Although, as of Tuesday, he had not sent that information to this reporter.
Title said he spent a lot of time working with the state. “I’m surprised at the comments the state attorney made. I said on more than one occasion, how can we resolve it?”
“I asked if the board voted on the book, would that resolve it?” said Title, adding that the attorney hemmed and hawed and said, “No.”
Title said he consulted with a lawyer who said the district was in compliance. He said he reached out to the executive director of the CT Association of Public School superintendents and, “He said it’s a local decision.”
The conundrum with pilots, said Title, was that if you did none at all, and committed hundreds of thousands of dollars on new text books, “how do you know it’s going to be effective?”
In later public comment, Susie Byrne said she caught the tail end of Title’s talk and was disappointed that he was blaming the lawyer.
Kelly Crisp said parents had made the Central Office and the Board aware of their concerns about the math program as early as October. Had the Central Office properly vetted the CPM math textbook, the parents would not have filed a complaint with the state, and the state would not have investigated the use of the books, because they wouldn’t have used the book, Crisp said.
Dawn Llewellyn said the use of the textbook did not become a pilot until “the district realized they violated state statute by using an unapproved textbook, noting that the CPM book was not even considered for next year.
Suzanne Miska said, “My faith in where we’re going has been shaken. We’ve lost direction. We’ve lost vision.”
“There was a lack of parent involvement in the budget process. Something has to change because children are what we’re here for,” added Miska.