Tension arises over Board of Ed caucus: Transparency questioned

Members of the Darien RTM Education Committee

Members of the Darien RTM Education Committee

Darien TV79

A significant amount of tension arose halfway through Wednesday’s RTM Education Committee meeting when members learned of a private meeting that recently took place between Republican Board of Education members.

“Over this past weekend, most of the Republican members of the Board of Education had [a private meeting], working on the budget,” RTM member Ann Reed said at the hour-long meeting, which was held virtually.

The meeting she was referring to was not public and therefore was not recorded, and no minutes were taken.

Reed questioned why Board of Education members met in private and not as the whole board, “because it seems to me the Board of Ed should be operating in a transparent and collaborative way, not in separate groups — and that disturbed me a lot,” she said.

Another RTM member said that one of the two meetings actually constituted a quorum, with at least five members of the Board of Education present.

Chairman Clara Sartori agreed with the other members in the need for transparency.

“It’s important to let the community know” what Board of Education members are thinking, “and to provide for transparency,” Sartori said. “It’s important for the community to be able to come back and make comments about some of the things they’re hearing.”

Board of Education member Jill McCammon, who was one of the individuals who met on the weekend, was also in attendance at the RTM meeting. She spoke, saying the meeting was in a caucus, “which is allowed.”

McCammon then offered to provide the committee with legal documentation from the meeting. She later provided some citations to The Darien Times, including here and here on Page 9 and here.

In response to why there was a need for a private meeting, she said that it’s purpose was to organize information with the goal of not making cuts that would substantially impact education.

“Since no board member wants deep education cuts to the budget, the board decided to be in caucus in order to organize the conversation to focus more on the kinds of cuts that would not impact education — so we can hopefully meet the conditions of the cut in a way that impacts education least.”

Sartori, who formerly served as the secretary of the Board of Ed, asked why the meeting was along party lines and why the Board of Ed’s budget committee didn’t have the discussion.

“I did actually ask if the budget committee could do it and I was told it was not in the charge of the finance committee,” McCammon said, adding that’s why they chose to use the caucus format.

In an email exchange obtained by The Darien Times dated May 13, member John Sini asked if the Board of Ed’s finance committee could take on defining and organizing the larger budget discussion currently on the Board of Ed’s plate.

“To be clear, the committee would not be prioritizing or voting on items but only creating an organized outline with the intent of allowing for productive board discussions when the time comes for the likely budget refinement in June,” Sini wrote.

In response, both member Deb Ritchie and Board of Ed Chairman Tara Ochman said they felt the discussion was a full board one and not one of the finance committee.

During the RTM meeting, member Theresa Vogt expressed her strong dissatisfaction with the private meeting, saying that as a taxpayer in town as a member of the RTM, “I would really have much rather you guys had that conversation in a Board of Education meeting, not in a private caucus.”

McCammon responded that the meeting was “just a function of organizing some of the information so that we’re prepared with questions and information.”

“The hope is to translate all of that to a very transparent public conversation,” she added.

Ochman told The Darien Times Friday she was unable to attend the RTM education meeting and have not yet had a chance to view the meeting “so I cannot comment on Mrs. McCammon’s words.”

“I had heard a rumor that five GOP members of the Board of Education chose to caucus on the budget,” Ochman said.

She added that she asked members going back as far as 10 to 15 years from both parties and “they were similarly surprised by this occurrence.”

Ochman noted that without question “we are facing significant challenges as a board based on the BOF approved cuts to the BOE operating budget.”

“I personally believe that the Board should engage in collaborative, open, and transparent discussions within the public domain to support the best outcomes for our children,” she said.

RTM approves operating budget

At the meeting, the RTM Education Committee approved the 2020-2021 operating budget, which is $102,496,378, as made in the general fund for the education operating budget.

There were 11 of 13 members present at the meeting: Joan Davis and Curtis Butler was not in attendance.

Petr Marousek abstained and ten board members voted in favor. These were: Karen McNicoll, Clara Sartori, Barbara Thorne, M. Carolina McGoey, Edward Washecka, Lucy Fiore, Janet Grogan, Ann Reed, Elizabeth Lucas, and Theresa Vogt.

The budget will now go to the Representative Town Meeting at 8 p.m. on Monday, June 8, where the final vote on the budget will be made. This will be a virtual meeting and viewable on TV-79.

Watch the RTM Education Committee meeting on Darien TV/79.