The Board of Education held a retreat on July 10 to look back at the past year and discuss a number of topics. Typically, this retreat is held privately, but in the interest of being more open and transparent, the board opened the retreat to the public, and held it at the Board of Education offices beginning at 8 a.m. Despite being open to the public, the Darien Times was the lone attender of the retreat. The board invited counsel Tom Mooney to be part of the morning session of the retreat, as they looked back at policies, practice, and interaction with other town boards and entities.

The primary focus of the morning discussion was trying to draw clearer lines between the role played by the administration and the role played by the board. This conversation covered hiring practices, resignations, grievances, and the sharing of information with other boards.

The board reviewed hiring and removal practices with Mooney early on, as Mooney and group discussed the way those processes are carried out in Darien. The board itself has the power to hire teachers, but that power has been delegated to Superintendent Dr. Dan Brenner, a practice that is typical to boards across the region. A teacher cannot be hired without the recommendation of the superintendent in order to prevent a rogue board from merely pushing administrators aside to hire someone unqualified or unsuitable for a position. In Darien specifically, the process is the superintendent and administrators carry out the hiring process, and then a personnel action report is presented to the board at a regular meeting for approval; a practice that Mooney felt was a good one.

The discussion being more pointed when it came to dealing with resignations or terminations. Mooney asked the board who has the authority to accept a resignation, and the answer is actually the board itself. “I urge you to delegate that power to the superintendent,” Mooney said, saying you would not want to find yourself in a situation where a teacher resigns and then has a change of heart before the board approves the resignation at a meeting. Mooney pointed to an example of a case in New Canaan in recent years, where a teacher turned in a resignation, it was accepted, but then the teacher decided not to resign. This case was actually argued in court, and ultimately a court decided after five days that the resignation had been lawfully accepted and was legitimate. Darien policy currently is that the superintendent has the power to accept resignations.

However, a superintendent does not have the power to fire a teacher. A superintendent can only recommend the firing of a teacher, at which time the board can terminate the teacher. At that point there are grievance and appeal hearings available, with an independent hearing officer used. The decisions made by those independent hearing officers, however, are not binding. Mooney pointed to a situation in Greenwich where a teacher was recommended for termination by the superintendent, and after nine days of hearings, the independent hearing officer also recommended termination. Ultimately the board decided against the termination, retained the teacher, and the superintendent left the following year. Similarly in Shelton, a teacher was found to have engaged in shoplifting, the hearing officer decided that termination was too harsh, but the board fired the teacher anyway. “The non-binding decision underscores the importance of being impartial in these matters,” said Mooney.

Following that discussion, Mooney and the board continued to elaborate on the role of the board in grievances as well as the appeals processes. Mooney spoke about appropriate times for the board to become involved in an issue, and when the final decision of the administration should be adequate. “If a community member says ‘my kid hasn’t gotten homework back in 3 months’, the role of the board is not to intervene,” said Mooney. Board member Christa McNamara asked if it would become the board’s role if it happened ten times rather than just once. Mooney responded that the board could then get involved as a matter of policy, as that is the function of the board.

Mooney then posed another hypothetical, “If you come to the board through youth athletics and a question comes up for funding for a particular issue that you may have even advocated for years ago, you have been involved. Is it ok to stay involved? Yes you can.”

Mooney pointed to the fact that board members come to the board from a variety of paths, and it is, “absolutely appropriate for board members to advocate for particular interests.”

So then, the question followed about when the appropriate time for a board member to recuse himself might be. “When your family is directly affected. Your cousin is up for a job, can you vote on that,” Mooney said, adding,“the question is, can I discharge my public responsibility without undue influence. Even if you could, could the appearance of conflict interfere?”

This discussion led to further oversight discussion, and the role the board plays in hearing issues from the community. The appeals process for an issue in Darien currently runs through the superintendent, who has final say. However, some still continue to push issues to the board.

“Sometimes the outcome isn’t liked after appeals process goes through superintendent. Then people come to the board,” said Chairman Michael Harman.

“People say, ‘we don’t like the job he did, so do his job for him’” agreed Tara Ochman.

Mooney urged the board not to take on any policy that allows the process to go past the superintendent to the board.

“Some towns have policies that say you can go to board after the superintendent. Whenever i see that, I say don’t do it,” Mooney said.

“You lose control of your agenda. Anyone can come with any matter,” said Mooney. Mooney also liked the superintendent position to that of the CEO of a company. The CEO handles those operational issues while the board does not get involved in individual cases. Otherwise, community members with seemingly endless time and resources could push an issue on the board ad infinitum, distracting the board from its mission.

This issue saw discussion from a number of board members and administrators.

Board member Jill McCammon was uncomfortable with that position. “The public should have a way to make their concerns heard by the board,” McCammon said. Ochman and other board members pointed to the public comment portions at the beginning and close of regular board meetings as an appropriate time to voice those concerns. Ultimately, the board seemed to be of the mind that if this distinction about oversight was more clear cut, that might help with the issue.

Disciplinary issues were a topic on which a very clear message was sent.

When it comes to a disciplinary matter, “the board as an entity has no role to play. There is misunderstanding around that. These secret dealings of the superintendent when, in fact, the superintendent in a personnel matter is just doing his job,” said Mooney. Disciplinary matters would only come to the board in the form of a grievance or a termination. If the superintendent were to take action that is deemed unfair, it can be brought to the board via the grievance process.

Recent events in Darien, specifically regarding the suspension of coaches and the perception of those events in the public, were clearly informing upon this discussion.

Mooney spoke about the concern that may exist about the administration holding people accountable. “You hired the administration to hold people accountable and make tough decisions. In my experience, administrators are slow to take the necessary action, which can be significant problem for a district. It’s an important responsibility for the superintendent to set a tone of expectation and accountability,” Mooney said.

Vice Chairman Betsy Hagerty-Ross made the board’s role even more clear, saying, “People thought the board approved disciplinary action. I just want to make it clear that those things would never come to the board when it comes to an employee or teacher. It would never come to the board.”

Mooney agreed, saying, “Disciplinary action, short of termination, simply is never within the board’s responsibility. Your responsibility is to gauge whether you think the superintendent is effectively leading the district,” and added that perhaps a clarification might be beneficial in the future, such as saying, “the board acting through the superintendent.”

Mooney spoke about this issue and suggested there could be unrest about it. “Changing a culture can be disruptive. By that I mean when there has been a lack of accountability and accountability is asserted, people are more prone to complain,” Mooney said.

Following the talk on discipline and the role the of the board, discussion turned to the interaction with other town entities, boards, and community members, particularly during budget season. The present practice is the superintendent proposes a budget, discussion follows along with a public hearing, and then the board adopts a modified version of that budget. Town boards and RTM members are becoming involved in that process earlier and earlier, both in favor of efficiency and due to the fiscal condition of the state. Currently, concerned people from RTM committees would come up and ask questions of the board or administration and expect answers. The answers might not necessarily be expected at that moment, but in a timely manner. Those committee members might even preface their question with a disclaimer that it does not at all reflect the rest of the committee. The board and administration sought Mooney’s opinion on the best way to handle these questions.

“You would welcome the questions, but answers particularly before the board has fully considered the budget, would be premature. I would view the questions as constructive points of thought, as opposed to a deposition or an interrogation where question is posed, answer must be given,” Mooney said, adding, “Premature closure on questions, by giving answers before the board completes its work, would seem to be inconsistent with the process that results in your budget.”

McCammon agreed with this approach saying that questions, “should inform our discussion so it can be more robust, not so much a direct question and answer.”

Brenner pointed to the need of the board to answer the same question multiple times in the past as a frustration. The questions may be well intended, but those asking simply did not know the information was already available, or simply did not want to go look for it. Board members also pointed to an instance this budget season where an RTM member specifically told the board that a particular committee would not support certain items in the budget early in the budget process.

“It would be inappropriate for the town to make decisions as to your educational programs and tell you on the front end, we’re not going to do that,” said Mooney.

“They, and you, are deliberative bodies. You make decisions based on information and discussion,” Mooney said, adding, “The board is free to help them understand how this should work. And they’re free not to understand. A respectful dialogue is the best you can do.”

Still, the feedback and questions are crucial to the process, and the interaction with other town entities is important. “Everything they tell us guides our conversations. It’s important for us to hear where other bodies stand,” said Hagerty-Ross.

The discussion went towards transparency more than anything else, as the board has fallen under criticism in the community and from other town entities for a perceived lack of transparency.

“All I’ve heard is where weren't transparent. Sitting here for 3 years, we've become more transparent. I see nothing but improvement,” said board member Duke Dineen. Dineen also pushed the idea of setting a more specific and detailed timeline so that people know exactly when and how certain issues will be brought up.

The board seemed looking for the best way to determine when a well intended question from public arise is it acceptable to simply say that it has been answer already. The board and administration acknowledged that people were frustrated recently because they felt like they weren’t getting answers, and the board was frustrated because they felt they had already answered the question.

Mooney cautioned the board to perhaps be more reserved in answers to public comment. “I would caution board against answering anything but the most mechanical question, because you're setting yourself up to be incapable of answering certain questions,” Mooney said. Discussion of certain issues are meetings, and meetings have to be agenda driven. This is problematic if a person asks a question that brings about a particularly strong discussion of an issue that was not on the agenda, which would be a problem. Mooney suggested that the board add a footnote to the agenda saying that public comment is welcomed, but the board will not respond to any questions regarding items that are not on the agenda.

The board was clearly tired of the accusations of a lack of transparency, and searching for ways to dispel those accusations. The repeated answering of the same question was an obvious frustration for the board, but the challenge has become how to address that without infringing on the right of community members to ask about their concerns.

The afternoon portion of the retreat dealt with both district and board goals, but most real discussion of the goals themselves will come at the July 25 regular board meeting. There was, however, further talk about the funding of athletics and extracurriculars. The board has, on a number of occasions, expressed a desire to have a philosophical discussion around how the district decides which sports get money and how much money they get. Ultimately, the board and administration came to the conclusion that this philosophical discussion would take more than just part of the day or a regular meeting, but could take an additional retreat. The additional retreat would specifically focus on athletic funding, with a hope that the discussion would inform further talks about funding for other extracurriculars along with clubs. The board will offer questions to the administration looking for answers that start a dialogue.

The retreat itself looked to be extremely educational and valuable. The time spent with Mooney allowed the board to reflect on the year and discuss ways in which practices and policies can be improved for the future. It will be interesting to see how the board and administration takes what was discussed and implements it moving forward.