FOIA & Masking Debates Dominate Public Comments at First BOE Meeting Post-Election

The subject of last week’s election and ongoing mask requirements in Wilton schools dominated public comments at the Thursday, Nov. 4 meeting of the Board of Education (BOE). Chair Deborah Low, who led in the five-way race and easily secured re-election, began the meeting by opening a public comment period. She noted that as always, the Board would not respond directly to comments but would follow up if necessary.

The first speaker, later identified as Republican candidate Jessica Christ, who came in fourth and did not secure a seat on the BOE, made a brief statement: “In light of the recent elections and the FOIA request which allowed for personal and sensitive material pertaining to underage children to be printed in our local media, I believe that if this practice continues, it will discourage well-intentioned and qualified citizens from running for any voluntary board position in the future.”

Christ seemed to propose that the Board refuse to comply with similar FOIA requests going forward, stating, “Our school board should reconsider this divisive and politically-motivated practice going forward.”

According to Kyle McClain, a partner at Zangari Cohn Cuthbertson Duhl & Grello P.C. in Hartford, the Connecticut Freedom of Information Act is a Connecticut state law that requires public agencies to permit the public to inspect, copy or obtain a copy of public records maintained or kept on file. “Email correspondence sent to and from officials and employees of a school district, including communication with private citizens, falls under the category of public records,” he said.

Board member Jennifer Lalor then came forward. Moving to the public podium to indicate that she was speaking as a private individual, she said “While it may be legal to FOIA parent-teacher communication, many and I hope most would argue it’s not ethical. Our families and teachers need to be able to have open, honest communication without fear of someone else accessing that information and publishing it.”

She also referenced the district’s Portrait of a Graduate initiative, particularly the attributes of being a courageous, ethical leader and an active, socially-sensitive citizen. She noted, “Kids learn by example; what are we teaching them?”

Wilton Superintendent Kevin Smith then began reading written comments submitted by members of the public, the majority of which concerned the district’s mask requirement.

Before beginning, Smith stated, “If it’s okay, I’m going to remove my mask, because I have a bunch to read today.”

“Because it’s much easier to talk that way?” asked Lalor.

In five letters Smith read in a series, parents of students in Wilton Schools expressed frustration with the school mask requirements currently in place, even as several acknowledged that the district is subject to Gov. Ned Lamont’s statewide order mandating mask-wearing in schools.

“The time has come to unmask our children in school,” wrote one parent. “This virus does not affect them.”

One correspondent, Andrew Warren, expressed concern about the politicization of the Board of Education, because “most people want their children to have an education free of political bias.”

He noted that Democratic candidate Nicola Davies, who came in third place to earn a seat on the Board, was quoted saying, “The voters made it clear what values the town is looking for in their representatives.” Warren challenged the claim that a victory by a margin of approximately 270 votes is a clear indicator of what Wilton’s parents value.

A final written comment from Kim Hall expressed appreciation for the outgoing members of the Board, Glenn Hemmerle and Laura Schwemm and “for the thoughtful, non-partisan commitment both have shown toward improving the schools for all of our kids over the years.”

Following written comments, one additional in-person speaker came forward on the topic of masking in schools. Jared Martin, who ran on the Republican line and came in fifth, asked, “What is our exit strategy for this? Gov. Lamont is looking at ways to exit out of this. Do we have a working group? If not, why not? I would really appreciate that the Board address these issues.”

As forecast at the outset of the public comment period, the Board did not respond during the meeting but promised to follow up where needed. The Board of Education will reconvene for its next regular meeting on Thursday, Nov. 18.

1 COMMENT

  1. The fact that *both* losing Republican BoE candidates showed up at the next BoE meeting to whine about stuff shows what a catastrophe we dodged by not voting for them. (though for the sake of democracy I do hope the RTC nominates nicer / better-qualified people in 2023)

    Jess Christ deleted her past Facebook posts to prevent Wilton voters from learning what she really thinks about things; she’s pretty much the last person who gets to complain about FOIA requests. Wilton voters’ right to know who they’re voting for trumps candidates’ right to privacy; if you’re not prepared to have your life be an open book to the public, you shouldn’t run for office. (a fact that quite a few notable Republicans seem to have had difficulty understanding of late…)

    As far as Martin’s “endgame” for masks, one need only look at the COVID nightmare in UK schools right now to see the danger of ending masking too early. At the same time, it does seem likely that there’s going to be some movement there in the near future, between the rollout of vaccines for 5-11 and the expiration of Governor Lamont’s remaining executive orders in February, so whining about it at this specific meeting right after losing an election just makes you look like a sore loser.

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