School Officials Respond to Anonymous Charges of Misconduct & BOE Coverup
Another anonymous letter is riling the Wilton School District, after several residents–this reporter, several current Board of Education members, First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice, as well as various others–received a large envelope in the mail between Saturday, Dec. 9 and Tuesday, Dec. 12.
Inside, along with the unsigned letter, were a photocopy of a lawsuit filed in January 2012 in Stamford Superior Court by a former Wilton teacher against a high-ranking school administrator, alleging improper conduct; and photocopies of two settlement agreements reached three months later–one between the teacher and the Board of Education, and one between the teacher and the administrator.
The anonymous letter that accompanied the packet aims to capitalize on the current cultural environment, mentioning #metoo campaigns and revelations of powerful men who commit sexual harassment that have dominated the headlines in recent weeks. This letter levels accusations against the administrator as well as at the BOE members at the time with covering up events described in the documents and resulting settlements.
The letter specifically–almost curiously and perhaps erroneously–singles out Christine Finkelstein–who was one of six members on the Board in April 2012, after being elected to her first term in November 2011, just six months before. Finkelstein has only served as chair of the BOE since September 2017. The anonymous letter targets Finkelstein and accuses her of knowing about the lawsuit and settlements, and hiding it, and questions whether there are other “hidden” settlements as well.
It’s a complicated story to tell, and one that requires care and restraint in telling it. It’s more complicated than boiling it down to a “he said/she said” narrative. The lawsuit was withdrawn, and both parties signed agreements that prevent them from speaking about one another. Through a representative, the teacher who filed suit declined to comment. She did not send the the anonymous letter and packet, but whoever did send it to over a dozen people used this teacher’s story without permission and invaded her privacy. As a result, GMW will neither identify her nor take away her choice of how and when to tell her own story. We will not print any details regarding what was alleged in the complaint–even names. The only thing we can write about the suit is that it was filed in Superior Court on Jan. 17, 2012 and withdrawn on April 27, 2012.
GMW offered the school administrator named in the suit the opportunity to comment; Superintendent Kevin Smith said that the administrator is bound by the settlement agreements, and is not permitted to say anything.
We have also chosen not to publish the anonymous letter, which makes allegations and tells a dramatic and descriptive narrative that cannot be verified or corroborated. It draws connections between this case and current lawsuits against the schools that have been filed more recently. It is unclear why the person sent these packages without signing a name and without first-hand knowledge of events.
Here’s what we can say:
GOOD Morning Wilton conducted an on-the-record interview with current superintendent Dr. Kevin Smith and chair Christine Finkelstein on Tuesday, Dec. 12. It is printed in its entirety below. In it, the two make several key points:
- Smith and Finkelstein say the district “thoroughly investigated” the allegations made by the teacher about the administrator and found them to be “without merit.” The investigation was conducted by the human resources director at the time and legal counsel. They are emphatic in their support of the administrator.
- They also state that there was no financial settlement between the school district and the teacher, outside of what is outlined in the “Release and Separation Agreement”–the teacher received full pay and benefits for the remainder of 2012 while she was considered “on leave,” and was entitled to receive full pay and benefits through the end of calendar year 2012 or until she found another job. No other payments were made to the teacher, including court fees and legal fees.
- The settlement agreement between the district and the teacher was executed by former superintendent Dr. Gary Richards, who acted on behalf of the Board of Education.
- According to Finkelstein, neither Richards nor any other administrator told members of the BOE at the time about the allegations, the lawsuit, the settlement or any resolution. Finkelstein says that she and other 2012 board members were not aware about the situation and how it was resolved, a statement with which other board members at the time concur.
- In April 2012, Finkelstein was relatively new on the BOE; she had been elected in November 2011, and took her seat Dec. 1, 2011. She was not BOE chair at the time.
- According to Smith there is no “single standard,” rule or usual practice between superintendents and districts, and superintendents may have different amounts of latitude to execute settlement agreements and personnel matters without informing their Boards. Smith says he can only speak for himself and if the same situation arose during his tenure he would inform the BOE “without question.”
Bruce Likly, who was chair of the BOE in April 2012 (at the time, he was six months into the post), included this comment in his statement to GMW:
“I recall being informed there was a personnel issue back around that time. To claim otherwise when we have over 600 employees and there are always personnel issues that arise would be foolish. I do not however remember any specifics other than Ellen Andrews was a TOUGH Director of Human Resources and she would have investigated AGGRESSIVELY to find the truth. As a matter of practice the Board Chair was not privy to the specifics of personnel issues other than to be told if there was an investigation into an allegation when necessary and what the outcome was, i.e. how it was resolved, which in this case it appears the allegations were proven false and the person was no longer with the District. Had there been an investigation that uncovered any plausible findings then I believe the Board Chair and Board would have been notified immediately.
“It has always been the Board’s and District’s belief that people have rights, both accusers and those accused until proven otherwise.”
On Tuesday, Dec. 12, Smith issued a statement on behalf of the district and the Board of Education. He referred to a paragraph in the “Release and Separation Agreement” signed by Richards and the teacher, as his basis for being unable to comment more fully.
“The Board, acting in this paragraph through Dr. Gary Richards, Ms. Ellen Andrews, [then-assistant superintendent] Mr. Timothy Canty, and [the administrator], and [the teacher] agree not to criticize or disparage the other(s), and all persons listed in this paragraph shall limit any comments concerning the other(s) and concerning this Release and Separation Agreement and the related underlying circumstances to the fact that [the teacher] voluntarily resigned her employment with the Wilton Public Schools to pursue other opportunities.”
STATEMENT OF THE WILTON BOARD OF EDUCATION, Dec. 12, 2017
On December 10, 2017, the Wilton Board of Education received an anonymous false attack on [a high-level school administrator] and the Wilton Public Schools related to claims made in 2011. In an apparent attempt to support false allegations against the [administrator], the anonymous writer shared unproven allegations set forth in a court filing, along with documentation detailing an amicable resolution of the underlying employment relationship. Contrary to the assertion of the anonymous writer, the settlement resolving a teacher’s employment is and has been a public document. At the time the complaint was made, a comprehensive investigation was conducted by the former Director of Human Resources with support from legal counsel. As a result of the investigation, the district concluded that the allegations were baseless.
The Wilton Board of Education and the Administration of the Wilton Public Schools, including the [administrator], are committed to assuring that staff, students and the school community may live and work in an environment free of sexual harassment. It is unfortunate that the individual who sent the anonymous letter has secretly and irresponsibly made false allegations against a good person. As a community, we must have the common sense to hold guilty parties responsible for sexual harassment and protect the well-deserved reputations of those who are not.
Interview with Kevin Smith and Chris Finkelstein
GMW: A packet was sent out to several people in the community. It contained three legal documents and a letter leveling some pretty serious charges at [the administrator], at the Board that was here in 2012, and at Chris Finkelstein now. Do you have a reaction to receiving the packet?
Christine Finkelstein: We took it very seriously, when we received the packet. None of the existing board of education members were familiar with the information it contained. It was very disturbing, we took it very seriously. We met extensively on it Monday, reviewed all the case files and documents to get a better understanding of what happened.
We are convinced that the allegations were treated seriously, investigated thoroughly, and they were without merit. We affirm our strong support for [the administrator].
GMW: I understand this is a personnel issue. Given the current climate, the letter makes reference to what’s going on in the wider culture at the moment, with a lot of talk about listening to women and believing women, is there anything you want to say in relation to what’s happening in the wider world and getting this packet.
Kevin Smith: I think it’s important to note, in my review of the file and the information we had available about this, it seems clear to me the district took this very seriously at the time and explored thoroughly the merit of the allegations. All of us would agree that it’s our desire to have a culture and community where all individuals feel safe.
GMW: What is in the packet is photocopy of a lawsuit that was filed, and later withdrawn after settlements were reached; photocopies of those two settlements reached, one between the claimant and the school district and one between the claimant and [the administrator]. That sets up the appearance that there was some merit if a settlement was reached. On the other hand, and I understand this is a personnel issue, you have said that looking at the file, without doubt, you believe the charges to be baseless. Is there something that can counterbalance what I have seen on the “she said” side of the he said/she said situation?
Kevin Smith: I don’t think we can say anything differently. The agreement, as it was written, restricts the district in what the district is able to say. But to reiterate, this board and I looked at this information and concluded that the investigation that was conducted back in 2011-2012 was thorough and concluded that the allegations were baseless.
GMW: Can you give me details on how the investigation was conducted and who performed it?
Kevin Smith: The investigation was conducted by a former human resources director, Ellen Andrews, and she was supported by legal counsel.
GMW: In reading through the settlement agreement, it looks like salary and benefits were provided to the teacher to a specific point. Was there any other financial settlement made during this?
Kevin Smith: Not that I’m aware of.
GMW: Chris, you were on the BOE at the time this settlement happened?
Chris Finkelstein: Yes. I was elected in Nov. 2011, and took my seat in Dec. 2011.
GMW: Was this matter brought to the Board of Education in any way at the time? In executive session? In open session?
Chris Finkelstein: No.
GMW: In terms of any other members seated on the board at the time, can you speak for them?
Chris Finkelstein: I’ve spoken with four individuals who were on the board at the time, including the chair [Bruce Likly] and none of us were aware.
GMW: Procedurally, something like this, whether it’s a personnel matter or a serious enough charge like the matter in question was, is that something that should have been brought to the Board? That you would have expected to have been brought to the Board by administrators or the superintendent?
Kevin Smith: That’s a difficult question to answer, in that boards and superintendents have unique relationships based on their respective communities. I couldn’t profess that there’s a single standard. In terms of my own personal practice, I attempt to be as appropriately transparent as possible with this BOE so that they can be aware of some of the really pertinent issues facing the district.
Chris Finkelstein: This board enjoys a very open relationship with Dr. Smith. As chair, I have a good understanding of everything going on in the district, with regard to potential complaints or litigation.
Kevin Smith: We take all necessary precautions to protect privacy.
GMW: If this situation that’s described in the packet, arose now, Kevin, would this be something that you would inform Chris and the Board about?
Kevin Smith: Without question.
Chris Finkelstein: Even on Sunday, when I got my packet, I knew [fellow BOE member] Laura [Schwemm] had gotten it, and didn’t know if anyone else had gotten it, we called an executive session, because we wanted to make sure everyone else was informed and that we dealt with it as a board.
GMW: Chris, were you surprised when you got this, that you hadn’t been told?
Chris Finkelstein: Yes, I would have liked to have known.
GMW: Kevin, you said each district has a different relationship with its superintendent. So there’s nothing that, by law, a superintendent – well, ‘nothing’ may not be the right word…
Kevin Smith: Boards of Education employ superintendents to serve as the CEO of a school district, and in that, again depending on the relationship between a particular board and a particular superintendent, the latitude of the responsibility can vary. In some cases superintendents interact very closely with Boards of Education and have a great deal of oversight; and in other cases, superintendents enjoy a great deal of latitude, and the relationship and reporting are different. I just refer to my own personal practice of trying to be as transparent as possible.
GMW: If there had been a financial settlement, would that have been designated in a line item on a budget someplace? Would that have to have been disclosed?
Kevin Smith: It’s hard to answer that question affirmatively, because circumstances would dictate how a settlement might be recorded. In this case, I would refer you back to the document. You can probably get an understanding of the language in the document of what those agreements were.
GMW: Let’s turn to the fact that the packets were sent out, and as it seems, set out widely. Chris, it seems as if the letter has several targets–whether revealing the lawsuit and settlements were intended to embarrass [the administrator], whether that was supposed to damage the school district, or damage you. Do you have any personal reaction to what was written in the letter and how it seemed to target you?
Chris Finkelstein: My priority is with the damage being done to [the administrator’s] career. He has worked decades to build up his reputation as a fine educator and administrator, and I just think it’s really horrible that one individual in this town has chosen to go after him anonymously. If they put my name on it, that’s fine. But my first concern is the unwarranted attack on [him].
GMW: Do you have any idea who sent the packets?
Chris Finkelstein: No.
Kevin Smith: No.
GMW: Anything you’d like to communicate to that person through this interview?
Chris Finkelstein: No.
GMW: Anything you’d like to communicate to the community about the tactic of sending this anonymous packet so widely?
KS: It’s harmful. I’d refer back to the statement.
Chris Finkelstein: Yes, an anonymous attack is not a reputable way to make your opinion or try to further your cause. We’ve always been very transparent. If you have an issue, please contact us. We’ll maintain your confidentiality, we’ll take your claim seriously, claims like this take an enormous amount of time, and it’s time that we could be spending on our students and a host of other things.