Milford School Board votes on new member

Transparency, bullying also discussed

MILFORD – The Milford school board met on August 28, discussing new business but facing same problems.

The meeting started on a high note as board member Holleigh Ciardelli Tlapa read her opening remarks.

“I wanted to start off by saying how excited I am the start of a new school year. I was honored to bear witness to the opening day’s ceremonies. I was really pleased to see first-hand all sorts of positive energy and enthusiasm so kudos to all the teachers, staff, administration. The board as a whole is focused on implementing the Milford school district strategic plan; creating an evaluation process for the superintendent; formulating the budget as we move forward over the next few months; fostering a culture of creative, collaborative learning and bringing our new vision to fruition.”

She further stated, “The recent resignation of school board member Siegrist means that we need to appoint a replacement until the next election in March of 2020. As such, this will be on our agenda this evening. It’s my belief that we should tread carefully and choose wisely. It’s unfortunate that the resignation did not proceed the investigation into the alleged text messages which would have saved the district valuable time and resources. My understanding is that stopping the investigation midway was the most responsible course of action for the sole reason of saving the district any other unnecessary expenditures or wasted time. We really need to focus and move forward.”

Tlapa said she didn’t believe that she would be able to support any candidate who ran unsuccessfully in the most previous election.

“I believe the voters’ collective voices must be heard and honored,” she said. “I don’t believe it’s necessarily in the best interest of the district to appoint a candidate whoever unsuccessfully ran for this position. In a perfect world, the chosen candidate should have knowledge of the Milford school board district’s policies and procedures, be unbiased and in my opinion, plan to serve only a six-month interim position.”

“I’m of the belief that making a rash decision will benefit no one and will prove to be counterproductive in the long run,” she continued. “Have we not learned our lesson from the events over the past 18 months? We’re on the path to recovery, I hope we stay there.”

Tlapa suggested that the board unanimously agree on a candidate, whereby each candidate would present some type of written statement that would allow the board to select that candidate by vote at the next scheduled meeting.

The floor shifted to public comments, which were, in nature, talking about the concern over the board’s limiting those public comments in the first place.

Milford resident Michael Grey expressed his concern over limited public comments, as many community members take the time to come to the meetings have something to say.

“I would worry that if you’re limiting the amount of public comment that are allowed,” he stated. “The gutting of transparency and public comment is an issue. Public comments are healthy for local government. To be honest, you have the policies – I haven’t had enough time to look around at other school districts.”

“This is not how it’s supposed to work,” Grey continued. “You talk about moving forward and making progress, under the best of circumstances, removing transparency would be questionable. If you’re trying to repair things and move forward doing it by silencing your audience – all these steps to make it more difficult to get accurate and informed information is not the way to move forward. I hope you’ll reconsider the gutting of this.”

Board chair Ron Carvell addressed Gray’s comments.

“When we went through these policies, we looked at every other district,” he said. “We look at the school board association. And there are many districts that don’t even have public comments. This is a board meeting done in public. It is not a forum, back and forth. We are not hiding from transparency. We are trying to get through our business meeting. And we’re volunteers so going until midnight and one o’clock on the same stuff has to be stopped. There are other ways that policy drives to get the answers. The board has a function of the business meeting. Our policies drive the questions through the administration, through the SAU office and all of those areas are where you can get those answers without the board. The board isn’t here for a back and forth question and answer.”

Carvell stressed that many other districts don’t have public comments.

“We want to make sure we get through the business at hand,” he said.

Grey stated, “When you refer to legal, if we’re legally required to do, you are consisting lowering the bar for you. You’re removing the transparency. It’s disappointing as a citizen to see this.”

Milford resident Steve Vetack make a verbal correction, saying, “I disagree with Mr. Carvell. You’re not volunteers, you’re elected officials. And elected officials have to answer to the electorate. And so, any limitation to that, I’m sorry, but I vehemently disagree with that. I support what Mr. Grey was saying. This is not the way to conduct town business.”

“I’m a little concerned, because I hear this all too often from the board, that well, other districts, other schools, other recommendations… this is the Milford’s board,” Vetack stated to Carvell.

Bullying was the next subject addressed by Milford parent Tara Davoli, who has a 7-year old daughter with a repaired club foot and spina bifida and has been dealing with bullying for the last school year.

“We all know why the policy is important,” she said. “And I do believe that we are responsible to teach and help all students – the child with the bullying behavior in question and the child being targeted. In my opinion, the policy is important because when implemented, it does that. When ignored, like in our case, it leaves the child with the bullying behavior searching for limits and boundaries, and guidance.”

Davoli stated that there have been patterns in targeting her daughter.

“Why are you chewing so loudly? Why do you have different shoes? Why do you want to sit here? Why do you want to follow us?” Davoli listed.

She went on to report that the teacher and the principal at Jacques elementary were first notified as early as August 29, 2018. And again, on September 5, 7, 10, October 1 and continuing as needed throughout the year.

“There was a time that she was left alone. We were happy,” said Davoli. “And then one day a bus driver told her to take a seat, she walked down the aisle, and the child in question said you cannot sit here and kicked her – [my daughter] who has spina bifida, and an unsteady gait. She has fallen down, as we saw that last year as well. If people rush my daughter and people say ‘go’, and they said go to the playground, one day. She fell face-first into the unshatterable glass door and shattered it with her face.”

Davoli said it’s detrimental when she is being picked on, bullied, tripped, pulled, and pushed.

“I contacted the principal and the superintendent at the end of the school year and asked that they not be place in the same room,” she said. “They had 12 months to do something and did nothing.”

And I did make a request July 9 that an investigation be done. I was asked to give new personnel a shot.”

“We’ll wait and see what the principal does,” she continued. “As promised, they would be separated. And then we walked into school and saw that the school had made an error. This was supposed to be a new start. The school made an error and we talked to the new principal. This is where the last two days has gone from bad to worse. They will not remove that student. I have an opportunity to ‘improve my child’s assertiveness and have my child teach that child empathy’. I’m telling my daughter to run from her problems by not dealing with the placement as it stands.”

Despite asking this so many times, there is no straight answer.

“We should teach resiliency,” said Davoli.

“This is awful. My child does have a disability she is a minority and school is hard enough without a bully every day,” she said.

Ultimately, Davoli said her options are to move her child, or deal with it.

“I urge the district to make this right,” she said. “And protect our most vulnerable kids.”

Tlapa asked if she could respond.

“I am mortified that this happened to you,” she said. “I hope your daughter has an amazing year. But this is a policy that we need to revamp. I think we need feedback from parents and from people who have been bullied. I’m sorry.”

“I apologize that this is happening,” said board member Mike Hannon. “Thank you very much for sharing your story. It takes courage to come up and speak in front of a lot of people. We will address not just your circumstance, but all bullying that goes on anywhere within our school system.”

Milford resident Karen Mitchell asked for clarification with regard to the filling of Jenni Siegrist’s vacant seat.

“Do you have guidelines that you must follow per the state?” she asked.

“Yes,” answered Carvell. “It is in the board’s authority.”

“Until March,” said Tlapa. “There is the possibility that the four of us could decide to work together and not replace that fifth seat. That’s an option.”

“No, it’s not,” said Carvell.

Tlapa argued that if the board could not come to an agreement, the decision to fill the vacant seat would defect to the selectmen.

“We’re hoping that we can work together to make that decision,” said Tlapa.

“By rules, even if her term was not up in March, this is an interim fill to the election” explained Carvell. “That seat becomes open again. It’s only for the next time. Whoever the board decides to put in, that person is only there until March.”

With the numbers from the last election, Tlapa said people will repeat what they know. That brings some level of comfort.

“I think it would be great if we could find a candidate, who is qualified and has experience, etc., who does not have an intention of running in March,” she said. “Because I feel, that if we seat someone interim, who plans on running in March, that sends an unfair advantage to someone else who may want to step up to the plate and have an opportunity to represent the district. We are not volunteers. We are elected officials. And I’ll tell you what, it’s a hard job.”

Ultimately, Tlapa’s hopes of raising the bar was quickly squashed.

“There’s nothing imperative that we have to vote on between now and the next board meeting,” she said.

“As far as delaying the vote, I totally disagree,” said Hannon. “We need to put someone in today. As I’ve communicated, we need to work on the budget for next year. And we need to think about the students.”

Richard Wood, who has run unsuccessfully in the past, expressed interest in being considered for the vacant seat.

“I understand how the board works,” he said. “I feel like I have the ability to offer what you’re looking for.”

That new business was addressed by Carvell, also mentioning the letter posted online on August 18, announcing the resignation of Siegrist. No synopsis was provided, and no final conclusion was reached by the investigating law firm of Sheehan Phinney.

“It leaves me a little flat,” said board member Kevin Drew.

The board then moved to the filling of the vacant seat, nearly three hours into the night’s meeting.

“Due to the board member resignation, the board, under policy 21:10, is to assign, or elect, or vote a member to fill the seat until March,” said Carvell.

Ultimately, the board teetered on whether to actually fill that vacant seat on Aug. 28. Tlapa was the sole board member who held out, abstaining from voting while the other three members, Carvell, Drew and Hannon voted for Wood. No other candidates were present to proffer their reasons for consideration and the board refused to hold the vote until a special meeting, that could have been held sometime in September before its’ next, regularly scheduled meeting.