North Branford Town Council Seeks Assurances Regarding Education Board Policy Changes
At the North Branford Town Council meeting on Feb. 20 (l-r): council members Al Rose, Anthony Candelora, Robert Viglione, Mayor Michael Doody, Deputy Mayor Rose Marie Angeloni and council members Thomas Zampano, Joseph Faughnan, Marie Diamond and George Miller. (Photo by Pam Johnson/The Sound)
While the Board of Education (BOE) recently voted to correct past actions, revise policies and adopt new policy language – including, in no uncertain terms, that the board chair is not authorized to act alone as the "will of the board," -- the Town Council is seeking further assurances.
By state statute, town boards of education, in matters not involving strictly budgetary concerns, act as agents of the state. Governed by state statute, the board sets its own policy and oversees public education in the district. The BOE's annual budgets is subject to Town Council review and modification each fiscal year, as part of the annual town budget process. The Town Council also acts as North Branford's Finance Board.
In past years, and, most recently, during the summer of 2017, past BOE chairs have made decisions as the "will of the board" without a full board vote; each time reportedly acting on the advice of the BOE attorney's interpretation of BOE policy. The actions have had financial impacts and raised questions from the Town Council.
The recent BOE policy changes and votes stemmed from financial issues impacting the town which were questioned by the council, including past board chair Philip Dahlmeyer acting as the will of the board in June 2017 to approve approximately $3,500 in pay to the school's Superintendent for unused 2016-17 vacation days. While examining that issue, the Town Council also raised questions on a 2015 superintendent's contract change, made by the BOE chair without a full board vote. The change eliminated the superintendent's cost-payment share of his non-union administrator's health plan premium, instead charging that cost to the district.
In the fall of 2017, the council voted to take the BOE's 2017 and 2015 actions to the Office of the Chief State's Attorney for further review. However, on Dec. 5, 2017, on advice of town attorney Vincent Marino, the refrained from that action and instead turned the investigation back to the BOE.
That ultimately resulted in the latest policy changes and actions of the BOE. Even though the BOE has responded by making the changes, on Feb. 20, following a suggestion from councilman Al Rose (R), the council's consensus was to have attorney Marino contact the BOE's attorney, William Connon, to seek answers to a few more questions.
"I think we need to either act on this or not, and get that cloud off of the Board of Education and the superintendent," said Rose. "What I'm going to be looking for is for the Town Council to direct our town attorney to look into a couple of things."
Rose said he hoped the discussion between the town attorney and BOE attorney would clear up whether the BOE attorney did, in fact, advise past BOE chairs that they could act as the "will of the board."
Rose also said he felt it wasn't best for boards to vote "in arrears" to correct past actions, even though it is a legally acceptable practice, according to the town attorney. He noted the corrective approach has been taken in the past by other BOE's, notably in 2011, and then only after the Town Council raised questions.
Rose also pointed out policy changes can be made by future boards, including those which could undo the current board's latest actions. Additionally, he asked for better checks and balances when the BOE authorizes financial administration of its decisions. North Branford's school budget expenditures and payroll are managed by the district's finance department, which is separate from the town government's finance department.
"I know the board changed some language and took out some things like 'the will of the board' ...but one of things that really bothers me is, how does payroll pay somebody?" asked Rose. "We heard [prior to 2015] the superintendent didn't have a copay on his insurance; but his contract never said that until 2015. Doesn't payroll have to follow somebody's contract? Was somebody telling payroll to ignore the contract? Other than that, I'd like [the attorneys] to look at the corrections and see if [the BOE] can do this again. I need to be reassured."
Council members discussed the idea before coming to a consensus. Deputy Mayor Rose Marie Angeloni (R) also felt future boards could make policy changes, so having the new changes in place now is not a guarantee. George Miller (D) and Marie Diamond (D) agreed future policy changes could occur; but both also felt the current BOE had made great strides by changing its policies and procedures and would adhere to the new policy.
While the Town Council can't direct BOE actions, Diamond noted the board has several newer members and suggested the town attorney also bring the idea that the BOE receive some guidance on their responsibilities from experts with the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education (CABE) or the State Board of Education.
"I know we don't have the right to say this ... but if somebody from CABE or the State Board of Education came down and gave a workshop for those folks, because they are so new; and have it be someone other than the current board attorney... I think that would help," said Diamond.
The BOE is made up of seven elected members serving staggered terms. On January 16, the Town Council appointed D
emocrat Vincent J. Mase, Sr. to the BOE to fill a seat vacated by Dianne Vumback (D), for a term which expires November 12, 2019. Vumback served for four years and left due to family opportunities, as stated in her Jan. 5 resignation letter.
Most recently, effective February 16, Sara Querfeld, a Republican who had been elected BOE chair in September 2017, resigned from the board for personal reasons.
In a resignation letter received by the Town Clerk's office on Feb. 15, Querfeld stated, "I've been honored to serve on the Board of Education for the past several years and am confident the current board of education will continue to seek excellence in our schools."
On Feb. 20, the Town Council voted unanimously to appoint Cynthia Rice (R) to the BOE to fill Querfeld's vacant seat, for a term to expire November 12, 2019.