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Hot Topics – School Redistricting and Dr. Osunde

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June 24, 2024 – Board of Education Monthly Meeting

The BOE monthly meeting was standing room only, and it was clear after the Public Forum that BOE members who voted to start termination proceedings against Dr. Osunde were perceived as partisan with a preordained agenda, and the acceptance by the board for redistricting was hugely unpopular.

Those speaking (which was limited beforehand in the BOE agenda to the first 10 persons registering) were clear, respectful, and put forth valid questions and suggestions.

Speakers:

Katie Kosinski: my son Ethan just finished his kindergarten year at Wilcoxson. Ethan is no stranger to the school system of Stratford. He was identified for having speech and social delays through the Birth to Three Program, and he attended pre-k at Second Hill Lane School, and had great experience there, and I’m here tonight to voice a few concerns, some optimizations and some questions I have regarding the redistricting. I’ll start with the concerns that I have. I feel like the children of Stratford are being treated like numbers on a ledger versus the tiny human beings they are. I don’t think the various scenarios make enough of an effort to minimize those impacted. Is there an opportunity to re-evaluate so that less children can be affected by this? If the concern really boils down to Johnson being overcrowded and Chapel having capacity, why should children from any other Elementary School be affected? Wouldn’t it be natural and easiest to bus the kids from Johnson to Chapel? Chapel is like four or five minutes from Wilcoxson,  so I see it as a negligible difference in commuting time for those children, so that’s like one question. I’ll move on to optimizations. I’d like to propose, since you were talking about building better for any child entering transitional years, we’re talking 6th, 8th, 12th, I feel like they should remain in their school of origin. It’s unnecessarily disruptive for those children to be ripped from their school at such a pivotal grade for any child with an IEP. Parents should be given the option to waiver them into their school of origin. Children with IEPs have care teams, and care teams take years to develop a good relationship, and those children typically have more anxiety. The most important for me—do you have predictive data that showcases that another redistricting won’t be necessary in the near future? I know that there was one in 2018. I wasn’t in the school district then, but I know that one happened and that seems like not that long ago, so I just wanted to know if you had any predictions? What is the transition plan for the kids who will be moving?  Will there be meet-and-greet orientations? How will this be communicated to our children, since it’s going to be such a big change for the kids that do have to move, and lastly, what does your team do with the apparent concerns proposed, changes, etc? Do you actually discuss them amongst yourselves? 

Bernie Armstrong: Good evening everybody. I’m kind of unique to this situation because you could, just for the record, say I’m actually a school administrator in Bridgeport, so I totally understand redistricting and having different plans. But this affects me in a different way, because of my only daughter when she enters sixth grade.  She has been with her peers at Wilcoxson since kindergarten, she’s a member of the Wilcoxson community that has great experiences in that community. Obviously, a lot of the kids were affected through Covid virtual learning and a lot of different issues of that nature, and so I really would love for those kids to kind of move in that direction and continue in their educational plan. To pull her out of her school track at this point, which is Wilcoxson to Wooster to Stratford, would be unfair, disruptive, and obviously counterproductive. Part of the reason that we bought our home was to be in this particular community, to know what the school pathway was. Obviously, myself being an administrator in schools, my wife being a teacher also, we know how important those things are working together.

Bonnie Reynolds: I do wish that I had more positive things to say. Unfortunately, I’m here to speak about recent decisions the Republican-controlled BOE has made. Both redistricting and the Osunde firing were decisions made in special meetings, which means the public is not able to speak to the topics in a public forum prior to the meeting.  This is a disturbing use of the rules, is underhanded in a corrupt way. The Republicans have used their power over and over again. At the last redistricting question and answer session, the chair stated a forum would be held before a vote was taken. This did not occur, even after strong encouragement from the Democratic minority. The two question and answer meetings held in the special meeting for redistricting were referred to as forums. There were not forums prior to the public meeting, they told constituents specifically weren’t to share their opinions and feelings, but simply bring questions regarding the two options. Regardless of the chair insisting all constituents had enough time to speak to their issues, they did not, based on the chair’s previous promises to have a forum. Having a forum now, once you’ve decided upon option one, is an insult to the public. You fired Dr. Osunde with no clear stated reasoning. The chair stated we may at some point hear why, but we can’t believe this will come to fruition, given past broken promises. This search for any reason to end this employee is something that is beyond comprehension. This decision is not good for our school system—it puts us behind on the progress we have made and puts an interim superintendent in charge of major decisions which will have long-term implications. Our system needs a long-term plan with a long-term leader. We are floundering. Lastly I would like to point out that the Republican-controlled BOE is causing so much uncertainty in our system that we are losing staff to other school systems. Good employees are looking for other jobs, and are trying to jump a sinking ship while our kids drown.

Jennifer Zeni: This is my personal experience, but I think a lot of people can kind of resonate with it. When my son first entered kindergarten five years ago, I learned that Stratford had neighborhood schools and did not provide buses. I had never heard of this before. It was explained that one major reason for this was to save money on busing.  Seemed odd to me at the time, but the thing is, I learned to love it. The time spent dropping off and picking up allowed us to connect with other parents over the years.  We’ve formed relationships with these families. We’ve become a part of the neighborhood school, Wilcoxson, now our community, and that’s all being taken away from us. My children will no longer attend school with their classmates not only for the remainder of elementary school, but not in middle or high school either. Many of these kids have been together forming bonds for the past 5 years. They battled all that was thrown at them during the pandemic, like remote learning. These kids have a special bond and have been through enough. And it’s not only the kids that it’s affecting. Not being a Stratford native, we have no local family to lean on. We’ve spent the past several years getting to know our school Community, forming trusted relationships, which isn’t an easy task. It takes time to build these relationships, to feel safe having your kids spend time with someone outside of your family. A perfect example—just this morning I woke up to a flat tire and who did I call? Another Wilcoxson Mom, and she didn’t hesitate to come scoop up my kids and take them to camp for me. We count on these people to help us out when in need because, well, as they say—it takes Village. I understand that some of Stratford schools are overcrowded and need to be rebalanced, but what I’m asking is for you to consider how many families you’re ripping from their community in this process. Why wouldn’t you choose a plan that affects the least amount of kids as possible. Why wouldn’t you choose a plan that requires less buses instead of pulling kids from multiple schools and shuffling them around town? Why not move kids from the overcrowded schools to Chapel, as that’s the underutilized school?

Heather Lucello:  I’m hopeful that the board will be open to considering the input of parents before confirming an implementation plan for the redistricting. In looking at scenario one and the current imbalance of percentage utilization in our elementary schools, it’s plain to see that large numbers of students need to move out of Johnson, and Chapel is in need of large numbers of students to move in. While having to move the Johnson House students again is incredibly unfair and upsetting, they simply don’t have the space to decrease the number of students impacted by the redistricting, which I believe was one of the guiding principles. Why not move all of the Johnson House children directly to Chapel? When I posed this question to the board chair, some of the responses I have gotten have been “we want to be fair to all kids”. It goes without saying that this is incredibly unfair to the students in the Johnson House district. Time and time again they have been moved out of and back into their neighborhood schools. When the district demagnetized the academy and redistricted back in 2018, the public  spoke out with the facts that this plan would backfire and their pleas went unheard. Additionally, the unfortunate outcome of an insufficient school budget required the difficult decision to transition Vicki Soto from a lower elementary school to a preschool at that time as well. As such, the newest and most beautiful school in town was closed off to that neighborhood as their lower elementary path, and further compounded the class size issue at Johnson. No one disagrees that this is incredibly unfair to the Johnson House neighborhood. However, it doesn’t make it any more fair to them to double the amount of students by moving 71 students out of Wilcoxson, to move 68 Johnson House students. Another response I got was that sending Johnson students directly to Chapel is too long of a bus drive. This response doesn’t seem to make sense because the time it takes to travel from the Wilcoxson Bus Loop to the Chapel Bus Loop is about 5 minutes. Unfortunately, the Johnson students have to get on a bus regardless. In speaking of bus routes, by moving 71 Wilcoxson students, the district will have the added cost of a minimum of two additional buses.  Another response I got was we need better racial balance. The plan you selected from SLAM doesn’t impact racial balance numbers. Another response was we need to balance the numbers better.  We’re talking about the difference of three students—68 Johnson House students in, 71 Wilcoxson students out, and I think it goes without saying that that rationale is preposterous. Please listen to the parents this time. If hindsight is 20-20, just simply look back to what took place in 2018. Given that we’re currently in step three of the redistricting plan, which includes further analysis refinement and public input, please tweak this plan to allow the Wilcoxson students to remain, consider waivers for extenuating circumstances, save money on busing Wilcoxson and use that money to enhance all of our students’ educational opportunities.

Andrea Corcoran: I have so many feelings around the decision that the majority of this board made last week regarding the contract of Dr. Osunde.  I’m disappointed, I’m concerned, I’m disgusted, I’m sad. I’m not, unfortunately, shocked. Many of us knew that this was an inevitability, a punishment for a leader who stood up for our students and who didn’t bend to the will of those in power. As Board of Ed, members it is your stated purpose—and I quote your bylaws here: “to improve the education of our children, provide for their safety, and to advocate for them and their best interests”. It remains unclear to me how this investigation, this vote, has improved the education of our children. I’m not sure how it has provided for their safety, nor is it evident to me how this is in the best interest of my student, or the other nearly 7,000 Stratford public school students. I do know that this investigation and its related legal fees have cost the district hundreds of thousands of dollars. I can think of so many other things that these resources could be directed to that would better serve our schools and students.  Moreover, I’m deeply concerned about the broader implications of this decision on our District’s reputation and our ability to attract and retain talented professionals. Respect for employees and a supportive work environment are crucial for maintaining a thriving educational community. These principles have not been showcased over the course of the past six months. I have said this publicly before, but it bears being repeated: In my capacity as former Board of Education chair, I worked with Dr. Osunde for over two years. I can attest firsthand to his unwavering commitment to our students’ well-being and his dedication to inclusivity and collaboration within our community. I would be very pleased to see him leading our district again. I remain hopeful that our community will continue to advocate for what is right and just for our students and educators alike. It is my sincere hope that this board majority will begin to prioritize the well-being of our students and the integrity of our district over political allegiance to one party and its local leader. Our students deserve your allegiance more.

Ken Pew:  As a long-standing member of this community who cherishes every aspect of Stratford, I must express my deep disappointment and embarrassment in light of the recent decision to initiate termination of Dr. Osunde. Over the past six months I observed with great concern how certain members of this board, primarily from the Republican Party, have orchestrated a relentless campaign to tarnish the reputation of our esteemed school superintendent. Initially citing his suspension in connection to an arrest which failed to achieve their desired outcome, they proceeded to launch a baseless and far-reaching investigation. What was the true motive behind this unjust investigation? Were our children at risk? Was there evidence of severe neglect of duties? Did the district fail to meet or exceed standards under Dr. Osunde’s leadership, or was this merely a ploy to remove him from his position to install someone more amenable to your preferences and ideologies? It is evident that the attempt was never to reinstate Dr. Osunde. The board has made significant appointments to his team without his consultation, clearly aiming to replace his supporters with individuals who align closely with their own agenda. The departure of three prominent staff members of color under this Administration raises serious concerns about inclusivity and equity within our educational system. I urge the board to reconsider its actions and prioritize the well-being and success of our students and community above personal agendas. It is crucial that decisions affecting our schools are made with transparency, fairness, and genuine commitment to serving the best interests of all stakeholders. Mr. Chairman, you said at the beginning of this meeting ‘bring something positive to the table’. I ask you, is it positive to terminate Dr. Osunde? Is that a positive move? Does that help our children? To the Republican members, does this help our children, does this help this community heal? It does not, so I throw it right back at you—let’s not tear down, let’s build up.

Janice Cupee:  I am beyond disheartened by you four Republican board members. To say that I am disappointed would imply that I had hope and high expectations to begin with. Embarrassed is a more appropriate word. You have misused your power and your hatred for an educated and respected black man to remove him from a position because your Masters told you to. It is no secret that you and Republican Masters have wanted Dr. Osunde gone from the beginning. Since his hiring, you’ve been purporting that he had no experience as a superintendent, yet you put him on administrative leave only to put someone without a superintendent certification or any experience as a superintendent to fill his position. Your hypocrisy and discrimination are glaring, your investigation was baseless. It was an egregious waste of taxpayer money and a blatant act of discrimination. You have attempted to tarnish Dr. Osunde’s reputation from the beginning. The investigation and your party line vote exposes your partisan motives behind this Witch Hunt and administrative lynching. You have now chased away all of our black employees who held leadership positions in the district, from the superintendent, to the assistant superintendent, and the DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) supervisor. Lord knows who else. Every year parents show up and literally beg to fund our schools, yet how quickly you have been able to divert funds from important educational services to finance this bogus investigation and pay legal fees for yourselves against the racial discrimination lawsuit. Before I close I need to also say this, because it’s has been annoying me for a while: Mr. O’Brien, why do you sit up there and agree with everything that Mr. Henrik suggests? Don’t you see that you’re basically an automatic yes vote? Mr. Kennedy, you’ve been on the board for 3 years and I don’t think you’ve said more than a hundred words in all those years. Is this what you want your legacy to be? When will both of you stand up for what you believe in. It is time you speak up and stop letting bullies destroy our schools and our town. Stratford residents, let’s recall these four irresponsible board members.

William Boyd:  At the beginning of the meeting you open up in prayer. I’m a prayerful man, grew up in church. It’s needless—prayer is only to lead from the heart and do what’s right. That seemed not to be the case here. Secondly, you had asked us to bring something positive to change. Just that little transition shows there’s an attitude that’s disconnected from the people here who are trying to come with open arms, saying hey, what is going on? There seems to be an attitude of entitlement and an edict from somewhere in town, not to say who, but an edict that you must carry out a plan regardless of the plan of the people who have elected you. Now I’m sure Republican and Democrat people have children, they are taxpayers, they want the best for the town because the BOE does affect the Town Council, affects the tax base, affects the grand list which then affects funding, so if you have a cog in the town that’s creating so much havoc, it’s going to create havoc in other parts of the Town. People move here to have a strong school system. You can’t have a strong school system if you have constant change and consternation. I was here when they decentralized or demagnetized Johnson House. We said this is not going to work. It’s proven it did not work, so again we’re back at the same spot where you’re just shuffling kids as just numbers, as someone said earlier.  And as the gentleman said, as Janice said, as I said, you gave Dr. Osunde a raise in 2022. It was 4 to 3 then, Republicans reluctant at best, and it was a one-year extension. That same 4 to3 seems to keep playing itself out, almost like there’s a playbook beyond the gentleman’s job performance. There seems to be “we’re going to do this regardless of that”. Unfortunately, as we all know, you guys had a board member that was convicted as a sexual deviant — you wouldn’t even ask him to leave.  This gentleman (Dr. Osunde) was doing his job. Again, as I’m a man of faith, we all make mistakes. That day he made a mistake, but it wasn’t a conviction with the police department—they threw it out. So are you saying that the board has judged him, that event is above criminal behavior which they didn’t see? So it seems like you’re operating on your own playbook that none of us seem to understand. Just saying, you’ve already set your stamp from the beginning with Dr. Osunde.

Christopher Green:  Last November’s election, Stratford voters elected two Democrats and one Republican to the school board. While this gave Republicans the one seat needed to assume control, it was certainly not a vote that justifies the one-sided approach that has been taken by the Republican majority. From the start of this term I’ve watched with dismay as past precedents of shared leadership on the BOE have been abandoned. All of the leadership positions of this board and all committee chair positions are now occupied by Republicans. I would highlight the curriculum committee, where rather than reappointing Lisa Caroll-Fabian, a career educator, or Chris Cormier, also a career educator who isn’t even on the committee, the Republicans instead appointed someone who hadn’t even won their last BOE election to chair entering into the teacher contract negotiation. The BOE majority has continued to deny Democrat counterparts a seat at this important table for shaping the future of our schools. Stratford Republicans often complain about the audacity of those accusing them of racism, and yet the number of times I’ve seen Stratford Republicans scoff, roll their eyes, or express other obvious forms of disdain when confronted with calls to recognize the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion in this community is way too high.   Having friends that are members of a community or attending a flag raising does not mean that you can’t in important ways, conscious or unconscious, still be acting on the basis of bias against racial or other protected classes. I would like to believe that not all of the Republicans named in Dr. Osunde’s lawsuit are consciously racist. I hope that those who are not are doing some deep reflecting on the contents of that filing, and what that public information says about you. I hope you are also reflecting on the optics of your actions. Since that filing, you chose to expand the investigation into your superintendent well beyond its initial parameters, into areas that should be handled by a standard performance evaluation, not private investigators and lawyers. You have now voted with minimal public justification to begin proceeding with his termination. Stratford schools now have more than 70% students of color, and our staff and leadership continues to lag in adequate and reflective representation. Less than 15% of SPS teachers are of color. This year SPS has already lost their assistant superintendent of color, and a supervisor of equity and inclusion engagement, who is a black Stratford resident. The closest role I could find to that, since it was eliminated because you’ve shuffled your titles, was ‘Supervisor of Innovation and Engagement’—equity and inclusion have literally been removed from the equation. None of you are eligible for re-election, but I hope as a matter of principle you consider the perceptions and will of the community of which you serve. I hope you consider the significance of your voice and your decisions. I hope you look carefully at the information presented and do what you know to be right for the future of our town. In the words of Sherrilyn Kenyon, who wrote one of my daughter’s favorite books, “just because you can doesn’t mean that you should”.

Mike Suntag: CARE has been an ally and collaborator with the school system for over 16 years. We have worked to find qualified teachers and administrators of color, and we have worked to help insure that our children of color and all children have the resources they need to be successful. Isn’t it ironic that both efforts have been undercut by members of this Board. Given that the Superintendent of Schools, a Black man of quality, the Assistant Superintendent of schools, a Black woman – fired, the Director of DEI and the community outreach person, both black women leaving the school system, and other educators who don’t feel they can stay in this system any longer because they don’t feel they are supported. This sends an obvious message to the community and to our kids that this is not a supportive environment for them or for their educators. What quality educator of color would come into this environment. I am not saying that only white educators can teach our kids. I am saying that our children in the system, the 74 percent children of color need to see educators that look like them to let them know that they can aspire to higher things. That has been undercut. I have much respect for the educators and administrators and teachers in Stratford—they’ve done wonderful things, given the stress and the chaos they are working under. And equity of resources – budget cut, Alpha program destroyed, librarians and reading specialists cut. All while spending thousands of dollars of our taxpayers money on a shadow investigation that could have been handled by the customary work evaluation of a Superintendent, counseling and support usually offered to a Superintendent by a Board. A case that was nulled by the prosecutor and extinguished by the judge is being used as an excuse for a suspicious investigation and now putting us in the throes of a Federal suit. Perceptions become realities, and so we request that the Board gets back to its primary task, to insure that every child get the resources and education they need to be successful, and to remove itself (the Stratford Public School System) from the Alliance designation. We request answers, facts, and a chance for community input in the ousting of our superintendent and community input into any new hires, as well as the issue of redistricting scenarios. We remain available to work with the schools to achieve these goals, as community involvement was a focus of the schools strategic plan for this last school year. That is another irony.

 Olga Pena: Today I had a very tough time trying to figure out whether I should speak or not. My kids have gone through the school system and are young adults. I’ve been with CARE and on the education action team. I’m also co-chair for the Hispanic Heritage Committee, and the decisions that have been made recently I feel are an impact to our children, but more so an impact to the taxpayer. From my estimation (listening to the meetings online) we’re into lawyer fees of about $300,000 to $500,000, including the salary to Asunde and the salary stipend to the Acting Superintendent. My question is, do we expect to spend more tax dollars to accrue more law fees for this? You know when you say ‘bring something to the table’, my thing is settle. Settle with Dr. Asunde, reinstate him. I thought maybe it was a done deal, but maybe it’s not a done deal, nothing is ever a done deal, we all know that. I think that if we settle with Asunde, we could use those dollars to bring more support to the teachers in the classroom. There are a lot of problems in the middle schools and I think that those teachers need to be supported. These children that have been shuffled around, they’re going to be shuffled around again, and as someone said before, the last redistricting I told them this is not going to work for certain reasons, and that’s exactly right. They didn’t save any money. So again, I ask this board to please reconsider what we’re doing, spending money that really, you know, could go into thousands and millions possibly with a lawsuit. Just settle. Bring it to the table and be big boys and girls and do it, because at the end of the day, it only benefits the community. CARE stands for Citizens Addressing Racial Equity, I came up with the tagline Building Bridges for a Stronger Stratford. I don’t see a stronger Stratford in the future. I see a Stratford that’s being divided, and that should not be that way.

First on the agenda following the Public Response was a review of the Strategic Operating Plan Data for the 2023-2024 School Year which focused on:

  • academic achievement (Bunnell High School 75.3% of students who took the fall 2023 PSAT and the spring 2024 SAT showed an overall increase in their score;  Stratford High School also demonstrated progress 71.2% of students who took the PSATs in the fall improved their score)
  • attendance Improvement (our rate of students being chronically absent has decreased from 28% to 19.5%)
  • behavioral impactions (out of school suspensions by more than half, lowered the percentage at the bottom of students that get a repeat suspension from 15.3% last year down to 12%)

They represent the heart of SPS to provide a nurturing and effective educational environment. Not all data has been released at this point. There was no data from  SBAC (Connecticut Smarter Balanced assessments aligned to Connecticut Core Standards in English language arts/literacy and mathematics) or SAT data, and it was not complete and released by the state at this point.

For an in-depth breakdown of the Strategic Operating Plan Data charts and graphs covering middle and elementary schools go to: https://www.youtube.com/live/Abp_AoFErC0

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