Thursday, May 30, 2024

Lawsuit Charges Loyalty to Republican Party Interests Supersedes Best Interests of Students

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By Barbara Heimlich
Editor

On April 10th attorneys for Dr. Uyi Osunde filed suit in Federal Court in New Haven.  Dr. Osunde is suing:

MICHAEL HENRICK, in his individual and official capacities; SEAN KENNEDY, in his individual and official capacities; KRISTEN BEDELL, in her individual and official capacities; WILLIAM O’BRIEN, in his individual and official capacities; and the STRATFORD BOARD OF EDUCATION, Defendants.

The 32-page document alleges multiple disturbing incidents involving Henrick, Kennedy, Bedell, O’Brien, Mayor Laura Hoydick, State Senator Kevin Kelly, and Lou DeCillo.

The Stratford Crier has taken salient points directly from the complaint, as we believe that these allegations should be made public but not distorted by social or other media. A link to view the entire lawsuit is below.

Dr. Osunde filed the suit as he believes that:

  • Motivated by unlawful reasons, Defendants have abused their authority and kept Dr. Osunde on “administrative leave” for months while they have wasted taxpayer funds pursuing a specious “investigation” against Dr. Osunde.
  •  Defendants have also manufactured, publicly disclosed, and/or ratified, numerous pretextual justifications for their continued refusal to allow Dr.Osunde to return to work and to continue their discriminatory and retaliatory investigation against Dr. Osunde.
  • Defendants have violated Plaintiff’s statutory and constitutional rights under federal and state law, and caused significant harm to Plaintiff.
  • Defendants should be enjoined from continuing to violate Plaintiff’s rights and held accountable for their actions.

The student population of the Stratford Public Schools is currently very diverse along many socioeconomic lines, including with respect to race, color, ethnicity, religion, language, background, and economic privilege.

More than 74% of the students attending Stratford Public Schools are students of color, and they speak approximately 50 different languages.

The student population of the Stratford Public Schools is not only incredibly diverse; the diversity of the student population in the Stratford Public Schools is also increasing rapidly. For instance, in just the last few years, the percentage of students of color in the Stratford Public Schools has increased by more than ten percent.

In about 2023, the Stratford Public Schools was identified as the fourth most diverse school district in Connecticut.

Perceived Timelines in Complaint

March 2021 – Previously Constituted BOE Hires Plaintiff as Superintendent

In 2020, the previous Superintendent of the Stratford Public Schools, Janet Robinson, announced that she would retire as Superintendent at the conclusion of the 2020-2021 academic year, after eight years in the position.

  • The BoE and its members at the time then began a search for a new Superintendent of Schools. The BOE’s search process involved an outside recruitment firm and was a rigorous and competitive process.
  • On March 25, 2021, after the conclusion of the search process, the BoE and its members at the time voted unanimously to hire Plaintiff as the next Superintendent of the Stratford Public Schools.
  • All of the members of the BoE who voted to hire Plaintiff as the Superintendent on March 25, 2021 were no longer serving on the BoE as of December 2023.

Fall 2021 Election Cycle – Republican Slate Organizes to “Take Back” the BOE:

In connection with the Fall 2021 election cycle, just months after the previously constituted BOE hired Plaintiff as the new Superintendent of Schools, the leadership of the Stratford Republicans organized a slate of new candidates to run for election to the BOE as Republicans.

The 2021 slate of Republican candidates was led by Defendant Henrick, and also included Defendant Bedell and Defendant Kennedy.  As part of the Fall 2021 election cycle, Defendant Henrick, Defendant Bedell, and Defendant Kennedy, were promoted as being members of Laura Hoydick’s “team,” or “Team Hoydick,” a reference to Stratford’s Republican mayor, Laura Hoydick.

The Fall 2021 campaigns on behalf of Defendants Henrick, Bedell, and Kennedy, were all managed, organized, coordinated, and funded, by the leadership and apparatus of the Stratford Republican Town Committee and the Stratford Republicans.

As one illustration of how closely the 2021 campaigns for the Republican slate of Defendants Henrick, Bedell, and Kennedy were managed and coordinated by the partisan apparatus of the Republican Party in Stratford, on October 22, 2021, the Chair of the Stratford Republican Town Committee, Louis DeCilio, issued a single press release declaring that Defendants Henrick, Bedell, and Kennedy, would all be refusing to participate in a public forum organized by the Greater Bridgeport League of Women Voters because, Mr. DeCilio alleged, the League of Women Voters had required proof of vaccination status for members of the public to attend other forums in a different town other than Stratford and had selected moderators for other public forums in a town other than Stratford who, allegedly according to Mr. DeCilio, were partisan elected Democrats.

Plaintiff Discovers Town of Stratford Decreasing Funding for BOE as Student Diversity Increases; Henrick and DeCilio Publicly Attack Plaintiff

  • In the Spring of 2022, still in his first year as Superintendent in Stratford, Dr. Osunde identified a disturbing pattern in which the Town of Stratford decreased the percentage of funding that it provided to the Stratford Public Schools over the prior years as the percentage of students of color in the Stratford school system increased.
  • Dr. Osunde raised concerns about this on several occasions with Town officials and with BOE members. As part of those communications, Dr. Osunde also expressed concern that there was a causal association between the Town decreasing its percentage of funding to the Stratford Public Schools and the increasing racial diversity of the students in the school district.
  • As part of Dr. Osunde’s discussions concerning the Town decreasing the percentage of its funding for the Stratford Public Schools, Plaintiff also expressed concerns about how students would be negatively impacted by the Town decreasing the percentage of its funding to the public schools, compounding the impact of the pandemic on student learning and specifically the disproportionate impact on the more than 70% of students who identify as students of color — who data shows, are more likely to have experienced a more pronounced and enduring achievement gap.
  • It was also a cause of concern because the Stratford Public Schools had been designated as an Alliance school district by the Connecticut Department of Education, meaning it was one of the lowest 36 performing school districts in the State, based on the school district’s performance in the years preceding the pandemic, and preceding Plaintiff’s appointment as Superintendent.
  •  By decreasing the percentage of funding that the Town provided to the public schools, the Town impacted the resources, support, and programs that the school district was able to provide to support student learning and improvement objectives. Research affirms that there is a direct connection between the quality of education that a student receives and their overall health and well-being.

After Dr. Osunde raised concerns about the Town of Stratford decreasing its percentage of funding to the Stratford Public Schools, multiple individuals reported back to Plaintiff that Republican members of the BOE and Republican officials in Town government were upset with Dr. Osunde because they believed that he made the Republican Mayor, Laura Hoydick, “look bad.”

Loyalty to Republican Party Interests Supersedes Best Interests of Students

November 2021

  • After Defendants Henrick, Bedell, and Kennedy were elected to the BOE in November 2021, the BOE members needed to organize in December 2021 and elect members to serve as Chair, Vice-Chair, and Secretary.
  • At that time, in December 2021, the BOE included the three Republican members who ran in 2021 on the same slate, Defendants Henrick, Bedell, and Kennedy, in addition to Andrea Corcoran and Amy Wiltsie, who were elected in 2019 as members affiliated with the Republican Party, and Janice Cupee and Lisa Carroll-Fabian, members affiliated with the Democratic Party and who were elected in 2019 and 2021, respectively.
  • In December 2021, Defendants Henrick, Bedell, and Kennedy voted for Defendant Henrick to serve as Board Chair, while the remaining four members voted for Andrea Corcoran to serve as Board Chair – resulting in Defendant Henrick’s defeat.

January 2022

  • In January 2022, Andrea Corcoran and Amy Wiltsie officially changed their party affiliation from Republican to unaffiliated.
  • In February 2022, the following quote was attributed to Amy Wiltsie by a member of the media who reported on Wiltsie’s change in party affiliation from Republican to

     unaffiliated: “This decision came when I felt the expectations of my role as a party member superseded that of my work acting in the best interest of Stratford students.” (emphasis added.)

Spring of 2022

  • In the Spring of 2022 Dr. Osunde learned that the Connecticut General Assembly inserted a provision that became Section 491 of Public Act 22-118, approved on May 7, 2022, which exempted only one town in the entire State of Connecticut, the Town of Stratford, from the obligation to comply with the Minimum Budget Requirement (MBR) that requires Connecticut towns to provide at least the amount of funding to the local school district that was provided in the previous year – absent the satisfaction of certain requirements.
  • Plaintiff was shocked to learn about this Stratford-specific MBR exemption because he, as the Superintendent of Schools, and the Chair of the BOE at the time, had been excluded from discussions, which led to this Stratford-specific MBR exemption being included in the legislation.
  • When Osunde asked questions about how Stratford could have secured that Stratford- specific exemption from the General Assembly, Plaintiff was told that it was likely through the involvement of state Senator Kevin Kelly, the Republican Minority Leader at that time whose state senate district includes Stratford and who has close ties to Stratford’s Republican Mayor, Laura Hoydick, her administration, and other leaders of the Stratford Republicans.

Editor’s Note: The Stratford Crier contacted a CT State Representative to ask how did this happen?  How did this slip by Stratford representatives?  And the answer is: Stratford was newly an Alliance District that year and Senator Kelly mistakenly thought that meant Stratford would need to go below the MBR.

  • After learning of the Stratford-specific exemption that allowed only the Town of Stratford to avoid complying with MBR requirements for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2023, Plaintiff raised concerns about how the Stratford Public Schools, and its teachers, staff, and students, would be negatively impacted if the Town failed to provide the level of funding that would be required by the MBR.
  • It was also concerning to Plaintiff that the Stratford-specific exemption to the MBR was adopted after Plaintiff began discussing the disturbing pattern of the Town decreasing the percentage of its funding for the public schools during the same period of time that the racial diversity of the students in the schools increased.

May 2022

  • Defendant Henrick and Louis DeCilio, the Chairman of the Stratford Republicans, perceived Plaintiff as a Democrat and incorrectly perceived that Plaintiff was taking actions for political purposes to harm the political standing of Republican elected officials who represented Stratford.
  • On May 9, 2022, Defendant Henrick and Louis DeCilio both attacked Plaintiff during the public forum portion of the Stratford Town Council meeting.

Editors Note:  The Stratford Crier published an article detailing the event which can be found at https://stratfordcrier.com/henricks-bully-pulpit/.  The YouTube video of the Town Council meeting can be found at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7-nE55HpI0o

  • On May 9, 2022, Defendant Henrick publicly, and falsely, claimed that Plaintiff had engaged in “fear mongering” with respect to statements regarding school closures.

In addition, as part of his May 9, 2022, public remarks, Defendant Henrick made the following statements leveling additional false accusations against Plaintiff:

“[Plaintiff’s] inappropriate remarks claiming nefarious activities surrounding the MBR were uncalled for – instead of seeking the truth about the work of state senator Kevin Kelly, he chose to lash out in a despicable manner leveling false claims and besmirching our hard-working elected officials — when in truth Mr. Kelly’s actions ensured taxpayers weren’t victims of unintended financial consequences of the legislation.”

  • Contrary to Henrick’s untrue statements, Plaintiff did not make negative statements about state senator Kelly claiming that he engaged in nefarious activities. In making these false accusations, Defendant Henrick accused Plaintiff of engaging in political speech against a Republican state senator with close ties to Republican officials in Stratford that Plaintiff did not make.
  • Louis DeCilio, the Chairman of the Stratford Republicans, spoke soon after Henrick and falsely claimed that Plaintiff was trying to “intimidate” and “scare” through “threats” and “bullying.”
  • When Defendant Henrick and Louis DeCilio presented their remarks to the Stratford Town Council on May 9, 2022, Defendant O’Brien was present as an elected member of the Town Council.
  • The racist undercurrent of the language and tone used by Defendant Henrick and Louis DeCilio was obvious to Plaintiff, a Black man who stands at six feet three inches tall and approximately 250 pounds.
  • Nine days later, on May 18, 2022, Plaintiff addressed various issues as part of a Stratford Public Schools Town Hall meeting that was available for viewing online. As part of that meeting, Plaintiff offered remarks that he qualified as him speaking as someone who pours all of his energy into this work, and Plaintiff made clear that he did not make any threats and that the “two individuals” who spoke about Plaintiff at the May 9, 2022 meeting were lying. In addition, Plaintiff called out the racism that he recognized and said, as part of his remarks:

“I heard phrases like fear mongering, intimidating and all of those different things. And for those of you who have been around for a long time, let’s call it what it is – That’s a tired narrative that in some spaces is often times associated with a Black man. And there is no space for that. Take that stuff and please, take it somewhere else.”

Editor’s Note:  The Stratford Public Schools Town Hall may be found on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JL6km5LuWaE

  • Five days later, during a Board of Education meeting on May 23, 2022, Defendant Henrick attempted to ambush Plaintiff with antagonistic questions based on inflammatory allegations and incorrect information, including about an alleged attempted stabbing at Stratford High School. When Osunde requested that Henrick provide the source of the information about the alleged attempted stabbing at Stratford High School so that he could address the issue, Henrick refused.
  • Osunde had also heard from certain officials in Stratford that certain Republican officials in Stratford had made statements making clear that they were determined to remove Plaintiff from his position as Superintendent.
  • It was also reported that Defendant Henrick made a statement that the only reason that Plaintiff was hired was because he is a “Black jock.”

June 2022

Dr. Osunde met with the BOE to discuss the evaluation of his performance as Superintendent for the 2021-2022 school year.  Dr. Osunde provided information and documentation demonstrating the progress that had been made during his first year as Superintendent towards the goals that had been established.

In the written evaluation of Plaintiff’s performance as Superintendent for the 2021-2022 school year, then Board Chair Andrea Corcoran included the following:

Board Chair Commendations:

Dr. Osunde offered the board a strong presentation of his goals, including artifacts to support what has been accomplished over the course of the past year. The board’s general consensus is that Dr. Osunde is a strong communicator who has shown passion and conviction for his work. He has listened to stakeholders and uses this feedback, along with data and research, to make informed decisions for the Stratford Public Schools, always with the students in mind. The board recognizes the foundational work that he has done this year will pave the way for improvement in the years to come.

 School Board Chair Comments:

Dr. Osunde has shown much progress towards his set goals during the 21-22 school year.  The Strategic Operating Plan that was created during this period creates a road map for the Stratford Public Schools for the next three years and supports Dr. Osunde’s and the board’s vision for the future of our schools. Communication with all stakeholders has improved since he joined the district in July and the impacts of this can be seen from the involvement of families at town hall meetings to the open and transparent budget process.

  • In June 2022, the BOE, as it was constituted at that time, voted 4 to 3 in favor of extending Plaintiff’s contract, and Plaintiff’s base salary as Superintendent was increased by approximately 5 percent.
  • Defendants Henrick, Bedell, and Kennedy, all voted against extending Plaintiff’s contract.

February 2023: Plaintiff Warned to Stop “Poking the Bear” After He Presented Data to BOE Regarding Increasing Racial Diversity of Students and Town’s Decreasing Percentage of Funding for Schools

As part of Plaintiff’s February 6, 2023 presentation to the BOE Finance Committee, Plaintiff also expressed concerns about the Stratford-specific exemption to the MBR that had been enacted by the General Assembly the previous year, including the following:

. . . In full transparency, I think this has been a conversation topic dating back to last spring, last winter. I know it probably has not been spoken about publicly, but its nonetheless something that I think this Committee, and this Board, has to be able to discuss. This idea of the MBR, which is the Minimum Budget Requirement . . . All of the things that we were just talking about . . . If executed, the MBR [exemption] can nullify that . . . It’s a sensitive topic, but I think its a sensitive topic that we cannot avoid .

. . For us here in Stratford, we are the only community who has an exemption, financially, across the State.  Im confident that we have friends of public education within our Town administration, within our Town Council, and I know that we certainly have that here on the Board. So, I would go on the record and state that I will be shocked, incredibly shocked, and disappointed, if the MBR exemption is actually executed in this budget. And I say that because of the insidious and destructive capabilities that it has on the public schools.  What the MBR says is that we can go below the appropriation of the previous year. What that effectively does is resets the ceiling. Its problematic and I would guess that continuing the MBR exemption is not with the intention of trimming things by 150 grand or perhaps maybe half a million dollars. Its problematic, OK. What is potentially even more concerning is its timing because if it coincides directly with the fiscal cliff, it can amplify the problem for us here in Stratford and there is no way to get around it. Theres an implication if its executed, it plays out for every budget cycle for the next 10 years because the ceiling was reset. It ultimately becomes the burden for a new Board, a new Town Council, it becomes a burden for our staff, it becomes a burden for our children, it becomes a burden for our taxpayers. I will say again that I would be shocked if the MBR [exemption] is executed this year because to me it sends a clear message about the perspective of public education in our community. . . .

September 2023  Plaintiff Enforces BOE Policy About Electioneering; DeCilio Accuses Plaintiff of Acting With Political Purpose and Bias Against Republicans, and Gratuitously Attacks Plaintiff

  • In September 2023, it was reported to Osunde that an individual who was running for elected office on the Stratford Town Council as a Republican was handing out documents with a campaign logo on school property, in violation of BOE policy, to people attending a football game. The BOE policy in question prohibited political activity of that nature on school property, and it had been adopted by the BOE years before Plaintiff was hired as Superintendent.

Editors Note:  The subject given the notice was Alan Llewelyn, who was the District 9 hopeful campaigning on school ground, and who was informed that it is strictly off limits even during after-hours sporting events.   

  • In response, on September 26, 2023, Plaintiff sent a letter to the individual requesting that he cease and desist from any electioneering activities that violated BOE policy.
  • Plaintiff was simply acting to enforce a BOE policy in response to a violation of that policy that had been brought to his attention.
  • However, days later, in late September 2023, Louis DeCilio, the Chairman of the Stratford Republicans, responded with communications that falsely accused Plaintiff of sending the letter “for political purposes” and exhibiting favoritism for the Democratic Party in Stratford with respect to the BOE policy.
  • Mr. DeCilio’s September 2023 communications also included other untrue allegations and gratuitous attacks against Plaintiff, as if DeCilio was documenting a list of reasons why Osunde should be removed from his position as Superintendent. As part of his communication, DeCilio also made a point of gratuitously highlighting Plaintiff’s salary.

November 25, 2023 – Plaintiff Arrested Following Private Marital Argument

  • On November 25, 2023, Plaintiff, who is in the process of a divorce, was arrested on a misdemeanor breach of peace charge following an argument with his wife.
  • Dr. Osunde would soon be vindicated in the matter and the charges were dismissed once the evidence, including body camera footage, was reviewed.
  • The BOE’s new Republican majority placed Plaintiff on administrative leave and launched an investigation and smear campaign against Plaintiff.

December 21, 2023 – Defendants Place Plaintiff on Administrative Leave

  • On December 21, 2023, Defendants Henrick, Bedell, Kennedy, and O’Brien voted to place Plaintiff on administrative leave, effective immediately.
  • The vote to place Plaintiff on administrative leave was 4 to 3, with Defendants Henrick, Bedell, Kennedy, and O’Brien voting in favor, and the remaining members of the BOE, who are affiliated with the Democratic Party, voting against.
  • Defendant Henrick announced that Plaintiff’s administrative leave was pending the completion of an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the recent arrest, and that the investigation would be conducted by the law firm who has been representing the Town of Stratford for decades, Berchem Moses, P.C.
  • Defendant Henrick also required Plaintiff to return all property of the Stratford Public Schools, such as computers, cell phones, and identification; prohibited Plaintiff from entering any school district property, accessing school district email, voicemail, or databases; and instructed that Plaintiff was not permitted to have any contact with any school district personnel or perform any of his job duties.
  • After Defendants placed Dr. Osunde on administrative leave, Defendant Bedell moved to appoint Heather Borges, as the Interim Superintendent, a motion that was approved by all other members of the BOE.
  • After placing Osunde on administrative leave, Henrick read from a prepared statement explaining the decision to place Plaintiff on administrative leave in which he stated that the BOE’s “main concern” was the “integrity of our educational environment and the safety and well-being” of the students. Through this public statement, Henrick wrongly implied that Plaintiff’s presence as Superintendent and on school district property represented a threat to the safety and well-being of the students and the integrity of their educational environment.

January 2024 Charges Against Plaintiff Dismissed; Henrick Denies Plaintiff’s Reinstatement Request

  • On January 31, 2024, the misdemeanor breach of peace charge against Plaintiff was completely dismissed by the Court, without objection by the State, following a hearing in which the prosecutor characterized Plaintiff as a “stand up person” and represented to the Court that there was “nothing physical” by Plaintiff against the other person involved.

February 2024 Defendants Launch Expanded Investigation to Perpetuate Plaintiff’s Leave

  • On February 6, 2024, Plaintiff wrote to the BOE and requested that he be immediately reinstated.
  • The following day, February 7, 2024, Defendant Henrick rejected Plaintiff’s request and reminded Plaintiff that he was not to communicate with the Stratford Public Schools community or engage in any work on its behalf.
  • Less than three weeks later, on February 26, 2024, Defendant Henrick publicly moved to expand the investigation into Dr. Osunde to include several baseless allegations relating to Plaintiff’s job performance, none of which were identified as reasons connected to the original decision to place Plaintiff on administrative leave or launch an investigation.
  • In a departure from the BOE’s past practice involving other personnel matters, Henrick publicly announced additional accusations against Plaintiff – none of which have any merit – in public session and without providing Dr. Osunde advance notice or any opportunity to respond.
  • In response to Defendant Henrick’s request, Defendants Henrick, Bedell, Kennedy, and O’Brien voted in favor of expanding the investigation into the matters concerning Plaintiff that Henrick had identified, with the remaining three members of the BOE voting against the measure.
  • Defendant Henrick clearly views Osunde as being a member of the wrong “team,” and he has acted to discriminate and retaliate against him for unlawful reasons connected to that perception. Defendants have coordinated with Louis DeCilio, Chairman of the Stratford Republicans, in taking actions against Plaintiff as Superintendent.
  • Defendants’ move to expand the investigation into various accusations relating to Plaintiff’s performance was contrary to the positive performance evaluations that Plaintiff had previously received from the BOE, and the new contract extension that Plaintiff had received from the BoE just six months earlier.
  • During the time period that Henrick has acted as Chair of the BOE to continue Plaintiff’s leave of absence and expand the scope of the investigation concerning Plaintiff, Defendant Henrick has acted as Board Chair in ways that confirm the politically partisan way that he has approached, and exercised, his authority as the Chair of the BOE, and his view that there is a Republican “team” that includes Henrick, Bedell, Kennedy, and O’Brien, and another “team” that includes the Democratic members of the BOE.

Lawsuit Demand for Relief:

Equitable Relief, and Prospective Injunctive Relief, including, but not limited to,

(a) requiring that Defendants immediately reinstate Plaintiff to his position as Superintendent and issue a corrective publication to the entire community;

(b) prohibiting Defendants from any further acts of discrimination or retaliation against Plaintiff; and

(c) mandating the removal of any negative material from Plaintiff’s employment records that are the product of discrimination or retaliation.

JURY DEMAND:  Plaintiff hereby demands a trial by jury

Editors Note:  The actual complaint filed in Federal Court was published last week in the Stratford Crier.  https://stratfordcrier.com/stratford-boe-being-sued/

3 COMMENTS

  1. Considering the state the poor old Republican Party is nationally, is it any wonder?
    Carry on, Dr. Osunde.

  2. Dr. Osunde has shown remarkable restraint in the face of blatant discrimination and gas lighting; yet he remains a brave foot soldier for what’s best and right for kids. Thank you Dr. Osunde for your courage and commitment.

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