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Lawsuit against Norwalk BoE chair continues, with voluminous point-counterpoint

Former Norwalk Special Education Director Christina Fensore, left; Norwalk Board of Education Chairman Mike Lyons, right. (File photos)

NORWALK, Conn. – Recent filings in the lawsuit filed by a former Norwalk Special Education director against Norwalk Board of Education Chairman Mike Lyons include revealing depositions and email conversations about cost overruns.

Lyons’ statements that former SpEd Director Chrissy Fensore “lied,” part of the reason she is suing him for defamation, hinge on her Jan. 13, 2015, presentation to a BoE Curriculum Committee, where she said progress was being made in addressing recommendations made by the Capital Region Education Council (CREC).

Case exhibits also show that BoE member Mike Barbis encouraged Lyons to alert Fensore’s new employers to the cost overruns, in an email exchange that includes Lyons referring to “total blithering incompetence.”

Fensore on May 19, 2016, filed her complaint in Bridgeport Superior Court, accusing Lyons of unlawful and defamatory actions, “malicious and intentional publication of false information to the public and the press,” defamation, invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Fensore cites statements made by Lyons in a Dec. 14, 2015 NancyOnNorwalk story about a just-released CREC report, written by Harold Cobin, and a comment Lyons left on the story,  “Obviously, in this case we were badly misled. We realized by late spring that the statements given us by the previous SPED director … were turning out to be erroneous.”

Claims of intentional and malicious infliction of emotional distress were stricken by the court on Jan. 18. Fensore is seeking relief of more than $15,000 and a jury trial, with arguments currently underway on Lyons’ request for summary judgement, a request to settle the matter without a trial.

Lyons’ attorneys are funded by Norwalk Public Schools, under the indemnification statutes; NPS Communications Director Brenda Wilcox Williams on Wednesday said she could not immediately cite expenses to date, but promised to get the information.

Documents posted online on Aug. 14 include one entry with 700 pages of exhibits, including transcripts of depositions by Fensore, Lyons, former Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Manny Rivera, former NPS Chief Financial Officer Rich Rudl, news articles, online comments and email exchanges that include one in which Lyons states, “We will hunt her down.”

Transcripts skip much testimony; there are 56 pages missing from Fensore’s testimony in one spot alone.

A 42-page legal brief filed Aug. 14 outlines the history of the case, attempting to characterize Lyons’ behavior in early 2015 as being unconcerned about SpEd cost overruns because such overruns were routine, and highlighting Rudl’s role in supervising the finances.

It also describes email exchanges that are included in the exhibits.

On July 2, 2015, Rudl’s last day as Norwalk CFO, Rudl sent an email to Lyons stating, “we were presented yesterday with nearly $500k of additional SPED bills from Chrissy department. This is going to draw down off the year end projection of $1.1-$1.2 to about $700,000… Most of these were consulting bills so … this shouldn’t impact next year’s budget unless they do not implement the SPED plan as designed.”

Half an hour later, Lyons forwarded Rudl’s email to Barbis and said, “Maybe we should sue Fensore for gross mismanagement of SPED.”

Much of the testimony in Fensore, Christina v. Lyons, Michael revolves around this email exchange, included as evidence in court documents.

The email exchange:

“$500,000???? THAT”S OUTRAGEOUS At a minimum, this should be disclosed publicly and she should own it How did this happen??? HOW?” Barbis replied.

“Total blithering incompetence … I think she hid this until she got her new job and escaped before we discovered it,” Lyons replied.

“We should call her new employer and report … Is she already gone?” Barbis said.

“I want a full explanation … And if she covered it up, I’m personally calling her new Board Chair,” Lyons said.

“I hope she’s still an employee … I don’t remember her quit date ….” Barbis said.

Lyons informed Barbis that Fensore left on June 30.

“Figures,” Barbis said.

“We will hunt her down … I emailed (temporary SpEd Director Maureen) Ruby and said I need to know what the hell happened,” Lyons wrote.

In the email to Ruby, Lyons wrote, “I know you just started, but I need to know what the HELL happened here, and who’s responsible. Someone is going down for this.”

On July 23, Lyons emailed the chairman of the Board of Education for Region 14, where Fensore had just started work:

“Hello, Mr. Bauer. As Chair of the Norwalk Board of Education, I feel I owe it to you to share certain information regarding special education in Norwalk – specifically, that Ms. Fensore left us with undisclosed liabilities in our SPED department of between $1 million and $2 million upon her departure …I suggest that you monitor SPED expenditures very carefully to be sure something like this doesn’t happen to you in District 14.”

 

Fensore, in her testimony as reported in the court transcript, states that her new superintendent came to speak to her about the email.

“I was still in a probationary period,” Fensore said. “They were very concerned about the allegations that were made in that e-mail … They wanted to actually take me before the whole board and executive session at one point for questioning as to the allegations that were made in that e-mail.”

Fensore continued her employment without having her probation period extended, after meeting with only her superintendent and Board Chairman, she said.

Lyons gave his deposition on April 24, with a videographer recording the proceedings. He was asked extensive questions about Board politics before Fensore’s attorney, William Madsen, moved on to his understanding of Fensore’s role.

“You’ve never known for a fact whether Ms. Fensore had supervisory authority over the SPED supervisors. Is that correct?” Madsen asked.

“Correct,” Lyons replied.

Following questions about his desire to be re-elected in November 2015, Lyons was asked about the email exchange that followed the announcement of the $500,000 overrun.

“You drew a conclusion in that half an hour that Ms. Fensore had engaged in gross mismanagement. Is that the case?” Madsen asked

“I said maybe,” Lyons replied.

“…Had you determined, upon receipt of Mr. Rudl’s email, that Ms. Fensore had engaged in gross mismanagement?”

“Determined it? No. I was considering the possibility. That’s why I said maybe,” Lyons said.

He was asked what information he had besides the bills, and he said he had previously discussed the department with Ruby, but not in that half hour between when Rudl sent the email and when he emailed Barbis about it.

Eventually, Lyons said, “I guess I had reached a total frustration point at every time I turn around getting slapped with more expenses out of the Special Ed department.”

The suspicion of gross mismanagement was “based on the history,” he said.

“You know, by this point, I had had conversations with Mr. Connelly about not just the fact that there were financial overruns but that what he was reporting to me was that there were a lot of other problems in the SPED department, a lot of things that were not being done properly. And then this thing comes in a couple days after she leaves,” Lyons said.

Asked if he concluded because of the timing that it was “some kind of nefarious act by Ms. Fensore on her way out the door,” Lyons replied, “I did not conclude it, but I speculated that it could be. That’s why I said maybe.”

Asked about the “total blithering incompetence” comment, Lyons said, “I was sitting there thinking she didn’t give us any warning that this was sitting on her desk. She just left; found out about it after she left. And now we’re stuck with another $500,000 that we’ve got to come up with from somewhere. …It was a reference to the whole department.”

An email exchange offered as evidence shows Lyons saying, “This is beyond incompetence — Fensore HAD to know this stuff was accumulating, and the bills weren’t put into MUNIS as required. Once we get the facts together on this I am definitely informing the Chair of the BoE in her new town of what she did here.”

Madsen asked Lyons the comments.

“You assumed, based on the fact that Ms. Ruby allegedly told you that the $500,000 of invoices were located in Ms. Fensore’s office, that Ms. Fensore must have known about it and she failed to disclose. Correct?”
“That would be my assumption, yes.”

“…You made no inquiry or investigation?”

“That’s correct.”

Adamowski didn’t do one, and never blamed Fensore, Lyons said, responding to questions.

“I recall conversation with Steven where he sort of reiterated what Ruby had said about Ms. Fensore had left the place in bad shape. But I don’t – I don’t recall him specifically saying as to those specific cost overruns that she was at fault,” Lyons said.

Madsen went on to mention that he wrote to Lyons on Dec. 22 asking him to retract the comments; in his testimony, Lyons confirms that he replied, “Truth being a complete defense in a libel action, I have no intention of retracting anything.

Asked to identify Fensore’s “lie,” Lyons said, “When she told us that she had addressed all the issues in the CREC report and was moving beyond it.”

Rivera, in his May 10 deposition, said he was comfortable giving Fensore a recommendation for a job.

“I felt she did a fine job for me and we worked well together and I felt she was a good director of Special Ed,” Rivera said, according to the transcript.

“I was surprised at one point to learn that Chrissy wasn’t supervising the other supervisors in the organization and that didn’t seem to make sense,” Rivera said. “… I believe that the deputy at the time, Tony Dadonna, insisted on supervising all staff.”

Lyons never raised concerns about the Special Education Department and the spending and how it was being handled, Rivera said, adding later, “I didn’t view the CREC recommendations as the Bible and the be all and end all.”

Madsen asked if it was unusual for one Board chairman to reach out to another Board chairman to offer a warning about a newly hired employee.

“Yes, it is…. Very unusual,” Rivera said.

“Have you ever known Ms. Fensore to hide things from anyone?” Madsen asked.

“No,” Rivera replied.

The latest document in the case was filed Wednesday by Attorney Mark Ostrowski, representing Lyons.

Fensore’s attorneys have failed to “demonstrate the existence of a genuine issue of material fact as to the truthfulness of Mr. Lyons’ statements,” the objection to a motion for summary judgment states.

Fensore’s attorneys have improperly read meaning into Lyons statements and mischaracterized them, Ostrowski wrote, going on to state that Lyons’ email that, “Fensore HAD to know this stuff was accumulating, and the bills weren’t put into MUNIS as required” does not state that she was responsible for entering them.

“{T}he comma between ‘accumulating’ and ‘and’ separates the two statements into independent clauses. The first independent clause is written in the active voice, assigning the knowing of the bills to Plaintiff; while the second independent clause is written in the passive voice, not defining the subject — or ‘by whom’ the bills were not entered. By leaving out the subject Mr. Lyons, was making the statement that the bills had not been entered into MUNIS; he was not saying it was Plaintiff who failed to do so,” Ostrowski wrote.

“Mr. Lyons did not state in his email that the bills had been found in Plaintiff’s office. Plaintiff argues that, because Mr. Lyons recalled Dr. Ruby telling him that she had found the bills in Plaintiff’s office, and that Dr. Ruby did not recall telling him that, that Mr. Lyons’ statement that the Plaintiff left the district with cost overruns was somehow false…. Whether Dr. Ruby told him she found the bills in Plaintiff’s office or not is immaterial; Mr. Lyons’ statement contains no assertion as to the location of the bills,” Ostrowski wrote.

Referring to the December 2015 NoN story, Ostrowski wrote, “Whether the status of the special education department was apparent to administrators is entirely irrelevant. Mr. Lyons is not a district administrator, he is a Board member. It was precisely because the status of the special education department was not clear to the Board of Education that Mr. Lyons requested Plaintiff give the Curriculum Committee a presentation on that topic…. Mr. Lyons never blamed Ms. Fensore for failing to correct those problems; rather, he blamed her for failing to accurately report them to the Board.”

Ostrowski mentions a Feb. 9, 2016, email exchange between Lyons and Common Council member Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large):

“On special ed.  Bruce, these problems were just as bad when you were on the Board as they are now (CREC 2008 said so).  Over Daddona’s strenuous objections, we brought CREC back in 2012, got a damning report, and demanded action. Manny appointed Chris Fensore the new SPED director, she was given her marching orders, and the BoE was repeatedly told that progress was being made on all fronts. About a year ago I held a Curriculum and Instruction meeting for a full review of progress on the CREC issues, and for two hours were given a PowerPoint and convincing stories by Daddona and Fensore that all the CREC issues were being addressed and things were under control. Now with my vast knowledge of SPED, maybe I should have taken six months off from work and spent every day going to SPED classes, PPTs, hearings, etc., to check that Daddona and Fensore weren’t lying to us. But I just didn’t have the time for that — like you do with the head of DPW or the Police Department, we assumed these high-paid professionals were telling the truth. But they were lying, as CREC 2015 proves.  LYING, Bruce, not just incompetent or mistaken.”

 

Although Fensore’s lawyers said this was proof of defamation, Ostrowski wrote that CREC’s 2015 report found Special Education to be worse in Norwalk than it was in 2012, saying that Fensore left that out of her presentation.

Fensore’s attorneys, in their 700-pages of exhibits and an “oversized brief,” have done little more than cloud the issues that are material to the case, Ostrowski wrote.

They have to prove that, “Mr. Lyons made his statements with actual malice because she was a public official for the purposes of defamation,” Ostrowski wrote.

“A statement is published with actual malice if it is published with actual knowledge that it is false, with ‘reckless disregard’ for the truth in making the allegedly defamatory statements, or with ‘a high degree awareness of [his statements’] probable falsity; or the entertainment of serious doubts as to the truth of [his statements],’” Ostrowski wrote. “…Mr. Lyons did, in fact, investigate both the status of the special education department as well as the special education department’s finances. It was the findings he made during those investigations that caused him to make the allegedly defamatory statements. Indeed, Mr. Lyons was investigating the status of the special education department when he asked Plaintiff to inform the NPS Board of Education Curriculum Committee as to the progress NPS was making toward reaching the goals identified in the CREC 2012 report.”

8 comments

Sue Haynie August 31, 2017 at 6:09 am

I went to the BoE Curriculum Committee on January 13, 2015. I left very discouraged and sent an email documenting my concerns. I’d been following the CREC reports since CREC 2008, CREC 2010 and then CREC 2012 both as a SPED parent and a prior BOE member.

The 1/13/15 presentation by Ms. Fensore and Mr. Dadonna, in my view, was total fluff. The combined salaries of these two administrators was $350,000/year+/-, not counting benefits so as a SPED parent and taxpayer, it was an insult to watch.

Ms. Fensore at one point during the presentation said CREC 2012 was ‘over’ as if everything was all taken care of. When addressing my question, as an audience member, about inconsistencies, and SRBI inconsistencies in particular, which is the gateway to SPED, she said ‘other districts have problems with consistency, its not just Norwalk.’

Financial matters weren’t discussed in any detail during the 1/13/15 meeting. One can assume that if they had been, they would have been presented just as poorly as all the other topics under discussion.

Educator August 31, 2017 at 9:52 am

“We will hunt her down?” Mike Lyons is a bully, plain and simple. Lyons was accused of bullying the minority ladies on the BOE and no one believed them. Well, it looks like the truth will hunt YOU down Mr. Lyons!

Beaches August 31, 2017 at 11:21 am

Ms. Fensmore did nothing for NPS Special Education Department. She was out of sight and made many of her Support Staff feel unappreciated. She was a gossip person and I hope that the BOE does not lose this case. Thank goodness she is gone.

Rocky August 31, 2017 at 12:38 pm

It’s pretty obvious that Fensore and Dadonna are to blame. The fact that these invoices existed and she didn’t log them shows she was trying to conceal the information before she departed on her new job.

Tony Dadonna thought he was made of teflon and he could do whatever the hell he wanted. A true plague to the BOE and NPS. Good riddance to him. A poster child of obstruction.

It’s pretty clear from reading the CREC reports and reading information presented in the news from BOE meetings that the SPED departments “go to” policy was “out place” and process the invoice. I’ve heard stories of buying lunch and pizza all on the taxpayers dime. No wonder the SPED department was such a mess… it was run and managed by pure incompetence.

Kudos to Mike Barbis and Mike Lyons for standing up for Norwalk.

huh? August 31, 2017 at 2:25 pm

Why is calling out conniving incompetence considered bullying?

She thought she could run off to her new employer with no accountability for the mess she left behind.

sped parent August 31, 2017 at 3:57 pm

As a sped parent, I am wondering if either huh? or Rocky has kids in Norwalk in sped. The problems in sped in Norwalk have been around for decades. There is absolutely no way that Ms. Fensore could have done anything other than outplace given the programs that existed in-house with respect to sped, and there is no way that she could have been expected to begin to fix them when Mr. Dadonna was there. What else was she supposed to do…let the kids suffer, when they had already suffered SO much for having to be subjected to inappropriate environments/teachers/administrators, etc? In my experience, Ms. Fensore was one of the few sped directors that actually cared about the kids. I’m a huge fan or Mr. Lyons and this Board and I applaud them for finally tackling the mess that is sped, but to say you will hunt someone down and call their new employer after the fact is not a good look, however you want to describe it.

Shame on Yoi September 2, 2017 at 4:33 pm

The BOE handed every special education employee a mess, and continues to. It was a mess before she came and having children in the system I have seen it first hand. Mike Lyons is a horrible person and should not be allowed on the board or to fight for our kids. And the fact the BOE is picking up his bill and kids have 3 and 4 study halls is horrible. Way to go BOE AGAIN!! What else and who else’s attorneys are they paying for ?

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