Updated, 5 p.m.: “No comment” from Brenda Wilcox Williams.
NORWALK, Conn. – A Special Education administrator, blamed for costing Norwalk significant funds, is appealing to the Board of Education to reverse actions taken by the school district.
The hearing on the grievance filed by Sara Legister and the Norwalk Association of School Administrators (NASA), alleging unfair labor practices, is tentatively planned for Dec. 7, Board of Education Negotiations and Personnel Committee Chairman Mike Lyons said.
Although the grievance dates to a July letter accusing Legister of several procedural violations that were alleged to expose the district to legal claims, with a resultant 10-day suspension without pay, NASA Vice President Tony Ditrio said the attack on Legister is part of Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski’s effort to fulfill a promise he made to then-Board Chairman Lyons when he was interviewing for his post leading Norwalk Public Schools.
“They basically promised to get rid of all the ‘Special Ed’ people that were here, before Adamowski got here,” Ditrio said Wednesday. “Lyons asked Adamowski to do it, Adamowski promised to do it. He said he would do it by the end of the first year. Sara happens to be one of the last ones left.”
An email obtained by lawyers representing former Special Education Director Christina Fensore in her lawsuit against Lyons backs up that claim, with Adamowski promising in December 2015 to replace most members of the current Special Education management team.
Adamowski was hired in June 2015.
NPS has been going after Legister for a year, Ditrio said; the effort has been sporadic due to transient Special Education Department leaders, but, “they keep bringing up charges. we refute them, they bring up new ones. They just keep harassing the poor girl.”
“It’s the same stuff Chrissy Fensore is blamed for,” Ditrio said. “I don’t know how many more people they are going to blame for it but it’s the same out of district kids, the same issue, it’s been going on for 20 years…. Adamowski is fulfilling his promise to Lyons. The only other person left is Joe Russo, and, I don’t know, they must have made some deal with him because they are not bothering him. Then again, he is not an African American female, is he?”
“I won’t comment on the Legister matter because it is still before the Board,” Lyons said Wednesday in an email. “I readily admit, however, that fixing Special Education has been a priority of Dr. Adamowski and the Board, and fixing something that was as broken as Norwalk SPED (for 20 years, according to Tony himself!) would likely involve personnel changes.”
Legister is responsible for all of Norwalk’s out of district placements, four elementary schools and the Department of the Visually and Hearing Impaired, carrying a heavier workload than other administrators in the same or similar positions, NASA states in the Sept. 6 grievance.
NASA complains that Legister received no performance evaluation in 2015-16 – no goal setting, no end-of-the-year review, no formal or informal observations – yet in August the newly-hired Chief of Specialized Learning and Student Services Lynn Toper immediately put Legister “on a support plan despite having no direct knowledge of Ms. Legister’s performance and no evaluation from the previous school year on which to rely.”
Toper’s exit a few months later forced Legister and other SpEd administrators to absorb extra duties, NASA states, and Chief of School Operations Frank Costanzo “failed to properly implement the district’s evaluation and support plan during the 2016-2017 school year.”
No end-of-the-year evaluation and review, etc., as required by Connecticut General Statutes, Connecticut Guidelines for Educator Evaluation and the Board’s own policies, NASA states, alleging that Legister was disciplined without just cause.
“Contrary to what is alleged in the written reprimand, she did not commit the procedural violations alleged against her by the district. The allegations are either false – such as the accusation that she failed to hold a proper PPT meeting with all necessary parties, which meeting was, in fact, held – or can be attributed to the violations committed or caused by other individuals,” the complaint states.
There was no pre-disciplinary meeting in which Legister could discuss the allegations that were contained in the July disciplinary letter, NASA states, alleging that although there were meetings in April, May and June, those allegations were not presented.
Rather, at those other meetings, Legister presented written explanations for other allegations, NASA states.
Ditrio said, “She is sitting there in a room, poor girl, she doesn’t even know what they are charging her with. The first time we sat down, when they had these charges, they didn’t even give us the names of the kids or anything.”
Assistant Chief of Talent & Director of Labor Relations Anthony Shannon, in an October letter denying the grievance as part of the Level 1 process, dismissed NASA’s complaints regarding the lack of performance evaluations.
“I could find no causal connection between those claims and the demonstrated errors,” Shannon wrote. “Ms. Legister has been working for the Board since 2010 in the same special education administrative role. I have not investigated the evaluation process of Ms. Legister, however even assuming that your claims were true, for the claimed school years, it would do little to explain the deficiencies in performance that resulted in the 10-day suspension.”
Claims of a lack of due process are hard to believe given the three meetings held with Legister in the presence of union representation, he wrote.
“Lastly, you claimed that Ms. Legister did not actually make the errors that are alleged,” Shannon wrote. “However, there was no documentary evidence presented to validate this claim. For example, it appears Ms. Legister authorized the outplacement of a student without convening the appropriate multidisciplinary team with knowledge of the student’s then current performance and/or abilities, who would be authorized to make such decision…. This particular student cost the district more than $74,000 during the 16-17 school year and we still cannot be certain that this was a necessary expense.”
Adamowski, in the Level II part of the process, also denied the grievance.
“The evaluation process of certified administrators is not subject to collective bargaining or the contract grievance process. Deficiencies in Ms. Legister’s evaluation process in 2015·16 claimed in the Grievance are not relevant to the reasons for the suspension,” Adamowski wrote.
Adamowski also mentioned the three meetings and said, “as a result of due process the number of incidents for which she could receive disciplinary action were reduced as she was afforded ‘the benefit of the doubt’ in several instances.”
Legister wasn’t at the hearing, but Ditrio “provided wide-ranging testimony punctuated by editorial vitriol, in support of his contention that the errors made by Ms. Legister were someone else’s fault,” Adamowski wrote. “However, in the absence of Ms. Legister’s own testimony, most of his attestations regarding current and former special education administrators must be considered ‘hearsay evidence.’ It is important to note that at her disciplinary hearing Ms. Legister acknowledged ‘making mistakes’ in connection with the incidents for which she was disciplined. Based on the evidence that I have reviewed, it appears Ms. Legister made the stated errors and has at least in some cases admitted responsibility.”
Ditrio said Wednesday that Legister’s problems were part of this administration’s pattern of harassment.
“I was at a meeting where Adamowski lit into her in a way that is so unprofessional, he even told her she was sick too much.”
Legister has a condition but hasn’t used up all of her sick days, as other people have, he said, asking, “How do you tell somebody you are sick too much?”
NoN reached out to NPS Communications Director Brenda Wilcox Williams for a response on Adamowski’s behalf. “We don’t comment on personnel matters,” she said.
NPS is blaming Legister for decisions that can only be made by a SpEd director, and was initially was accused of costing the district $450,000 to $500,000, Ditrio said.
“It was all stuff I had gone over with Toper, when she got here,” he said. “It had nothing to do really with Sara. We had to defend ourselves, we showed she wasn’t responsible for any of that. … They beat her up, berated her, really treated her terribly, then no one ever said, ‘Oh, sorry, I guess we were wrong about that.’ They just looked for more things that they could do.”
NPS is trying to break the union, by forcing arbitration costs down its throat through an ineffective grievance process, wherein the current Board of Education just rubber-stamps whatever Adamowski says, Ditrio said.
“Lyons should be famous for costing the district $1 million, rather than saving it,” Ditrio said.
Lyons, in a Wednesday email, said, “The ‘break the union’ comment is typical Tony hyperbole; we recently and peacefully negotiated a renewal of the NASA contract with practically no argument – that’s hardly the action of a Board trying to ‘break’ a union. But holding that union’s members accountable to high standards of performance? That’s something no one’s tried to do for many years, and clearly the union doesn’t like it. They had better get used to it. The days of running the Norwalk Public Schools for the benefit of its employees rather than its students are over. We will treat our employees fairly, but will hold them to high standards focused on improved student performance. That’s our bottom line.”