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Ditrio accuses Norwalk BoE big three of violating Board ethics

The lawsuit filed by former Special Education Director Christina Fensore against Board of Education member Mike Lyons (shown here) appears to be coming to a head, with the Board rumored to be discussing a settlement Tuesday.

Correction, Dec. 11: Agenda was not FOI compliant. Updated, 12:25 a.m., Dec. 6: Clarification about attached deposition.

NORWALK, Conn. — Emails revealed by the lawsuit filed by former Special Education Director Chrissy Fensore have changed Tony Ditrio’s attitude, he said, alleging that three Norwalk Board of Education leaders have broken the Board’s ethics policy.

Board members Mike Barbis, Bryan Meek and Mike Lyons “continue to show that they will work in concert and in private to do Board business,” Ditrio said in an email. “They also use crude and inappropriate language while making disparaging remarks about fellow Board members and employees. This is clear when one looks at Nancy on Norwalk, The Facebook account and their shared e-mails.  Mr. Lyons’ deposition also demonstrates that a subgroup of the Board exists that isolates other Board members they do not agree with.  This is also a violation of the way a Board should operate. This has become quite clear when one reads the released emails that are part of the Fensore lawsuit.”

Ditrio, former Kendall Elementary School principal, contacted NancyOnNorwalk in October to complain that the Board was ignoring his concerns about educational issues, which NancyOnNorwalk is in the process of investigating. He was going to the press because he wasn’t getting anywhere with the Board, he said.

Ditrio, former Norwalk Association of School Administrators (NASA) president, is serving as NASA vice president because he is needed, he said.

Fensore sued Lyons for defamation in May 2016 because he contacted her new employer to damn her performance here, alleging “undisclosed liabilities in our SPED department of between $1 million and $2 million upon her departure,” in an email that was sent without the full Board’s knowledge. He also left online comments, referring in one case to the “stunning extent to which almost everything we had been told had been untrue.”

A pretrial conference in the case is scheduled for Dec. 12, with jury selection planned for Jan. 4. It’s rumored that the Board will be discussing a settlement at its Tuesday meeting; the agenda calls for an executive session for “personnel matters and litigation.”

Neither Norwalk Public Schools Communications Director Brenda Wilcox Williams nor Barbis, Board chairman, replied to emails asking what the litigation might be. NancyOnNorwalk also asked Barbis if the litigation was the Fensore suit; he did not reply.

Freedom of Information (FOI) Commission public information officer Tom Hennick said Monday that the agenda is in not compliance with the law. The agenda does not specify a vote after the executive session; the Board could vote and still be FOI-compliant if it voted with a two-thirds majority to suspend the rule.

The documents presented in the Fensore case are voluminous; there are emails buried in long passages of other materials, and it’s easy to overlook them.

Ditrio provided a 17-page PDF of select emails.

Ditrio’s Fensore emails I

Ditrio’s Fensore emails II

“This small sample seems to demonstrate the routine way that these three Board members violate any reasonable code of ethics for Board members,” he wrote.

The PDF includes a May 2, 2015 email from Lyons to Meek and Barbis, a reaction to the unexpected $500,000 in SpEd costs.

“This settles it for me; I don’t care how much the Trio want a black superintendent, we need a certified ball-buster in here (Adamowski) to clean this shit up,” Lyons wrote.

Ditrio and NASA have been pursuing grievances against the Board, with a hearing on one concerning Special Education administrator Sara Legister tentatively scheduled for Thursday.

Ditrio said last week that Legister has been targeted.

“Mr. Lyons and them say it right in the email,” Ditrio said last week in a phone conversation. “I am not making this up. Read it. Why’d they hire Adamowski? Not because of his academic record, not because of anything, but they wanted a hard ass who would go after people. That’s what they said.”

He continued, “I believed it, but I used to tell myself I must be paranoid. How would a district get that low?”

Not included in the PDF is an email exchange in which Lyons refers to Ditrio as one of the Four Horsemen, that the schools would be better once Ditrio and others were gone.

Ditrio said he used to sit down with Lyons once or twice a year for breakfast and a two- or three-hour conversation.

“I thought that while we disagreed on some things that we were getting somewhere in terms of trying to get over this angst that was going on between everybody,” Ditrio said. “But then I read those emails… I think he is just a really good lawyer because I believed him, I believed he really was trying to get the best for the kids or whatever, but I guess not. I guess he has his agenda too. So, I was fooled again.”

Lyons declined to comment.

A May 2015 email from Lyons to Meek and Barbis, which is included in the PDF, is “nasty,” Ditrio said.

The email refers to former NPS Chief Financial Officer Rich Rudl and former Deputy Superintendent Tony Daddona:

“The Trio will try to pin the blame on Fensore (who deserves SOME of it), and indirectly on us, but Rudl says the real problems are 1) Daddona (who’s ultimately responsible as Dep. Superintendent, particularly for the principals over whom he exercises no control at all), 2) those principals, who are happy to get rid of the ‘problem’ kids in their schools at $100K a pop by outplacing them, and 3) 85-year-old Bea Krawicki, who approved 10 outplacements recently. Fortunately Daddona and Krawicki are retiring on June 30, but it seems they’re inflicting maximum damage on their way out. Note Rudl’s comment on the high outplacements from West Rocks – Lynne Moore.

“Daddona, Moore and even Krawicki are among the Trio’s ‘faves.’ At Finance, if the Trio goes into blame mode, we may have to explain exactly where the blame lies.”

Krawicki “gave 50-something years of her career to Norwalk, she put some wonderful programs in place for Norwalk,” Ditrio said, calling her “the only white woman in the world” who is welcomed into Roodner Court at night because she has done things like give away diapers.

“She is the most wonderful human being you’d want to meet and not incompetent in any way shape or form. But it’s easy to talk about people when they are not around and blame them for anything,” he said.

Another email in Ditrio’s PDF dates to July 31, 2016, when Lyons told the Board that Fensore was suing him and that the Board was going to pay the legal expenses.

Lyons forwarded a reaction from Sherelle Harris to former Board member Sue Haynie and to Lisa Brinton Thomson.

Ditrio’s PDF also shows Mosby reacting to the news, asking, “If Ms. Fensore does prevail in her suit will the board be liable to pay the damages since the complaint was not to the board but one individual on the board?”

Lyons had announced that he wouldn’t be commenting on the litigation.

“You were constantly attacking me in the media,” Mosby wrote. “It’s ironic that you had no problem with commenting on my pending litigation or pending litigation of others.”

Barbis, Lyons and Meek are breaking the Board’s ethics code, particularly numbers eight and 10:

8. I will attempt to confine my board action to policy‐making, planning and appraisal, and will help to form policies and plans only after my board has consulted those who will be affected by its actions.

9. I will arrive at conclusions only after discussing all aspects of the issue at hand with my fellow board members in meeting. I will respect the opinions of other, and abide by the principle of majority‐rule.

10. I will recognize that authority rests only with the whole board assembled in meeting, and will make no personal promises nor take any private action which may compromise the board.

 

“These have been consistently ignored by Mr. Lyons, Mr. Barbis and Mr. Meek,” he said today in an email.  “They tend to work as an independent group that only brings others in when they have already decided an issue.  This clear from the e-mails, online banter and Mr. Lyon’s own deposition testimony.  When Ms. Rivas, Ms. Mosby and Ms. Murray brought this out in the open it was totally denied by Mr. Lyons.  This has since been shown to be untrue by his own sworn testimony.  All members of the Board are equal and duly elected.  It is also true that many of the statements show a total lack of respect for fellow Board members and for some NPS staff.”

He also referred to other sections of the Ethics Code:

12. I will hold confidential all matters pertaining to schools, which, if disclosed, might needlessly injure individuals or the schools.

17. I will refer all complaints through the proper “chain of command” within the system, and will act on such complaints at public meetings only when administrative solutions fail.

 

“I also believe that #12 is violated on a regular basis on your own site and the Parents for education site,” he said. “The other problem that stands out to me is # 17.  It is quite common for staff to be talked about in public forums in a very negative manner.  It is also true that complaints made to some Board members get pushed up through the chain of command and the Board member gets personally involved.”

Meek did not respond to an email about the alleged ethics violations.

Barbis replied to an email, but did not specifically respond to the accusation that the Board’s ethic code has been violated.

“I am an unpaid, elected volunteer,” Barbis wrote. “I’m tired of being attacked by someone who is highly paid for his efforts.  Who is buttering whose bread here?”

On Nov. 30, NancyOnNorwalk asked Barbis if the Board would sign a civility code. He replied:

“I believe that the current membership of the Board consists of civil people who will act accordingly and I don’t how under the circumstances that a civility code is required.

“We had signed a Civility Code about five years back at the suggestion of a consultant at a retreat to deal with board acrimony that was being created by several board members that are now long gone (see https://norwalkps.org/UserFiles/Servers/Server_71596/File/BOE/civility%20code/Civility%20Code%20Executed.pdf).

“You may recall that following the 2013 election, the Board Chair at the time, Mike Lyons, suggested we do this yet again.  A board member at the time, Shirley Mosby, said she wouldn’t sign it, and since unanimity is generally considered required for these things, we dropped it.  The old Code is still listed on our web site, but it’s obviously out of date.

“The Board has a code of ethics that should be adequate for our needs (https://norwalkps.org/common/pages/DisplayFile.aspx?itemId=3265936).  Note also that the Board of Education is also subject to the City Ethics Code as a city board or commission (Chapter 32, City Code).”

 

Mosby said in March that she wanted more accountability written into the code, because there was no penalty if a member violated it.

Other members agreed, she said, stipulating that she couldn’t elaborate because it had been an executive session.

“I go back years,” Ditrio said. “I always felt I could go and talk to a Board member, whether they were Republican or Democrats, because I felt they were serving for the kids. It doesn’t seem to be the case anymore. These are people who have either vendettas or power egos, they … don’t talk about kids very much. I mean, look at the emails, those are the truth. You want to know what a person is like or what they are thinking, there are their thoughts when there is nobody to hear them.”

Fensore v Lyons 17-0814 Exhibit L BoE email exhange

Fensore v Lyons 17-0814 Exhibit L BoE email exhange part II

Fensore v Lyons 17-0814 Lyons deposition (This deposition is presented in its entirety; many pages of testimony are missing per court order)

Fensore v Lyons 17-0814 Exhibit U Adamowski to Lyons

Motion to compel emails I

Motion to compel emails II

Motion to compel emails III

Motion to compel emails IV

14 comments

Black and white Sped Parent December 5, 2017 at 7:22 am

Step Down!!!!!!!! Elected or paid… WHO CARES!!! We don’t want you 3! The code of ethics stands for our communities protection. Even I have been sent a threat in a personal message on Facebook. What the BOE has been allowed to do in social media is monstrous! It is your civic duty to hold your tongue and personal judgement. If you don’t like the Heat than get out of the kitchen. High school is over. Your tongues affect the lives of Chrissy, Sara, now Bea and of course our forgotten children. How do we remove these three!!???????

Marie Marsh December 5, 2017 at 7:30 am

The one with the “agenda” is Ditrio himself. He is extremely self-aggrandizing and not particularly liked by lots of BOE employees. He’s had only negative things to say about any superintendent in the time I’ve been involved with the BOE and education in general.

SusanHos December 5, 2017 at 7:43 am

“I am an unpaid, elected volunteer,” Barbis wrote. “I’m tired of being attacked by someone who is highly paid for his efforts. Who is buttering whose bread here?”

This that your story and your sticking to it, come one now. Mr. Lyons. Mr. Barbis and Mr. Meek have attacked posted to this site and Facebook in the past.

If you cant stand the fire of criticism, don’t light it. Respect all people and respect will be shown to you. This story highlight the problem with NPS, test scores improve as relationships and sense of family are destroyed. The “do whatever it takes” attitude is destroying teachers and school in the name of test scores. In my mind there has to be a better way.
All parties should be brought to mediation, and penalties for lies and poor conduct created. We wouldn’t allow our children to behave in this manner, yet we allow adults running the system to.

Laurie December 5, 2017 at 9:39 am

The sad part is that all the backstabbing, animosity, and despotism (both at the Board of Ed and Central Office) has been ongoing for years as anyone involved in the school system can tell you. We, the taxpayers, will wind up paying for this fiasco. It’s supposed to be all about the children, ha!

Educator December 5, 2017 at 10:15 am

There’s a new trio in town – Lyons, Barbis, and Meek. They are slick politicians that have the voting public snowed. Mr. Lyons, you keep telling us how great things are but your methods to achieving that “success” are crude and apparently racially motivated. And now your co-conspirator Barbis will cover for you by agreeing to a settlement. How much more will the Taxpayer be willing to pay for your unethical behavior?

Piberman December 5, 2017 at 10:30 am

Looks like in Nowalk the mere assertion of improper behavior denotes guilt. I don’t recall the BOE being successfully sued under Mike Lyons leadership.

Donna Smirniotopoulos December 5, 2017 at 11:01 am

Readers should be aware of all the relevant facts in the Fensore case, not just those that support DItrio’s claims.

http://civilinquiry.jud.ct.gov/DocumentInquiry/DocumentInquiry.aspx?DocumentNo=12617246

http://civilinquiry.jud.ct.gov/DocumentInquiry/DocumentInquiry.aspx?DocumentNo=12617292

http://civilinquiry.jud.ct.gov/DocumentInquiry/DocumentInquiry.aspx?DocumentNo=12617360

Also you missed this piece:

http://www.thehour.com/opinion/article/Mike-Lyons-What-s-next-with-the-Norwalk-Public-12164156.php

Do we really care about the state of our schools or are we more worried about protecting the feelings of long time NPS obstructionists? I hope we are the former.

Reese December 5, 2017 at 1:00 pm

Taxpayers and parents continually complain year after year about “how bad Norwalk schools are”… “and how much money can we keep putting into NPS” .
Guess what? It’s not because of these 3 Board members… its the tail wagging the dog in terms of Teachers/Administrators Unions. No real way to measure or monitor performance, no real accountability yet the Board members are the ones that are the bad guys.

We finally have a board and a superintendent willing to roll up there sleeves and get the job done. Sorry if your feelings get hurt but this is long over due.

The BOE is not a committee or commission set up for diversity photo ops, theres real work to be done. Special Ed has been a mess for years and if some people had their way they would like to continue to hide behind the disfunction and excuses.

In my opinion from speaking to former parents of Kendall students, Mr. Ditrio was awful to parents and staff. He was an obstructionist and now in retirement is still up to shenanigans. I don’t necessarily agree with some of the language used by the board members but sometimes things get ugly before the get better.

If this were the private sector, Ditrio would have been gone long ago along with the majority of the Special Ed staff. Its one thing to a nice caring person, its quite another to get your job done.

Donna Smirniotopoulos December 5, 2017 at 2:12 pm

If the purpose of the piece is ethics and civility, it’s ironic that Tony Ditrio is leading the discussion. When Ditrio was principal of Kendall Elementary, he engaged in a romantic relationship with a paraprofessional, undermining his own credibility as a manager with his team. A public school principal cannot manage senior staff objectively when romantically linked to junior staff. Calling out the BOE on ethics with regard to emails is a bit like the pot calling the kettle black. Only without the sexual harassment component that some have alleged occurred under Ditrio at Kendall.

Under Lyons, the BOE worked towards closing the achievement gap and shepherded a 120 million dollar school building plan through the CC. But our memories of the BOE under Lyons, according to Ditrio, should be limited to his emails. Those emails reveal a public servant who was committed to the schools and who apparently faced entrenched wagon circling by NPS employees in cahoots with other BOE members to retain their jobs in spite of well documented incompetence and fiscal irresponsibility. Meanwhile, the Fensore lawsuit in principle is mostly an attempt at limiting free speech on the BOE and among its members individually.

If we care about the NPS, we should talk about the ethics of being forced to retain employees like Fensore and Moore, who are demonstrably either incompetent or insubordinate. We should talk about efforts by insiders like Ditrio to silence the critics of the least effective and costliest NPS employees. Someone cloaked in the mantle of ethics with his own troubling history in the NPS is seeking to undermine a BOE that has steadfastly worked to improve the schools. And he’s doing so with the help of a supposedly free and independent press.

Donna Smirniotopoulos December 5, 2017 at 2:37 pm

@Nancy, I didn’t ask for an explanation of why more of the case was not included in the article. I offered more information for those who may be interested in the other side of this from the point of view of civility and ethics. Like the other posters, I was responding to the article.

The assault on the last BOE has been notable post-Election. Some of the coverage has been belated—a late November article about a case that has not been active since September.for example. {…} The BOE controls more than half the city’s budget. I’m sure there are some in the current political majority who aren’t thrilled with a BOE chair who didn’t support their guy. Maybe it’s a coincidence and I’m imagining that some Dem leaders don’t like how much power the BOE has over the money and over union employees and their contracts. But the incestuous political relationships in Norwalk aren’t limited to the NFT president and the mayor’s campaign treasurer. Everywhere you look there is a political operative linked by only one or two degrees of separation to something you read in the press.
Edited to remove an instance of ascribing motives

Nancy Chapman December 5, 2017 at 7:59 pm

Donna, you didn’t ask for an explanation and I did not provide one. I pointed out that your comment had nothing to do with the article, as your comment on the previous article (the one you describe as “a late November article about a case that has not been active since September”) also missed the point. I am not writing about the Fensore case, I am writing about the Board of Education’s culture. I have never quoted Tony Ditrio on the merits of the lawsuit filed by Chrissy Fensore.

As for your speculations as to motive, as I mentioned in the story above, Tony Ditrio approached me in August and October. I was busy with election coverage. He raised issues and I have been examining them post-election. If I was late with anything it was in giving this the attention it deserved.

Education101 December 5, 2017 at 9:09 pm

This is another insightful article into the divisive board’s culture and great reporting as always. Let’s not be timid to call this for what this is – unacceptable. The spinmeisters will try to deflect this into something else but regardless, this fraternity type behavior only serves to create irreparable board divisions and is destructive on face value. BOE officials would be better served to foster an environment of civility, building consensus and constructive dialogue and less about satisfying BOE groupies on social media. Thankfully the city has elected a grown up for mayor who should be summoned to duty on this

TONY DITRIO December 9, 2017 at 6:15 pm

Mr. Barbis – I just want to correct your claim that I am highly paid for my comments. The truth is that I do not receive any money for my comments. At the present time I serve on the NASA Board as an upaid consultant. Further more, there is no financial connection to my comments today or ever. I don’t think you can find an instance where I have had financial gain from any of my public comments. I guess you could say that I too am an unpaid elected volunteer. I was president of NASA for many years before I felt that I had to comment on what was happening to the Norwalk Public Schools. It was only after the schools were put in an unfair financial crisis when they were required to pay back 4 million dollars to the city that I felt strongly was not the case that I began to speak publicly. During my 47 years with the Norwalk Public Schools my pay had nothing to do with my speaking out publicly. I think we would be better served as a city if you would refrain from name calling and just answer the question being asked. I still have not heard one defense of the consistent Board ethics violations that has disputed my claims. You have a policy and you consistently have violated it.

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