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.
“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 Lyons deposition (This deposition is presented in its entirety; many pages of testimony are missing per court order)