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Ledyard school community angered at superintendent's executive session comments

Ledyard — Teachers, school staff and parents in Ledyard are upset following comments Superintendent Jay Hartling made in executive session last week, comments some called disrespectful and unprofessional. Unbeknownst to Hartling and Board of Education members, the livestream was still going during the executive session, and someone recorded the conversation.

After a 5 p.m. Facilities Committee meeting and 5:45 p.m. Finance Committee meeting last Wednesday, the board began a regular meeting, which concluded around 9:30 p.m. The board then voted to go into executive session to discuss a personnel sick leave request. Before getting to that, Hartling talked about trying to get elementary school kids to wash their hands rather than use wipes, because that's healthier.

He told the board, "I can tell you I've had some wackadoodle conversations, including one where the teacher was upset that it wasn't wet enough." He added, "It was the pick-the-nose lady," and board members can be heard laughing.

In a phone interview Wednesday, board Chairman Anthony Favry said this teacher had "very professionally" reached out with concerns about returning to school fully in person and challenges of the hybrid model, and she brought up students pulling their masks down to pick their noses.

Favry said the laughter was not a criticism of that teacher, but because of the "levity of that individual situation" of having a conversation about a student picking their nose.

Kate Kohrs, parent of a second grader in Ledyard, posted Sunday evening on Facebook that she was "extremely disgusted by the astonishingly inappropriate, unprofessional, and downright rude comments" Hartling made. She summarized the "wackadoodle conversations" remarks.

"I fail to see anything funny about this situation," she wrote. "Is safety a joke to Mr. Hartling? Are Ledyard's teachers a joke to Mr. Hartling?"

As of Wednesday evening, her post had been shared 165 times, with multiple people commenting they weren't surprised or that this wasn't an isolated incident. Kohrs said she hadn't previously had negative interactions with Hartling or the Board of Education.

Stephanie Calhoun, a board member from 2012 to January 2020 who now lives in Michigan, said multiple people reached out to her last Thursday morning.

She listened to the recording and said this was typical behavior for Hartling, that he undermines people. Calhoun pointed to the high turnover in central office staff, as did a former district employee who talked to The Day.

The executive board of the Ledyard Education Association said in a statement that this "continues an apparent pattern" of the superintendent and board "overlooking input from teachers when they have individual concerns."

Ted Allen, co-president of the union, said he hadn't experienced that himself but a lot of members shared that with him. He attended the regular board meeting but left when the board went into executive session; he said he woke up to about 20 emails about it.

The LEA statement said the discussion was a "shocking breach of professionalism and demonstrates disrespect toward the teachers of Ledyard. Teachers should be able to expect respect when communicating legitimate concerns about their safety and that of their students, particularly during a pandemic. Instead, they have been belittled by those entrusted to provide a safe environment."

Kohrs didn't hear the conversation as it was happening but heard a recording after the fact, she said Monday afternoon. She posted the recording on SoundCloud and shared it on Facebook on Monday evening, saying it "was recorded by an unknown source." It got 17 shares.

Favry said the board stopped the official recording of the meeting before going into executive session, and he can be heard at the end of the regular meeting saying he would stop recording.

In a 1,325-word statement Favry sent, the board noted their attorney confirmed that recording a conversation without consent is a Class D felony. Hartling also brought this up, but both he and the board said they wouldn't be pursuing legal action.

"In the interest of this community, we want to move forward and have dialogue that is open and productive, because in the end this is about our students' and our staff's safety," Hartling said Wednesday.

Union upset over personnel discussion

About two minutes into the 11-minute clip, which ends about two minutes after the board learns people can hear them, the board gets to the crux of the executive session: a custodian who was asking the board for more sick time.

Hartling referred to the case on at least four occasions as a "tough one," saying he wanted to be empathetic and give people the benefit of the doubt, but the custodian wasn't coming to work. The superintendent said he "will terminate his employment" when the custodian runs out of FMLA.

"The custodial union gets a large number of allocated sick days," Hartling said. He said it was 25 a year but then corrected himself to say it's no less than 15 and no more than 20. He later questioned if custodians could accrue up to 190 days.

Joe Slattery, a Ledyard Middle School custodian and president of AFSCME Local 1303-108, said Wednesday custodians can get 15 days per year and accrue 150.

Hartling said in executive session, "I can tell you that the union came to me, and said they have to support him but they're not going to support him, so they have to go through the process because that's their obligation as a union."

He suggested the board not take action on the request, "and that way you don't have to go public and make a public vote."

Slattery told The Day he never said he wasn't going to support the custodian.

In a statement, he said Hartling's comments "demonstrate a lack of professionalism and ethics. The incident also shows the unprofessionalism and cowardice of those elected Board members who sat by idly and did not attempt to put a stop to this unnecessary and childish behavior."

Larry Dorman, public affairs coordinator for AFSCME Council 4, which represents 30,000 public employees across Connecticut, said the union will represent the custodian to the best of its ability.

After last week's meeting, Hartling informed the custodian that "due to a technical issue an unknown number of participants" may have listened to part of the conversation. He correctly said neither the custodian's full name nor the specifics of his medical condition were disclosed.

Superintendent and board respond

Hartling emailed teachers Monday night apologizing for his remarks.

"This past week in an Executive Session I shared with the Board in an inappropriate manner a teacher's concerns related to students pulling their masks down to pick their noses and the 'wetness' of the sanitizing wipes," he began. "I'm saddened and sorry that my comments showed anything but the deepest respect for what this teacher, and all of our teachers do for our students each day."

Hartling added that he spent time with that teacher earlier in the week discussing concerns, and that while he didn't name the teacher, sharing that conversation "in any other context than professional was a poor choice."

He continued, "Over the past six months I have had countless emails, conversations and interactions with team members about concerns related to a safe return and our ongoing efforts. I have and will continue to take each concern seriously and more importantly seek ways to create solutions. I am truly sorry for any hurt or distrust that I have (sown)."

Hartling told The Day on Wednesday he's human, he's been working nonstop for six months to get this right, and his collective nerves led to a one-minute break. He also thinks people were tired after five hours of meetings.

He said it "breaks my heart" that this snippet is used as an example of him not caring, when "there couldn't be anything further from the truth." As examples of responding to teacher concerns, Hartling said he made sure vents worked, ordered buckets of different types of wipes and rearranged desks.

In its own statement, the Board of Education explained at length the purpose of, and transition into, last week's executive session. The board said it is "deeply apologetic to this employee that the details of this discussion were made public."

As for the first two minutes, the board said the dialogue "was nothing more than what should have been an off the record conversation" and that discussion during executive session "tends to not be formal."

The board also said it has the utmost respect for staff and teachers, apologized "for any negative perceptions that may have been created" and said it's "vehemently untrue" that it doesn't respect the feedback of teachers.


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