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A Question That Remains

Published: December 15, 2016

“Save Our Schools!” was the message of signage about town the past several weeks, as the Board of Education pondered whether closing any school was the best answer to using building space opened up by a declining school population. Hundreds of people showed up for the showdown at the Board of Education’s December 6 meeting to express discontent with the idea of closing Newtown Middle School. They came away satisfied, no doubt, with the 7-0 vote to save that school.

It is interesting that a proposal to save taxpayers money — arguably for the short term, but possibly over the course of years — raises such ire; meanwhile, a tangled web that has been weaving itself in and out of the Board of Education for more than a year, costing taxpayers nearly $100,000 to resolve, has created little stir.
In sharing e-mails and texts from 2014 and early 2015 that they believed contained public information, (now former) Board of Education (BOE) members Kathy Hamilton and David Freedman thought to alert others to perceived problematic practices of the BOE — illegal meetings via e-mail.

A Freedom of Information complaint to determine if the Hamilton/Freedman transmissions were private or public information (the Freedom of Information Commission [FOIC] eventually ruled they were public), and questions about who received those transmissions became the focus of this issue, instead.

Legislative Council Chair MaryAnn Jacob has recently acknowledged that she notified the FOIC in early November that she was a recipient of the questionable transmissions. That came following the FOIC’s latest demand that Hamilton and Freedman recover the electronic submissions — and their subsequent inability to do so — identifying all recipients. While Ms Jacob’s letter to the FOIC provides some clarification, others who were on the receiving end of the Hamilton/Freedman missives have not been revealed.

The complaint by now former BOE member Laura Roche and resident Laura Terry to determine if the Hamilton/Freedman transmissions were public or private has been a costly one. It remains in their hands to determine if the identification of all recipients goes forward; but does that knowledge have benefit? Other recipients may have, like Ms Jacob, viewed the transmissions as informational, but to be handled by the board it affected. The Board of Education and town authorized paying thousands of dollars in legal fees as the web entangled Hamilton, Freedman, the Board of Ethics, and others not employed by school or town. The underlying question lost in the brouhaha of the FOI investigation remains: were illegal meetings were being held electronically by the Board of Education?

There may have been no intention of deceit on the part of anyone involved, but oh, what a tangled — and costly — web has been woven. “Save Our Schools” is a cry that encompasses more than just the brick and mortar buildings.

If any gain has come from the cost, it may be that all boards strive to better understand FOI regulations and see the value in transparency. Pursuing the details of those names means continued personal and financial cost; let us trust that all boards’ business is now carried on to the best of their abilities and for the good of Newtown.

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