I have in my hot little hands the report (PDF – Straight Talk) that The Region 1 Board of Education commissioned attorney Jeffrey Pingpank to conduct regarding the sudden departure of the two top administrators at Housatonic Valley High School just before the start of school in September. And I’ve listened to Friday’s special board meeting (podcast – WHDD) at which the report was officially distributed.
I’ve heard the arguments pro and con. Some board members and taxpayers feel the report contains too much hearsay and that it doesn’t include enough “positive” comments. Well, Gretchen Foster and Maryann Buchanan, the principal and vice principal who left in August for positions in the Torrington school district, would not speak to Pingpank — presumably on the advice of their attorneys. And there was not much of a paper trail for Pingpank to examine. So he interviewed as many employees and board members as he could and tried in good faith to put together a summation of his work.
As for the lack of positive comments, Pingpank’s mandate was to conduct a review and determine why the two senior administrators left at the worst possible moment less than a month before school. I’ve worked in schools for more than 20 years and have seen similar things happen elsewhere, but never have I seen the head of a school and her chief deputy resign as the school year is set to begin. The two women obviously did not feel welcome, they felt compelled to leave and they had other options. Beyond learning from our mistakes, there’s not a whole lot of “positive” that can be gleaned from these kinds of circumstances.
But I think that’s precisely the point. As Lou Timolat and Amy Wynn suggested at the BOE meeting, be it an reaccreditation or an investigation, anytime you can stop and contemplate the state of your institution, examine its shortcomings and sketch out a roadmap for future success, it reflects well on the organization and reassures the public that every effort is being made to make it a better place. This document can also be handed to prospective principal candidates who might be wary of the school’s reputation.
What we learned from the Pingpank report — and the earlier NEASC accreditation report (PDF) — is that Housatonic is a school in which the faculty are a disproportionately strong force, with the power concentrated in a relatively small few (most of them anti-Foster) who perform often conflicting roles as department heads and union officials. Indeed, I’m told that one of them was a finalist to become principal when the job was ultimately offered to Foster several years ago. Not good.
To make matters worse, the relationship between the high school administration and school district’s central office appears to have been poisoned at some point. “Icy” emails were exchanged between the superintendent’s office and Buchanan.
The tough-talking assistant superintendent, Diane Goncalves, who is the only person named in the report aside from Buchanan, Foster and her predecessor Tom Gaisford, was singled out for her “intimidating” manner and being “unduly blunt.” Pingpank said Goncalves’ conduct in directing her attorney to fire off a threatening letter (PDF) to the board seemed “calculated to create a chilling effect over” board communications concerning her.
I think Pingpank did a very good job under difficult circumstances. As HVRHS parents, we need to know what’s going on in our dysfunctional high school. Maybe this could even start a reform movement. The problem is that starting a reform in a public school is almost impossible, but that’s another matter!