Rocky Road and Possible FOIA Missteps as Wilton BOE Interviews 7 Candidates to Fill Vacant Seat and Chooses New Chair, Tonight

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Rocky Road and Possible FOIA Missteps as Wilton BOE Interviews 7 Candidates to Fill Vacant Seat and Chooses New Chair, Tonight
Rocky Road and Possible FOIA Missteps as Wilton BOE Interviews 7 Candidates to Fill Vacant Seat and Chooses New Chair, Tonight

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Board of Education members Mandi Schmauch (L) and Ruth DeLuca at the Nov. 17, 2022 board meeting. (WE-TV screen shot)

When longtime Board of Education Chair Deborah Low resigned effective Nov. 11 because she moved to Weston, the five remaining members were tasked with filling the vacancy within 30 days, or else the responsibility would shift to the Board of Selectmen.

On schedule so far, Board members will interview seven candidates and vote in an executive session tonight, Thursday, Dec. 1. At a meeting immediately following, they are scheduled to appoint the new member, and they’ll also choose new officers.

But the road to get here has been a rocky one, revealing both underlying tensions between Board members as well as possible violations of Connecticut’s FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) statutes.

Quick Fix Not So Easy

Board members first discussed filling the vacancy at their Nov. 3 regular meeting.

Vice Chair Ruth DeLuca had prepared a memo suggesting former BOE member Laura Schwemm fill the open seat — something Schwemm had done once before when a five-month vacancy opened up in June 2021.

At the time, Low described Schwemm — a former two-term elected BOE member (2011-19) who’d served as Board secretary from 2013-17 and vice-chair from 2017-19 — as “someone with recent Board of Education experience who is both willing to assist for this short period and who will not be running for BOE election in 2021.”

But the current opening will be more than twice as long: Low’s second four-year term started in 2021, and her replacement will serve from now through November 2023, when the town will vote to fill the term’s remaining two years.

Any replacement has potential political implications. The current makeup of the board includes two Republicans — Jennifer Lalor and Mandi Schmauch, both up for re-election in 2023; and four Democrats — DeLuca, Pamela Ely and Nicola Davies. DeLuca is also up for reelection in 2023 after completing her first four-year term.

With FY2024’s budget season on the board’s doorstep, there’s a big lift waiting for whoever takes the seat. Town officials have already predicted this year’s budget process will be complicated. DeLuca acknowledged both politics and the budget-setting process in justifying why she suggested Schwemm.

“There’s something to be said for having someone fill the spot who is an experienced board member who can move into the position seamlessly, who understands the budget process, and who, to be perfectly frank, doesn’t have a political motive,” DeLuca said.

For prior Wilton town board vacancies, replacements have often been chosen from the same political party as the individual vacating the seat. Like Low, Schwemm ran and was elected to the BOE as a Democrat.

Until recently, the Board of Education has been one of Wilton’s least politicized boards, with all six members almost always voting unanimously on most issues and rarely, if ever, bringing political issues to board matters. In the last couple of years, however, national issues with political overtones have become part of the BOE conversation, including topics of COVID protocols and mandatory mask-wearing in schools, diversity policies, and parental involvement and oversight of curriculum.

At the Nov. 3 meeting, Schmauch and Lalor made a strong case for considering other people who might be interested in stepping up as well, rather than simply appointing Schwemm.

“Laura did a great job when there were only two months but this is a full year, and it might be great to hear from members of the public who might be interested in joining the board,” Schmauch said, adding that the position might be a better fit for someone with children currently enrolled in the district. “It might be great not just to assume a role but to find people who are really involved and looking to become even more involved.”

At the end of an extended back-and-forth, the board members agreed to decide how to proceed at their next meeting on Nov. 17.

Tensions Flare

The Board members reopened the topic of filling the open seat when they reconvened on Nov. 17. They also addressed how to choose the next executive board positions of chair, vice chair and secretary. Their discussions not only revealed underlying friction between members but also indicated some possible missteps they may have made navigating the Connecticut Freedom of Information Act.

After surveying the members about how they’d like to proceed, DeLuca, as interim board chair, seemed to carefully choose her words as she agreed to step back from her suggestion of slotting Schwemm into the seat and instead accede to Schmauch and Lalor’s desire for opening up the process to a wider pool of applicants.

Reading from a prepared document, she proposed a tight timeline: issue a public notice the next day (Friday, Nov. 18) calling for anyone interested in the seat to submit an application by Nov. 28; conduct interviews “at the board’s discretion” that week; and decide and vote on Dec. 1 in executive session.

DeLuca specified that the public notice would ask applicants to submit a resume and answer four questions, as criteria to decide who to call back for an interview:

“The questions would be: Why do you want to fill this vacancy and how do you think you can best contribute to the work of the board during the vacancy? Explain your understanding of the roles and responsibilities and time commitments of a board member. … Are you familiar with the board’s bylaws and the work of the board? Have you ever attended a board meeting? And … explain your understanding and familiarity with the school’s budget and the budget process and what your budgeting experience is,” DeLuca said.

Again, the members went through an extended, 10-minute-plus discussion negotiating on timing. Not only was the timing DeLuca laid out tight, but the Thanksgiving holiday break fell right in the middle. They also debated how to widely disseminate the public notice. [Editor’s note: it was published in GOOD Morning Wilton and other media, as well as on the Wilton Public Schools‘ website and the Town of Wilton‘s website.]

As the members talked, they often spoke over one another, and went back-and-forth multiple times trying to get the others to accept the particular dates they each wanted.

Both Schmauch and Lalor expressed their frustrations with not being able to provide more input on formulating the questions.

“I don’t mind [the notice] going out tomorrow, as long as we can sit on it tonight in terms of the questions. I’m only asking because you’ve had plenty of time to think about this and you just made up all the questions and now we’re sitting here listening to all of it and being asked to make a decision and to vote on it and to pass it through. So I’m just asking if we really want to get it out tomorrow, that’s fine. I’d love some time tonight to just think about it and maybe think about some other questions. Maybe those are the only ones, but just think about some possible other questions that maybe are important to me about somebody else coming in and fulfilling the position,” Lalor said.

Schmauch later echoed the sentiment. “I wish we had seen these questions earlier. It would’ve been great to but I understand you just, it’s not your fault.”

The interchange that followed revealed more tension and other issues:

Ely: She’s trying to pull a lot together.

DeLuca: I’m trying to —

Schmauch: I know.

DeLuca: I’m trying to make it work.

Ely: They’re open-ended enough. They’re —

DeLuca: I feel like they’re open-ended enough. They cover the work. I was just, um… [pause]

Lalor: I think my point though is we are supposed to be a board, right? It’s supposed to be everybody’s input and right now it’s feeling like it’s one person’s input and now we’re supposed to be saying ‘yea or nay’ to it without having any time to digest.

DeLuca: No, I’m happy to. I’m happy to. I just, in general, when I put this together, I felt like we were a board. And I put a memo out [at the last meeting suggesting Laura Schwemm fill the spot] and no one discussed it with me ahead of time either.

Lalor: You and I spoke about this.

DeLuca: Yeah, but, I put the memo out —

Lalor: We can talk outside of the meeting.

DeLuca: I put the memo out and if there had been another idea, it would’ve been nice to have some more time.

Schmauch: I’ll just say I had no idea there was even a memo or that we even had —

DeLuca: It was with the board materials [sent to members ahead of time].

Schmauch: Yeah I didn’t, I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t look at all the board materials every week as much as I should. …

DeLuca: I’m just trying to put it together in a way that really does, I think, facilitate the public search that respects our 30 days and does place the candidates on equal footing. So that was my intention with the questions. I think they’re pretty straightforward. I’m happy to send them to everybody.

Lalor: Thanks.

The same unease between members showed itself again later in the meeting, when Lalor asked Superintendent Kevin Smith how the board would go about electing officers. Smith explained that the process of nominations and voting by secret ballot was laid out in the BOE’s bylaws.

Lalor responded with a surprising allegation about how officer elections were conducted in the past. It also seemed like she was challenging an automatic ascension to chair for current vice chair DeLuca. [Editor’s note: GMW reached out multiple times to Lalor for clarification on her statements and events during the meetings; Lalor never responded.]

“My first two years on the board I was told who the chairs would be and who I should be approving. Last year I was told what position I would hold or what people would like me to hold, [Board secretary] and then we all voted on that. I’m just wondering if there’s a way to change how that all runs. It would be nice for people to be able to share if maybe somebody else wants to hold a position… ‘It would be nice for people to be able to say, ‘Hey, I would like to have this position and this is why.’ Versus somebody getting a phone call and saying, ‘Hey, I want this position and I would like your support.’ Or, ‘this is who I anticipate the officers being and I would like you all to support them.’ I just think it’s a backwards way to go about finding who should be here. That’s all. I think it’s just a more open process. Again, I feel like everybody here was elected to a position and everybody should be able to share why they want a specific position over another one or they don’t want position at all, but just something to think about.”

Possible FOIA Problems

As the BOE’s own member handbook outlines, the Freedom of Information Act (Conn. Gen. Stat. § 1-200 et seq.) ensures the public has access into the workings of public agencies.

“The law provides this access in two basic ways. First, the law states that the public shall have access to the meetings of public agencies, including boards of education, subject to narrow exceptions that are strictly construed. Second, the law provides that the public shall have access to records that are developed and/or maintained by public agencies,” the handbook explains, noting, “Board of education members and school district personnel must understand both aspects.”

The law specifies that board members who are not caucusing within their own political party can’t conduct board business — in person, over the phone or via email or other communication method — outside of public view and without properly publishing notice in advance of a meeting.

If true, Lalor’s description of events regarding past elections allege that discussions between board members occurred privately and out of view of the public, and that officer elections were potentially settled outside of a public meeting — something that appears to violate FOIA laws.

GMW reviewed video of the BOE meeting held Dec. 2, 2021 during which officer nominations and voting took place — the year Lalor said she was “told” the position she would hold [secretary]. During that meeting as nominations for Board chair were being made, Schmauch asked Low whether there had been conversations about officer positions.

“Typically people express interest to me, or sometimes I might ask them,” Low responded. “‘Wilton Tradition’ has been more senior board members who have the time and expressed interest.”

Schmauch asked if there’d been “any dissension” in those conversations, to which Low answered, “There were some questions, but I think people have agreed…”

That interchange appears to confirm Lalor’s allegations about discussions and agreement outside of any public meeting and that the elections had been worked out in advance.

Similarly, comments made during the Nov. 17, 2022 meeting by Lalor and DeLuca refer to having discussions outside of any meeting accessible to members of the public.

  • DeLuca said about a memo she’d distributed, “No one discussed it with me ahead of time.”
  • Lalor said to DeLuca, “We can talk outside of the meeting.”

While not egregious violations, the comments raise concerns, according to Thomas Hennick, the Public Education Officer for CT’s Freedom of Information Commission.

Hennick explained that a conversation between just two members of a six-person board isn’t considered a quorum and arguably might not be a violation, but it’s still questionable.

“It sounds like it smacks of the Latin phrase, seriatim, which is a serial meeting, and I really think they want to be careful about doing all that behind closed doors. In other words, the chairman can’t call you, then me, then somebody else. So, no, that’s not a conversation amongst a quorum, but ultimately people were polled and you just can’t do that,” Hennick said.

“It sounds like, at the very least, they had conversations that if they weren’t a meeting, they sure were very close to being a meeting that they shouldn’t have had,” he added.

Board members can email or discuss organizational details, like setting dates or agenda items. “That’s okay. As long as there was no conversation that happened back and forth about things,” Hennick said.

Hennick explained why FOIA laws are so important. “The basis of the law is to make sure public agencies do their work in public, so that the people who are most affected can see what’s going on. When things are done clandestinely, it’s a recipe for disaster. That work needs to be done in public. For democracy to work people, people need to have knowledge,” he said.

While the law does allow for some discussions to be held in executive sessions outside of public view, the rules specifically spell out what must be shared in a public notice at least 24 hours in advance.

Board members receive training on FOIA law when they begin serving on the BOE, and they receive a board member’s handbook that spells out FOIA laws. According Wilton School District records, Schmauch, DeLuca and Lalor attended their New Board Member Orientation on Nov. 19-20, 2019, and Davies and Ely attended theirs on Dec. 13, 2021.

In addition, on Nov. 30, 2021Shipman & Goodwin, LPC attorney Jessica Richman Smith led a Board workshop to specifically review FOIA statutes. All members except for Schmauch attended.

GOOD Morning Wilton reached out to Lalor, DeLuca, Low and Smith with detailed, written questions regarding interactions between board members, political implications, board elections and filling the vacant seat.

Lalor did not respond to multiple requests for comments.

DeLuca emailed a response: “It’s not appropriate for me to give my personal commentary on board matters. What is appropriate, as interim chair, and therefore board spokesperson, is to summarize what happened at the public meeting on November 17, 2022. The board discussed and agreed to a public search to fill the vacancy. As discussed, the notice went out on Friday, November [18], 2022. The board takes its FOIA obligations very seriously. It is my understanding that we operate at all times in compliance with FOIA.”

Low emailed her response: “I hope you understand the unique position I am in. Given that I have resigned my position on the BOE effective Nov. 11, it would not be appropriate for me to comment on the work of the Board at this time.” She did not respond to follow-up questions regarding any events during her time on the board.

In a phone interview, Smith told GMW that he does not play a role in how the Board members conduct business. “I don’t think it’s my role [to comment]. I’m the Board’s only employee, and so my role is to support whatever I can in their decision making, but I don’t play a role in that. The bylaws are pretty clear about what should be done both in terms of what happens when there’s a vacancy and then also with the election of officers. Where the bylaws are silent, Board members have discretion, or the Board has discretion.”

Seven Candidates to be Interviewed

Of 10 applications received by the Board, seven people will be interviewed Thursday evening in executive session:

  • Philip J. Wax, III, Ed.D.: Westhill High School Assistant Principal; History Professor at Norwalk Community College
  • David Levinson: Teach for America Managing Director — Strategy, People & Operations
  • Matt Filip: Weston High School Assistant Principal; former science teacher at Middlebrook
  • Laura Schwemm: former Wilton Board of Education member
  • Elena Sycheva: Corporate Controller at Greenfield Partners, LLC
  • Chris Kaiser: WWE Executive Vice President, Wilton Youth Football & Cheer Treasurer/Secretary
  • Patrick Pearson: MasterCard Vice President — Open Banking Partnerships

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