Sherman School’s 13th Annual Harvest Fair, Saturday, October 15, 12pm-4pm
October 13, 2016
New Fairfield Board of Selectmen Hold Special and Town Meetings
October 20, 2016

During the October 6 Board of Education (BOE) meeting it was announced that there were no legal violations regarding privacy issues by a BOE member or the Superintendent of New Fairfield Schools related to  edits of a citizen-produced YouTube video.

The controversy began when a YouTube video “Take Our Schools Back,” produced and posted by a small group of New Fairfield residents discussing their views about BOE and Superintendent Dr. Alicia Roy’s leadership, was edited with “rebuttals” and reposted as a second “response video” by BOE member Susan Starr and former First Selectman and current Board of Finance member John Hodge.

The group involved with the original video were angered over the editing and reposting of the video as a second “response video,” and charged that information therein violated several laws, including the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Both Ms. Starr and Mr. Hodge indicated they made the edits to the original video to dispute what they believed was incorrect or misrepresented information, some by omission, and did not break any laws in doing so.

Prior to the beginning of the October 6 BOE meeting, the Board met in Executive Session with attorney Gary Brochu to review his findings related to the “response video.”  Mr. Brochu is with the law firm Shipman and Goodwin, a Hartford-based firm specializing in school law.

Based on that review and Mr. Brochu’s findings, Chairman Steve Burfeind made a public statement that there were “no FERPA or FOIA violations committed by the Superintendent or one of our Board members.”

The original documentary-style video appeared on YouTube in late August and was sent to all Connecticut school districts.  The video featured citizens known to vocalize their concerns by speaking at BOE meetings, writing Letters to the Editor and developing petitions. A former student produced the video under the pseudonym John Avery.

The original version used copy-righted video from BOE and BOF meetings and Dr. Roy and BOE members were not asked to participate in the video or offer rebuttals. Ms. Starr has said that Dr. Roy was not involved in creating the response video but that she did speak to her to fact-check certain points.

Mr. Hodge and Ms. Starr defended their actions at an earlier BOE meeting, indicating that positive changes were underway, including a new math curriculum, new special education staff and programs, a BOE Communications sub-committee and an increase in test scores, and that the original video did not reflect any of that information. Ms. Starr and Dr. Roy declined to comment for this article, although she indicated that it is now her “desire to focus on moving the district forward.”  Jonathan-Joseph Ganjian, who noted at a BOE meeting that he believed his FERPA rights were violated and was considering legal action, also did not return comment for this article.

Laura Consiglio, who appeared in the video, is “very disappointed” in the attorney’s findings and would like to have the complete report of their findings to “try to better understand the scope of their investigation.”

“I would have had more confidence in the report if it had been investigated by an independent agency,” she said. “The fact that Dr. Roy had any involvement in supplying information for what she knew was the production of the (response) video is disconcerting; although an independent report would be more compelling, I don’t need legal confirmation of what I inherently know was done with malicious intent,” Ms. Consiglio said.

“I believe that it is now up to the Board to hold their own members accountable for ethical and professional standards of conduct and to demand nothing less from District employees,” she said.  Additionally, she does not believe all BOE members have equal access to the Superintendent, and that is, in part, why “there is a lack of trust in her leadership.”

“I agreed to participate (in the original video) in order to help present a summary of the concerns I had repeatedly presented to the BOE,” she said.  Ms. Consiglio explained that the original video was a “compilation of concerns summarized in one place.”

John Hodge expressed his feelings on the matter.  “While I am not surprised by the findings of the attorney, I am happy to hear that both Susan (Starr) and I were officially exonerated.  We stood up for what we believed in, which is more than I can say for those who put together the video and are now cowering in the corner afraid to reveal themselves,” he said.  “I find it extremely hypocritical that some of those who have been screaming the loudest about the ‘response video’ know who made the original video and won’t reveal the author’s identity – it is wrong for any member of the BOE to allow someone to publish such a wholly inaccurate video and not require that they identify themselves so that members of the public can determine what their agenda is,” Mr. Hodge said.

“’John Avery’ is a coward for doing what he he did because not only were many of the facts in his video inaccurate, which I believe he knew were wrong, but he has not stepped forward to reveal his true identity – if he really believed that his video was accurate he would come out of the shadows,” he added.  Mr. Hodge indicated that what bothered him the most about the situation is that “there is small group of people trying to impose their will on the elected members of the BOE and the rest of the town” and who create an environment where “people with opposing views to theirs will not stand up at public meetings because they do not want to be subjected to the abuse that will surely follow.”

Around that time, Future Management Systems, the firm hired by the BOE to help improve relations between the community and school officials, as well as each other, announced it suspended its work “until conditions improve in the community,” according to the firm.  However, the BOE said it is still looking into ways to improve relations with the community.

By J.U. Azzi