'Silenced and marginalized:' Teacher rep comments have Trumbull school board rethinking policy

TRUMBULL — The possibility of a teacher bypassing protocols and taking grievances directly to the school board and the public has Board of Education members considering ending a long-standing policy.

The school board’s March 23 meeting included a first reading of a proposed policy change that would rescind a board bylaw, first approved in 1987, that created a teacher representative on the Board of Education.

But comments made last year by teacher representative Matt Bracksieck have the board reconsidering the policy, although board member Marie Petitti made it clear that teacher input remained valuable.

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The relevant bylaw

Board members are considering eliminating bylaw 9140. The policy, first approved in 1987, reads in full:

"It shall be the policy of the Trumbull Board of Education to encourage participation of a teacher representative on the Board of Education. The purpose of this participation is two fold: to provide teachers with an opportunity to express their attitudes, opinions and ideas concerning the operation of the schools and to provide the Board of Education with the opportunity to listen to teacher opinion on matters which affect teachers."

“What we are talking about here is rescinding the written policy,” she said. “We don’t need a written policy regarding a teacher representative. As educators, we are open to a teacher voice.”

Susan Iwanicki, assistant superintendent, introduced the proposed policy change with a brief presentation.

“The Board of Education has requested a review of the policy in relation to best practice for school districts,” she said. “The Trumbull Education Association has expressed a desire to keep the position.”

According to Iwanicki, Bracksieck’s comments included a statement that curriculum demands on teachers has continually increased and a request that business teachers have their classes reduced from six sections to five.

Bracksieck also expressed anger at what he called an unsafe environment in classrooms following a Google meet in which an anonymous person made offensive comments, and frustration about the recent operational audit’s inability to pinpoint those responsible for financial mismanagement.

Iwanicki said Bracksieck also said he had intended to speak out at the Jan. 12 board meeting about what he called “coercive actions” of school leadership and of teacher leaders and department chairs being “silenced and marginalized,” she said.

“Those things caused the board concern, and to wonder about this policy and whether it was the proper forum to express those types of concerns,” Iwanicki said.

Emails to Bracksieck’s school and gmail address seeking comment were not immediately returned.

Iwanicki said she reached out to the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education to discuss her concerns and was told the comments potentially interfered with the teacher union’s grievance process and bypassed the chain of command.

In addition, CABE found no other school board had a written policy regarding a teacher representative, she said.

The association does recommend that teacher contracts include a provision for communicating with the board, and Iwanicki pointed out that Trumbull has one. The teacher contract calls for periodic informal meetings between the board and the Trumbull Education Association.

Board Chair Lucinda Timpanelli said the request to lighten the workload on business teachers was not appropriate for a school board meeting.

“That’s a negotiation issue between the board and the TEA,” she said. “That is something that’s negotiated through a contract.”

She said there is a chain of command for concerns: “They bring it up to the principal, the principal brings it to you as the assistant superintendent, and then ultimately to the superintendent.”

Superintendent Martin Semmel agreed.

“That was brought up in negotiations,” he said. “Then that topic was brought up again and caused you guys (the board members) to say, ‘Wait a minute. We resolved this issue. A contract was agreed to.’”

The board did not take action on the proposed policy change. Tim Gallo said he and the other members would have more discussion at future meetings after receiving more feedback.

Before the discussion, about a half-dozen Trumbull teachers and school advocates urged the board to reconsider revoking the policy.

“The teacher representative should remain part of the Board of Education because hearing teachers’ voices remains critical for all of us,” said PTA Council Vice President Ruth Fontilla. “The reports given constitutes one of the few opportunities to hear directly from teachers.”

Fontilla said a simple language change was a more appropriate response than rescinding a policy that had been in place for decades.

“Continue to allow teachers to know that their opinions matter,” she said. “If the concern is that a board meeting is not the place to air grievances and complaints, then revise the policy clearly to reflect that.”

John Congdon, a TEA member, agreed that Bracksieck had brought up controversial topics, but disagreed that anything he said could be considered a grievance.

“Taxpayers like myself like to hear what the teachers have to say,” he said. “Why remove a voice that so many residents rely on to understand what is really happening in the schools?”

Board member Scot Kerr agreed that modifying the policy made more sense than rescinding it.

“I understand the rationale, but ... I would like to see some potential discussion of alternatives,” he said. “There are some things that we do differently in Trumbull. I remember when representatives, student and teacher, were often recognized by the chair and there was active dialog. I would love to see a return to that.”