Board Members Admit
Discussing Doninger Controversy
During Private, Closed-Door Meeting
In Clear Violation Of FOI Law
By ANDY THIBAULT
The Cool Justice Report
Oct. 18, 2007
HARTFORD -- They tried to downplay the substance of the discussion. But, three members of the Regional District 10 Board of Education [Burlington-Harwinton] admitted during a state Freedom of Information Commission hearing Thursday that they indeed discussed the Avery Doninger free speech controversy during a private meeting on June 11.
The board faces civil penalties including a fine for conducting a private meeting without a legitimate reason. The FOI hearing officer, Atty. Victor Perpetua, will file a report with the commission after reviewing testimony and exhibits. The commission will then vote on Perpetua's findings. The process can take weeks or months.
Perhaps the most telling and bizarre admissions Thursday were by school board member Peter Turner. Turner has been on the board for 14 years, including six as chairman. He knew - or should have known - that any discussion of the Doninger matter should have taken place in open session and under public scrutiny.
Turner said he heard a rumor from the first selectman about the Doninger case. For whatever reason, Turner waited until he was behind closed doors on June 11 with Superintendent Paula Schwartz and the board to inquire about the matter.
Boards of education must conduct their business in public unless they have a specific legal reason to bar the public. There was no specific legal reason to bar the public from discussion of the Doninger controversy on June 11.
The board had voted to go into executive [private] session on June 11 to discuss "pending litigation." There was no litigation related to the Doninger matter at that time. A civil rights lawsuit against the district was not filed until July 16.
Avery Doninger, a senior at Lewis S. Mills High School in Burlington, has civil rights actions pending in the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York City and U.S. District Court in New Haven. She and her mother, Lauren Doninger, sued Principal Karissa Niehoff and Superintendent Paula Schwartz after they removed Avery from the ballot for Class of 2008 secretary.
Avery Doninger was among a group of four students who lobbied the community for support of an annual battle of the bands sponsored by the Student Council. The student council adviser suggested the students reach out to taxpayers and the students copied the adviser on an email to the community.
Schwartz became very upset after taxpayers called her and she cancelled the event known as Jamfest. Doninger subsequently referred to administrators in a live journal blog as central office douchebags, and Schwartz's 36-year-old son found the posting while trolling the internet for his mother a couple weeks later. While Avery Doninger was banned from school office, another student who called Schwartz a dirty whore was given an award and lauded for citizenship.
School officials suppressed the write-in vote in which Doninger was elected by a plurality.
When asked to produce the write-in votes on Aug. 1, Schwartz - through the board attorney, Christine Chinni - lied about the existence of the write-in ballots.
"The Board does not poses [sic] any copies of the write-in votes for Ms. Doninger … " Chinni wrote. "Accordingly, the Board will not be providing any documents in response to those requests."
Schwartz eventually produced the write-in ballots after the Chief State's Attorney was notified of possible document destruction - a Class A misdemeanor. Doninger's write-in win was widely reported by media including The Cool Justice Report, CtNewsJunkie.com, The Journal Inquirer, The Hartford Courant and the Waterbury Republican-American.
Schwartz refused to accept Doninger's apology for her choice of words on the personal blog discovered by Schwartz The Younger. During an assembly, Niehoff banned free-speech and Team Avery t-shirts and seized at least one shirt.
The Doningers are seeking -- among other remedies -- an apology for civil rights violations, recognition of the write-in victory and sharing of the secretary position with the administration-backed candidate.
U.S. District Judge Mark Kravitz denied a motion for a preliminary injunction and his ruling is being appealed to the Second Circuit.
On Thursday, Region 10 Board Chair Beth Duffy testified the board discussed Avery Doninger in the private meeting for at least several minutes. Board member Jayne Stocker acknowledged telling Lauren Doninger prior to the June 11 meeting that Avery Doninger's punishment would likely be discussed during an executive session.
Witnesses were not sequestered. They all heard each other's testimony. The party line for the school board seemed to be they talked about other matters during the executive session.
It is difficult to discern what actually happened behind closed doors with this board of education. Were notes taken or kept? How long did members of this public agency actually talk about Avery Doninger in private? Why did the board members let the superintendent continue to bungle the controversy and refuse to consider alternative solutions?
As they left the hearing, Schwartz and Turner refused to give their names to a Channel 30 camera man.
The hearing was taped by CT-N, The Connecticut Network. CT-N generally runs such broadcasts 24-48 hours after taping.
Andy Thibault, author of Law & Justice In Everyday Life, is a former vice chairman of the Litchfield Board of Education and a former hearing officer and commissioner for the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission. Thibault teaches writing and journalism and is a mentor in the Master of Fine Arts Writing Program at Western Connecticut State University. He also manages a foundation that has given more than $150,000 to teen-age writers in Connecticut during the past 10 years.
According to unofficial minutes, the BOE members present at the June 11, 2007 meeting were:
Joseph Arcuri, 127 Harmony Hill Road, Harwinton CT 06791, (860) 485-1547
Beth Duffy, Chairperson,187 North Road, Harwinton, CT 06791, (860) 485-9285
Paul Omichinski Treasurer, 69 Gilbert Lane, Burlington, CT 06013, (860) 675-3849
Elaine Schiavone, 6 Lake Shore Drive, Harwinton, CT 06791, (860) 485-1905
Ray Sikora, 107 Mountain Spring Road, Burlington, CT 06013, (860) 673-7710
Jayne Stocker, 106 Mountain Spring Road, Burlington, CT 06013, (860) 673-4677
Karen Sullivan-Shepard, Secretary, 16 Two Buck Ring, Burlington, CT 06013, (860) 675-9590
Peter Turner, Vice Chairman, 14 Two Buck Ring, Burlington, CT 06013, (860) 675-5923
Administrators at the public meeting were: Paula Schwartz, Superintendent; Michael Landry, Assistant Superintendent; and David Lenihan, Business Manager.