The recent public meeting held by our Board of Education (BOE) at Greenwich High School over the abrupt resignation of schools superintendent Sidney Freund was noteworthy for the emotional expressions of adoration for the departing administrator and the embarrassing mea culpas of some BOE members, who rushed from the podium to hug Freund, apologizing for letting it happen. It was also noteworthy for the demonization of the two members of the board with whom Freund disagreed and then blamed for his decision to leave after only two years, breaking his promise to the BOE that he would fulfill his three-year contract.
It was high public drama, but the outpouring of praise and regret expressed by those present at the high school meeting was tempered by the realization that a large proportion of those in the partially filled auditorium were teachers and administrators, as well as the PTA, and there is no more readily and effectively mobilized group in town than the PTA.
Still, there was good reason for concern. Freund is Greenwich’s fourth superintendent in ten years, not counting interims. He had years of experience in school administration that led the board to pin their hopes on keeping him long-term. In fact, the Board had approved beginning negotiations on Freund’s second three-year contract when he abruptly announced his decision. It was a decision all the more surprising, since he had gotten virtually everything he had asked for — approval of the High School’s auditorium project (MISA), all but $39,000 of an approximately $140 million school budget, and even the implementation of his beloved International Baccalaureate (IB) program into Western Middle School (WMS) and possible extension into the High School.
However, the controversial IB program became a flash point. At some point during the 2011-2012 budget discussions late last fall, Freund claimed that he already had the Board’s approval for implementation of IB at WMS and the 9th and 10th grades at the high school. Two board members, Marianna Ponns Cohen and Peter Sherr, did not recall having voted for such a major course of action, and Ms. Ponns Cohen asked the Superintendent to provide the Board with proof of the Board having done so.
What Ms. Ponns Cohen discovered, in January 2011 after much diligence, was that the BOE chairman Steve Anderson and Superintendent Freund had already forged ahead and submitted letters of support on board and public school stationery, respectively, to the IB Organization (IBO) in December 2009 and early 2010 for IB implementation throughout the school district, with applications to the IBO for WMS, stating the intention to expand IB to the entire High School, and possibly to other middle schools. None of this was done with prior Board approval, full Board member knowledge or after presentation in a public forum for discussion. Superintendent Freund and Mr. Anderson also committed to the IBO that the Greenwich BOE had pledged significant funds for teacher training, additional staff and teaching materials to effect such implementation. In fact, the only thing that Freund had put to the Board in writing in December 2009 is that “members of his staff were investigating different instructional models for District middle schools, including IB, ” and he promised to get back to the Board with a study. He never did.
Ms. Ponns Cohen requested that the town’s legal department be alerted to this situation. On February 24, 2011, the town attorney recommended that Mr. Anderson obtain retroactive Board approval of the “troubling” (his word) previously unauthorized IB implementation. In the corporate world this could have been ground for dismissal. In this case, however, it brought down the wrath of Freund and Anderson, along with certain members of the Board, upon the whistle blowers. Several frequent observers of BOE meetings have reported rude and uncivil treatment of Sherr and Ponns Cohen by Anderson, Freund and some members of the board.
Ponns Cohen and Sherr say, not without reason, that it was their fiduciary responsibility to parents, students and taxpayers that before Board adoption the superintendent be asked to provide substantive evidence that the IB program, now in place at two elementary schools, Dundee and New Lebanon, would improve the quality of education, raise academic achievement and justify the added cost when extended to the secondary levels. This effort to seek such proof was the “harassment” that Freund referred to in his public explanation of his decision. He appeared unaccustomed to having his judgment challenged or to accepting the need to be accountable to the public and all members of the Board. The duty and responsibility of Board members is to set policy and budgets that best serve the educational needs of the district, and in so doing, all opinions, facts and factors need to be aired and evaluated — honest disagreements included. Civility and respect are due to each member. And, unanimity should not be required in its report to the public. Indeed, none other than the U.S. Supreme Court itself provides that dissenting opinions be heard.
We believe Sidney Freund is arguably one of the most qualified superintendents we have had. His supporters claim he has made positive contributions to our system. Ms. Ponns Cohen even credited him for his ability to identify good instructional leaders. It is hard, therefore, to rationalize his professionalism as a school superintendent with his inability to respond to and work openly with members of the Board who ask legitimate questions to guide their governance. The reasons he gave for breaking his contract and resigning so abruptly after only two years bordered on the petulant and inconsequential, and simply raised more questions.
We were wondering if there might not be more to the story that we did not know, when, as we went to press, it came to light that Freund had gone behind the back of both the BET and RTM by withholding critical information for months on money he expended without appropriation, money that should have been in the BOE budget approved by the RTM — a violation of our charter and the law under state statutes. The RTM’s Finance Committee, expressing its disappointment in the conduct of the Board, wrote, “It violates our understanding of institutional integrity and cooperation.” The superintendent announced his resignation only a week after this discovery.
There was a clear lack of good governance on the part of the Board. It abandoned its responsibility for oversight and due diligence and failed to maintain open communications in reaching final decisions without the kind of acrimony and personal animosity that has marked its meetings. Each member is dedicated to doing what he or she thinks is right for parents, children and teachers. But, insisting that those who ask questions be silenced, as well as insisting on rubber-stamp approval of a superintendent’s proposals, will not lead to a healthy and better system.