House Republican Leader Vincent Candelora said an inquiry into decisions made by the local school board in Killingly amounts to a “witch hunt” and vowed to pass a law that would add legislators to the state board of education.
Killingly faces a state board of education hearing over its denial of a proposed mental health center last year. Residents filed a complaint in April, claiming that the board had violated the educational interests of the state and failed to provide a safe and appropriate learning environment for its students.
Candelora, R-North Branford, said a bill to add lawmakers to the state board of education failed last session, but he plans to bring it back up, hoping it will address what’s happened in Killingly.
“The level of scrutiny has gone the wrong way, and to me the scrutiny should be on the state board of education,” Candelora said Thursday.
Candelora said he believes the state overstepped in its investigation at Killingly. In the past, investigations of “10-4b” complaints have typically been about funding issues or educational failings rather than providing services, he said.
“I think it’s a little bit of a political witch hunt, and I’d like to see how it plays out,” he said.
Currently, the members of the state board of education are gubernatorial appointees.
Adam Joseph, director of communications for Gov. Ned Lamont, said in a statement that it is difficult to comment on Candelora’s proposal without reviewing bill language.
“Gov. Lamont is committed to doing what is best for Connecticut’s students, and I’m not sure that introducing partisan appointees to the state Board of Education is in the best interests of our students, teachers, or districts,” Joseph’s statement said.
Candelora’s comments came the day after Killingly board members voted to censure Democratic member Susan Lannon for her interactions with the press, for asking questions of a mental health service provider and for working with another provider to allegedly “undermine” a previous vote of the school board.
“My limited involvement in this issue has been focused on helping the board identify an alternative path after members deliberated and decided the school-based health center model did not fit the district,” Rep. Anne Dauphinais, R-Killingly, said in a written statement. “I’m profoundly disappointed by the actions of those who continue to politicize the matter, subjecting the school district to an investigation from the State Board of Education, while also scuttling the possibility of a solution that would have offered students the services they say they need.”
Officials refuted Candelora’s claims that the state board had overstepped its authority.
“There’s nothing in 10-4b that limits it to financial or educational,” said Mike McKeon, the Connecticut Department of Education’s director of legal and governmental affairs. “That’s a fairly broad mandate.”
And, he added, the General Assembly has passed several measures focused on mental health care for kids, indicating the state’s broader interest in the issue.
Children can’t learn if they are struggling with their mental health, said Eric Scoville, a Department of Education spokesman.
“Killingly essentially made the case [for the investigation],” McKeon said, noting that other districts had provided the services while Killingly had voted down the initial proposal. “They provided the evidence.”
The district also mentioned the health center in paperwork requesting federal funds, McKeon said.
Rep. Jeff Currey, a Democrat from East Hartford and co-chair of the Education Committee, said he hadn’t had the chance to discuss a bill proposal with Candelora.
“I will say it’s disappointing when a [local] board of education doesn’t take the necessary and appropriate and available steps to make sure that their kids are healthy and have the support they need,” Currey said.
It’s not clear what support such a proposal from Republicans would have with a Democratic General Assembly and governor.
The legislature also made mental health care, particularly for children, a focal point of the last session. Children’s Committee leadership has signaled that the work to provide access to mental health services will continue this session.
Nationwide, children are reporting heightened problems with depression, anxiety, eating disorders and substance abuse. Isolation during the pandemic has exacerbated mental health problems, reports have said.
Killingly has been embroiled in a politically tinged battle over the school-based health center for about a year. The Killingly Board of Education first voted down the proposal for a grant-funded health center in March 2022.
The decision led to the formal complaint, the resignation of former board chair Janice Joly and numerous protests, as well as outcry from students who said they and their classmates needed help.
And a scathing report following an investigation from the Connecticut Department of Education recommended a formal hearing with possible corrective action.
“The department has determined that an appropriate learning environment and a safe school setting don’t exist at Killingly,” said McKeon while presenting the report to the state board.
The board can reach a settlement with the state ahead of the hearing.
Last week, counsel for the board submitted a request to extend the hearing because of family issues, which counsel for the complainants opposed. The state granted the extension.
The state hasn’t set a hearing date for Killingly.
Community Health Center, Inc., a health provider with locations across the state, had been in talks with the district to provide care at the high school. But they’ve pulled out of the deal, saying the atmosphere was hostile and too political, Killingly board members said at a meeting Wednesday night.
Past discussions about the health center were tinged with political rhetoric, and board members and parents raised concerns that therapists would talk to children without consent from their parents.
“We’re not here to be political,” said Jason Muscara, a Republican board member. “If respecting the rights of parents is political, then I’m political, I guess.”
But Candelora and members of the local board blamed the politicization of the health center on Lannon and the people who filed the complaint with the state.
Killingly board members said Wednesday that the state had indicated that a contract with Community Health Center — to provide counseling at the school but requiring parental consent — would be a viable alternative to the previous proposal from Generations Family Health Center, a non-profit that would have established a mental health center inside the high school.
Part of the problem, Killingly Republican board members said, was that Lannon asked questions of Community Health Center officials outside of regular board or ad hoc committee meetings.
The board formed an ad hoc committee, which initially included Lannon, to look at alternatives to the first school-based health center proposal. After a November meeting of that group, Lannon said it became evident that members had met outside of the ad hoc committee.
Lannon has since been removed from the ad hoc committee.
Kelly Martin, vice chair of the Killingly board and the original head of the ad hoc committee, said she’d reached out to Dauphinais to ask about alternatives. Dauphinais, she said, directed her to contact Rep. Candelora.
Candelora arranged a meeting with Community Health Center. Martin told other Republican caucus members they could attend.
Candlora said this kind of information sharing isn’t out of the ordinary and that he wasn’t at the whole meeting. He also said Dauphinais wasn’t in attendance.
He added that smaller districts, like Killingly, are trying to figure out how to provide services such as health care, mental health care and free lunches in addition to educating children.
“As a state, we’re still really in the budding process of how to provide these services to our students,” Candelora said.
Lannon, who was not invited to the meeting with Candelora, asked the Community Health Center about that meeting, as well as the cost to the district.
Lannon also forwarded an email exchange regarding the ad hoc committee and the discussion with state representatives to members of the press. The Norwich Bulletin published an article containing quotes from the email.
“In short, I find the CHCI proposal too little and too late,” Lannon wrote in her email, quoted in the Bulletin. “We have a present crisis. There is no assurance that CHCI will even be able to begin their program during the balance of this, or any, school year. One part-time therapist is insufficient.”
Board members blamed the hostile and political atmosphere at the district on actions by Lannon, including “her interference in contacting CHC outside of the board and ad hoc committee, working with another organization (Generations) to undermine a vote that was already lawfully taken by this board. In addition, Mrs. Lannon took it upon herself to forward an email thread between herself and me to the Norwich Bulletin in an attempt to try to humiliate both myself and the organization.”
CHC did not respond to requests for comment.
But a Jan. 10 email from one of the organization’s officials, alerting the Department of Education that they wouldn’t be working with Killingly, doesn’t mention Lannon.
“CHC made the decision,” says the email from Yvette Highsmith Francis, vice president of the eastern region for the CHC. “We need to be viewed as a trusted partner to have a successful relationship with a district.”
Local board members approved Lannon’s censure in a 7-1 vote Wednesday night.
Lannon rejected claims that she had done anything wrong, saying that her questioning wasn’t “out of scope” or inappropriate. She’d emailed board leadership along with CHC, and she remains committed to getting mental health care for the students, she said.
“Just because you don’t agree with my point of view or I don’t agree with yours doesn’t mean that I cannot speak,” Lannon said.
“It is disappointing that the atmosphere in Killingly is not one that they want to be a part of, but I am not going to own that. I think a lot of people need to do some deep reflecting about the image that is being projected by the overall presentation that the board has in our town.”
Lannon said she thought the combination of Generations and Community Health Center would provide the optimum services to kids and parents.
Community Health Center would have initially provided a part-time therapist. Generations planned to start with a couple of therapists a few days a week and increase the schedule as caseloads increased.
The Community Health Center contract also would have cost the district $25,000 in start-up costs. Generations wouldn’t have had any initial cost to the district, Lannon wrote in an open letter to the citizens of Killingly released Thursday.
“Ultimately, the decision [from CHC] not to enter a contract came from weeks of contractual demands and changes — a process I was not a part of,” Lannon wrote.
In a press release sent Friday morning, board chairman Norm Ferron said there are already school staff who work with kids who are having mental health problems, in addition to providing other support.
He also defended the original decision to vote against the school-based health center.
“Umm……..it’s called the democratic process,” Ferron’s press release said. “We are a constitutional republic, and elected officials are entitled by law to vote the way that they decide, just like the voters who voted for us were free to do, despite the chastisement of certain people who obviously never heard the word ‘no’ in their childhood.”
He pointed to examples of two citizens from other towns who came to speak in support of the Killingly board’s defense of parental rights and said the censure was not about free speech.
“Oh, and by the way, and I feel a little bit embarrassed for some people by being forced to explain this, but rule breaking has nothing to do with free speech,” he wrote. “This is covered in BOE bylaw 9271, Item10, which states: “Recognize that authority rests only with the whole Board assembled in a meeting, and make not personal promises nor take any private action that may compromise the Board.” sic“
In a statement, Andrew Feinstein, attorney for the complainants, blamed the loss of the Community Health Center contract on increasing requests for changes from the majority of board members.
“While the CHC school-based health center would have been better than the current situation, it was never an adequate solution to the intense problem of mental health in Killingly schools,” Feinstein’s statement said. “The move by the majority of the Board to censure Susan Lannon was a transparent ploy to shift the blame from themselves. The citizens of Killingly will see through this and know who to hold responsible.”
Lydia Rivera Abrams, a Democrat who voted for the censure and against the mental health center, suggested that the board take a private retreat with group therapy to work out their interpersonal problems.
Ferron responded that such a gathering would be an illegal meeting of a public board.
“We’ve done it before,” Rivera Abrams said, mentioning times in previous years when the board went on retreats. “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
Kyle Napierata, a Republican board member, suggested the complainants were the ones who needed counseling. The proposal was met with a laugh from Ferron.
“I think the complainants on the other side of this need some counseling as well, so until that happens, we’re still going to be getting attacked,” Napierata said during the meeting.
“I might have some issues, but I don’t think I need counseling. But I can recognize people that do,” Ferron said. “And they’ve been on display for over a year now.”
In interviews after the meeting, Napierata said his comments may have come off as flippant but that they came from an emotional place after months of dealing with issues regarding the health center.
Ferron said he wasn’t talking about people with real mental illness or who actually need mental health care, but some of the complainants who had displayed “over the top behaviors,” and made “crazy statements with no basis in fact.”