Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Pingpank Report

I have in my hot little hands the report (PDF - Straight Talk) that The Region 1 Board of Education commissioned attorney Jeffrey Pingpank to conduct regarding the sudden departure of the two top administrators at Housatonic Valley High School just before the start of school in September. And I've listened to Friday's special board meeting (podcast - WHDD) at which the report was officially distributed.

I've heard the arguments pro and con. Some board members and taxpayers feel the report contains too much hearsay and that it doesn't include enough "positive" comments. Well, Gretchen Foster and Maryann Buchanan, the principal and vice principal who left in August for positions in the Torrington school district, would not speak to Pingpank — presumably on the advice of their attorneys. And there was not much of a paper trail for Pingpank to examine. So he interviewed as many employees and board members as he could and tried in good faith to put together a summation of his work.

As for the lack of positive comments, Pingpank's mandate was to conduct a review and determine why the two senior administrators left at the worst possible moment less than a month before school. I've worked in schools for more than 20 years and have seen similar things happen elsewhere, but never have I seen the head of a school and her chief deputy resign as the school year is set to begin. The two women obviously did not feel welcome, they felt compelled to leave and they had other options. Beyond learning from our mistakes, there's not a whole lot of "positive" that can be gleaned from these kinds of circumstances.

But I think that's precisely the point. As Lou Timolat and Amy Wynn suggested at the BOE meeting, be it an reaccreditation or an investigation, anytime you can stop and contemplate the state of your institution, examine its shortcomings and sketch out a roadmap for future success, it reflects well on the organization and reassures the public that every effort is being made to make it a better place. This document can also be handed to prospective principal candidates who might be wary of the school's reputation.

What we learned from the Pingpank report — and the earlier NEASC accreditation report (PDF) — is that Housatonic is a school in which the faculty are a disproportionately strong force, with the power concentrated in a relatively small few (most of them anti-Foster) who perform often conflicting roles as department heads and union officials. Indeed, I'm told that one of them was a finalist to become principal when the job was ultimately offered to Foster several years ago. Not good.

To make matters worse, the relationship between the high school administration and school district's central office appears to have been poisoned at some point. "Icy" emails were exchanged between the superintendent's office and Buchanan.

The tough-talking assistant superintendent, Diane Goncalves, who is the only person named in the report aside from Buchanan, Foster and her predecessor Tom Gaisford, was singled out for her "intimidating" manner and being "unduly blunt." Pingpank said Goncalves' conduct in directing her attorney to fire off a threatening letter (PDF) to the board seemed "calculated to create a chilling effect over" board communications concerning her.

I think Pingpank did a very good job under difficult circumstances. As HVRHS parents, we need to know what’s going on in our dysfunctional high school. Maybe this could even start a reform movement. The problem is that starting a reform in a public school is almost impossible, but that's another matter!


  1. There is documentation for much of the report- e-mails FOId and documentation written immediately after the fact by witnesses and victims. Should those be made public? Much is not in the report- it has been reported to Pingpank and others that the principal at Sharon Center doesn't pay into her health insurance, received a $10,000 annuity, and had her education covered by tax-payer dollars.

    And the BOE retains an attorney -at whose expense?- to spin criticism and bad news.


  2. If those documents exist and are FOILable, then any citizen can obtain them by filing a request with the central office and making them "public."
    Not sure what the principal's compensation package has to do with Pingpank's charge to investigate the departure of Foster and Buchanan.

  3. Oh, and Marshall. The Pingpank Report has introduced a new phrase into Northwest Corner lexicons: "The Cheeseburger Incident."

  4. Lets send this out the the Diane!

  5. Marshall, You have stooped to a new low. Talk about vindictive! It's time to stop making one person a target when there is a lot of blame to go around.

  6. It seems that Mr. Miles is stooping to new lows. Does he (or any of the readers of this blog) believe that his last comment represents legitimate discourse? And before he claims that he was "fooling around" or being "light-hearted", he should reconsider whether his comments on his radio show or his other musings afford him the luxury of "fooling" or "lightheartedness".

    Maybe it is Mr. Miles to whom the Pingpank reports refers by saying "Many of the people I spoke to are looking for vindication of their point of view, hoping that their 'side' prevails." And if Mr. Miles didn't speak directly to Pingpank, his repeated attacks on one individual suggest that he resides squarely in the "camp" that wants its side vindicated.

  7. Absolutely hilarious, Marshall! Check this one out. I know you will appreciate it.

  8. I'm noticing a pattern in the last two anonymous comments: "Stoop to a new low" seems to be a common talking point -- implying that there were previous lows that are now being exceeded.

    Those comments deserve to be heard. I don't always agree with Marshall, but it would be nice if his detractors would sign the guestbook of this blog.

  9. I would happily "sign the guestbook", but it seems that when one is publicly identified in this school district as opposing Mr. Miles or his views, one becomes fodder for his little radio show.

    See, for example, his responses in the comments sections of the articles published in the Torrington Register-Citizen after the August meeting.

    Consider, also, the fact that M. Miles read an email from a Canaan resident on the air who had been critical of him and questioned the author of the email.

    Consider how often he has mispronounced the name of the Assistant Superintendent of School on his radio show (shes been in Region 1 for quite some time and her name is not that difficult to manage).

    Consider the fact that on his 12-20-10 radio program he described the student who spoke at the Special Meeting as "the student representative to the Board", yet, that student is not the representative of anyone. (Mr. Miles has been to enough meetings to know who the representatives to the Board are.)

    On his 12-20-10 radio show he reported that the student said "we have witnessed..."; in fact, the student said, "I have witnessed...". Why is that student more credible than the interim principal of the high school.

    He again used the word "bullying" in his description of events at the high school (on his 12-20-10 interview of Ruth Epstein). Mr. Pingpank never used the word "bullying" in the report. His bias shows through his choice of words.

    Enough is enough.

  10. Dear Anonymous,

    Thanks for your comments.

    If you "become fodder for [Marshall's} little radio show," then you sound more than capable of defending yourself.

    I would also urge Marshall to respond to these criticisms.

  11. I don't engage with Anonymous postings about me..never have, never will. If they don't have enough backbone to identify themselves, or be associated with their comments, then they don't deserve my response, or my respect of their point of view..what would these people do at town meetings, show up in a mask..they are sad icons of the down side of the internet, legends in their own minds. If someone annoys me as much as I annoy them, one would think they would just stop listening...I guess it's my charming personality that keeps them coming back for more...hmmm..maybe I'll play the song Cheesburger In Paradise when ever I talk about the Assistant Superintendent...

  12. Is there anyone other than the Assistant Superintendent that you feel warrants your harassing comments? The issues at the high school were here long before she arrived,just read the NEASC report! Maybe she just did what was asked of her???? You are taking freedom of speech too far! I hope our Assistant Superintendent is aware of this blog. Maybe she will put an end to this. As you are aware , and took her to task for she is represented by an attorney. Let's wait and see what our "direct,blunt and (oh yes) vindictive Assistant Superintendent does about the continued harassment she has been subjected to.

  13. Dear Anonymous,

    The Reg 1 assistant superintendent would have no authority to "put an end" to this blog -- which, by the way, I'm sure she and her attorneys are aware of. She is a public figure whose actions we are free to debate or even satirize.

    I am careful not to allow the posting of defamatory comments on this blog. And it would be a stretch to argue that any comment in this thread constitutes "harassment."

    The only way any comment about her by the public would be actionable would be if it was inaccurate and motivated by actual malice.

  14. It is interesting that Mr. Miles begins his post by saying, "I don't engage with Anonymous postings about me..never have, never will" yet proceeds to do just that.

    Anonymity is vital when dealing with individuals of Mr. Miles' ilk, who believe that their access to the public airways endows them with the right to discuss individuals (members of the public, teachers, and administrators) on his radio show without any real knowledge of the events that he discusses. (Because, let's be honest, how could he know about the events?)

    Sadly, he shows his true colors when he says, "maybe I'll play the song Cheesburger In Paradise when ever I talk about the Assistant Superintendent." That level of disrespect has no place in our communities and does nothing (absolutely nothing) to promote reasoned and reasonable discourse about issues of concern in the school system. (Pingpank says that the cheeseburger conversation "was of no importance to the school community.")

    Terry, the law dictionary at defines harassment as "the act of systematic and/or continued unwanted and annoying actions of one party or a group, including threats and demands. The purposes may vary, including racial prejudice, personal malice, an attempt to force someone to quit a job or grant sexual favors, apply illegal pressure to collect a bill or merely gain sadistic pleasure from making someone anxious or fearful." Mr. Miles' repeated cheeseburger references seem to be "continued unwanted and annoying action". While speech about "public officials" is often believed to be less regulated (to your point, the speech must be motivated by malice to rise to the level of libel), that doesn't make Mr. Miles' speech right, nor does it reflect the mores of our small communities.

    I am also not convinced that Mr. Miles' speech qualifies as "satire". (Oh, and if it is satire, it's not particularly good satire!) Productive discourse is, and should be, the norm. I have refrained from personal attacks on Mr. Miles, even when he couldn't resist throwing such attacks my way: "they are sad icons of the down side of the internet, legends in their own minds." Could Mr. Miles not refute the assertions in the post (as Mr. Cowgill had suggested?) No, so he took the path of least resistance and slung mud.

    Mr. Miles claims that he doesn't engage with anonymous posters, let's see if he can stay true to his word. Oh, and Marshall, that means you shouldn't engage with on your radio program either! Just to be clear, I don't listen to your program with any regularity (why would I?). Rather, it's easy enough to know what days you will be discussing the local schools (usually after a meeting) and scroll through the rest of the mindless conversation that passes for radio (oops, I slipped!) on his station.

  15. Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I understand your points. And what Marshall says or writes in other venues is his business. But there's nothing on this blog that constitutes harassment of Ms. Goncalves -- even as defined on

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