Friday, January 7, 2011

More Pingpankery

You know a school district has a problem when an outside party conducts a fair review that reveals deep divisions in the high school and then the community at-large is equally divided over the report itself.

After reading Ruth Epstein's article this morning on last night's citizen meeting in Falls Village, I was struck by how sharp the disagreements are in the Region One community over the report and how the Board of Education should proceed. Unfortunately, the Republican-American puts only a portion of these articles in front of its pay wall. Click here to read the first few paragraphs. Email me at if you'd like to see the whole article, or you can just go out and buy a copy of the Rep-Am's print edition.

There are lots of people who think the Pingpank Report, which revealed "a climate of "controversy, schisms and division" and an overly-involved central office at Housatonic Valley Regional High School, was unduly negative in tone and content. Superintendent Patricia Chamberlain even told the board that the Pingpank Report was "full on inaccuracies," though she has not publicly elaborated on that statement — at least not to my knowledge.

But the comments of retired HVRHS principal Jack Mahoney during last night's meeting at Falls Village Town Hall were rather pointed. People will take notice because Mahoney is knowledgeable, widely respected and, having been removed from the scene for 15 years, he is not presumed to have an agenda beyond the best interests of the institution. Fair-use excerpt from Ruth's article:

"The board should direct the central office to stay home," said Jack Mahoney, a former principal at the school. "Central office administrators should be minimally involved in the life of the high school. That message was loud and clear in the report." 
He also wondered if current Assistant Superintendent Diane Goncalves can be effective.
The report named her specifically, saying she needed counseling to moderate her behavior.
"That judgment should first be made by her evaluation and passed along to the board," Mahoney said. "We need a systematic evaluation of people, especially the assistant superintendent."
He also said the involvement of teachers in the running of the school is not necessarily bad, but it needs to be channeled appropriately through board scrutiny.
Last night could be a turning point in this controversy. Having interviewed Jack several times, including for an hour on my TV show, I think I know him reasonably well. And I don't think you will find a fairer critic of Region One than Jack. If he thinks there's a problem in the regional administrative office and that a top-to-bottom internal review needs to be conducted, then I am inclined to believe him.


  1. While I would agree with you, Terry, that Mr. Mahoney's agenda would logically seem to be the best interest of the institution, I am left to wonder on what facts he (and others) relies when making his conclusions. For as long as I have lived in this regional school district, Mr. Mahoney has been on a "get the Regional Office out of the high school" kick and one might argue that he is using this controversy to further an agenda that he has had for many years. (By the way, the assumption that I just made is exactly the type that Mr. Pingpank made throughout his report – taking some information and making a conclusion when, in fact, multiple conclusions might be possible from the given fact pattern.)

    It is interesting to think about the nature of the involvement of Central Office in the High School during the 16 years since Mahoney retired from HVRHS. I would only consider the years after Mahoney’s retirement because he, himself, described the involvement of the Superintendent in the High School during his tenure by saying something along the lines of, “I would meet with the Superintendent to set goals at the start of the year and we would meet again at the end of the year to discuss the goals” at a Special Board meeting. Clearly during his tenure as the school principal he was able to minimize any attempts at “over-involvement” by Central Office administration in the affairs of “his” school.

    I don’t recall any reports of an “over-involvement” by Central Office during the tenure of Kathleen Burkhart. Perhaps Mr. Pingpank should have reached out to her to determine whether she perceived too much involvement by the then-Central Office staff (which includes some of the current Central Office staff). (The lack of this type of base-line data is part of what limits the usefulness of the report by Mr. Pingpank, in my opinion.) Could it be that Mrs. Burkhart was also able to forestall any involvement of Central Office?

    So, mustn't one ask what changed during the tenure of the most recent principal of the high school that necessitated or allowed more involvement (assuming that the reports of such involvement are accurate)? There is something in this recipe that just does not add up -- something that is not being reported or said about the leadership of the previous principal that allowed (or caused, or required) an increased involvement by Central Office administration. This, too, was not discussed in the Pingpank Report, largely because the administrator wouldn’t speak to him and the current employees of the district would legitimately be fearful of discussing an individual’s job performance during such a contentious period. Remember, though, that Pingpank said, “The divisions that existed among the faculty were heightened because of issues involving the principal and her job performance. I did not find that Ms. Foster Mosca did much to diffuse the tensions in the building and at times her actions or statements to various members of the faculty and central office exacerbated matters.” Could those actions and statements have caused a need for a stronger Central Office involvement than at any time in the recent past? Would Mr. Mahoney have “exacerbated matters” during his tenure, or, would he have worked to calm the waters? My limited knowledge of him suggests the latter.

    So again I ask, “What specific, first-hand facts does Mr. Mahoney have of the behavior, actions, or motivations of any member of the Central Office staff?” All too often in this process, individuals are relying on what they have heard from others, who are too often reporting what they believe, what think they observed, or worse, what they heard from someone else.

    Mr. Mahoney’s motives are probably pure, what he lacks (I assume, because he hasn’t suggested otherwise) are actual facts (incidents in which he was involved or the names of people who could report first hand events) to support his assertions.

  2. Dear Anonymous,

    That was a whopper of a comment -- perhaps the best one on this blog since I started it six months ago.

    My understanding from talking to Jack is that he is still very much plugged in to what's going on at that school. There are several teachers and administrators still at HVRHS from his days as principal from 1983-95.

    You are certainly correct that Jack did not offer specific examples of interference on the part of the central office -- perhaps because he is merely giving us his impression, or because to reveal details might harm reputations.

    But your comments about the various leadership styles of the former principals is most interesting -- and was something, frankly, that I had not considered. Your post-facto suggestion that Mr. Pingpank should have interviewed Kathleen Burkhart is an excellent one, for the history of how the various principals dealt with the central office would be most telling.

    It may very well have been the case, as you seem to be suggesting, that Ms Foster's management style (or perhaps the faculty's reaction to it) demanded greater involvement from the superintendent's office.

    One theory making the rounds is that the superintendent (and perhaps the board itself) felt that the central office needed to take a more hands-on approach after the visiting committee of NEASC issued its scathing report and put the school on warning.

    This line of reasoning suggests that the superintendent felt compelled to bring in a forceful assistant who would operate in stark contrast to the more laid-back Tom Gaisford. If true, then the hiring of the polarizing Goncalves appears to have backfired.

    Thanks again for your comment. It made me think.

  3. Your response demonstrates what I believe to be the principal problem in this entire situation: the lack of any quantifiable or verifiable evidence to support individual’s assertions leading to unsubstantiated suppositions.

    You suggest, “My understanding from talking to Jack is that he is still very much plugged in to what's going on at that school. There are several teachers and administrators still at HVRHS from his days as principal from 1983-95.” But, is that his impression or the impression of those who work at HVRHS? We can never know. So, when Mahoney suggests that he is “plugged in” to the goings on at the high school, maybe he is getting only a biased view of the institution. Moreover, as I suggested, he does have a long standing agenda about the location of the regional central office.

    To suggest, “Jack did not offer specific examples of interference on the part of the central office -- perhaps because he is merely giving us his impression, or because to reveal details might harm reputations.” If it’s the former, then he is doing what too many others are doing: developing an impression based on hearsay and incomplete fact patterns. I cannot believe it to be the latter, since at the Thursday evening meeting in Falls Village he very comfortably implied that the Assistant Superintendent had not been evaluated appropriately during her tenure: “Evaluation plays a key role here and all across the country in making decision about personnel and too often in education, as I suspect in other endeavors, too often evaluation is done casually or perhaps not even at all. And, we are in a situation where we need a systematic evaluation of people, especially the Assistant Superintendent mentioned in the report.” Perhaps the Assistant Superintendent had been evaluated “systematically” and found to be performing adequately. On what basis is he assuming otherwise? I owuld argue that he is making that assumption based on what he has heard from others rather than any first-hand knowledge of the facts.

    You describe my suggestion about Pingpank speaking to the previous principal (by the way, he did speak to Mahoney, I believe, so why not Burkhart?) as “post-facto.” I accept that description, but respectfully suggest that when someone is hired at $200 per hour and paid $9,000 to complete a report, it behooves that individual to understand the need for baseline data before coming to conclusions. When he decided that his exposition would involve “over-involvement” of the Central Office, he had an ethical obligation to compare current involvement with prior involvement, particularly when concerns about the competence of the high school administrator were also being suggested. Of course, it is always easier to think about what should have been done.

  4. Finally, you interpret my comments about the previous principal’s leadership as attributable to a “management style.” Let me be more clear: I wonder whether the individual’s management *ability* differed markedly from her predecessors, which ultimately required stronger involvement by the Central Office staff. Pingpank seems to shrug this notion off when he writes, “Whether the cause was inadequate job performance by the principal or other factors is beside the point.” I posit that it is not beside the point: if the problems are attributable to poor job performance by the previous administrator, the school district has wasted $9000 (which, by the way, would buy lunch for the whole high school student body for over a week or pay for the football coach for a year or outfit two full computer labs) because that individual is no longer working at the high school.

    To the contrary, Pingpank first wrote, “While people’s perception of her job performance and how she was treated had a significant impact on the climate of the school,” then later wrote, “I believe that there is a climate that unless changed will result in continued controversy, schisms and divisions that are harmful to Region One.” He, himself, seems to suggest that her job performance was not beside the point!

  5. Wow, you should write a book on this.

  6. Or, the Regional School Board should have paid me the $9000. They would have gotten a more quality report.

  7. Finally, someone else interested in the facts dealing with these issues instead of the hearsay, the he-said, she-said, the "it appears that...."/"it seems to me that...." or drawing conclusions from "when I was there it was this way." No disrespect to Mr. Mahoney, I admire him, but times do change.

    I am also impressed that "Anonymous" is not out to fault or blame one individual. To do so is, in my opinion, ridiculous, and constitutes a witch hunt. You cannot single out any individual because of their leadership style or agenda when the Pingpank report made it quite clear that any problems existing today are not the result of one individual's actions. It has also been made clear to the public by the interim principal and various staff members that this has been one of the most positive school years thus far at HVRHS in quite some time. One has to realize that any solution to these problems has to start with the school board itself, which needs to be able to discuss items cordially among themselves without members "zoning out" during discussions, or pursuing their own agendas which really have nothing to do with the education of the students.

    Some of the problems existing at the high school have existed in some form or another for years, which was also reflected in the Pingpank report. Some exist by the very nature of the variety of people who work there and the way they are classified according to department, specialization, seniority, etc. The way the high school (not just HVRHS) is arranged, you may not see a colleague who works in the same building for days if they work in a different area of the school, have a different lunch block--or for any number of reasons--if people are doing their assigned jobs and not worrying about politics inside the building.

  8. I believe that Mr. Pingpank should make himself available to us so that we may ask him questions about his methodologies.

    It is my personal opinion that this report will remain a point of controversy in this district until such an event were to happen.

    I was at the Falls Village meeting on Thursday and should suggest that folks view it on CATV 6 where they can see and listen to all that was said.

    The reporting in the Rep-Am seems to be tilting in one direction and only reporting the comments that support the view of the reporter (just my observation).

    I sure wish I could meet anonymous ... you have great insight into this issue.

  9. Lablady808:

    You are correct, I am very interested in facts (and I mean the real, non-disputable facts) in this issue, but, I do think that the fault lies with one individual more than any other: the previous high school administrator. (I think from lablady808’s comments, (s)he is concerned about the blame being assigned to the Assistant Superintendent and/or the Superintendent. I agree, assigning blame to those individuals or, in my opinion, to the people that Pingpank calls the “faculty leaders” is misplaced.)

    Pingpank wrote, “From comments made, it appears that the faculty was hopelessly divided over her performance,” and “Had she continued as principal, there would have been considerable tension and strife this year” and “Last year, largely because of issues involving the former high school principal and the divergent opinions of her performance, these issues became a problem.”

    He then goes on to describe his perceptions of the climate of the institution based on the reports of 16 faculty members. It is most interesting to me that he suggests that the faculty can be divided into three groups (roughly 20% in each of the “pro” and “con” groups and 60% in the middle, according to him), yet he interviewed only about 30% of the total faculty. Significant methodological questions arise: How many people from each “group” were interviewed? How were those individuals selected?

    Even more interesting, though, is that his comments about the previous administrator’s performance do not seem to factor into his conclusions. Pingpank wrote, “Had she continued as principal, there would have been considerable tension and strife this year.” While it is a logical fallacy to assume that since she did not continue as principal, then there is not considerable tension and strife, it is reasonable to conclude that since she was a considerable factor in the strife and tension, her absence should serve to start to mitigate that strife and tension. If that is the case, then I again contend that the district paid $9000 to learn very little: perhaps that in times of difficulty, people do not always act in the most appropriate ways. Wow, that’s a startling conclusion (does it feel like a $9000 conclusion?).

    (continued because of a 4096 character limit -- Terry you should fix that!)

  10. (continued)

    Given that fact pattern, one could just as easily conclude that individuals behaved in the ways that they did (Pingpank suggests that people are “aggressive” and “blunt” and then cites the oft-repeated over involvement by Central Office) because of the lack of ability of the previous administrator to effectively lead the organization toward its goals. Remember, too, that Pingpank said, “I did not find that Ms. Foster Mosca did much to diffuse the tensions in the building and at times her actions or statements to various members of the faculty and central office exacerbated matters” This lack of leadership ability is also noted in the NEAS&C Report, “Faculty members recognize her efforts to establish her vision of a high quality learning environment but question the manner in which she communicates that vision as they would prefer decisions that are more clear and direct” and “Security measures implemented this year, the responsibility for the decision to cut the budget, and decisions made that are contrary to votes taken at the faculty council or at faculty meetings cause concern and confusion among some faculty members about the principal’s leadership style and the direction of the school.” The NEAS&C Report concludes, “As a result, the school lacks a unified, clearly articulated decision-making process.” Since decision making is at the heart of all organizational imperatives, this lack of ability is a significant problem.

    It seems that members of this school community are taking this opportunity to reinforce their personal beliefs with parts of this report: Mr. Hart believes that there is a blurring of the lines of authority (he has made this statement many times at meeting of the Board), so this report reinforces that notion. Mrs. Toensing and Mr. Gibbons believe that the Assistant Superintendent is blunt and aggressive; this report reinforces that opinion. Mr. Mahoney believes the Central Office is overly involved in the life of the High School and should be moved; this report reinforces that belief. But, if we strip away everything to one underlying problem (clearly identified by Pingpank), it is the previous high school administrator: a leadership void allowed (or required, or caused) individuals to behave in ways that may be antithetical to the norm.

  11. Mr. Flint:

    I, too agree that the reporting in the Waterbury Republican-American often seems somewhat tilted to produce one impression regardless of the actual comments at the meeting. This has been the modus operandi of that newspaper (which, you will recall, likes to refer to the Connecticut Education Association as the “Confederacy of Greed”) for years. Mrs. Epstein seems to report closely what Board Member Gale Toensing says and writes.

    Oh, and I wish I could meet you as well.

  12. Dear Anonymous,

    You are correct that reports such as Pingpank's tend to serve as Rorschach tests in which the consumer seizes on elements that reinforce what s/he already believes anyway. You yourself have done the same thing, as you cast doubt on the report but then proceed to quote it when it supports your view of Ms. Foster. Nothing wrong with that, by the way.

    I must take issue with your last crack at the Waterbury Republican. Say what you want to about its editorial page -- and it is very conservative and right-wing -- but the reporters I know who work there are among the most fair-minded I have ever run across. Please don't conflate the paper's editorial positions with the integrity of the news staff.

    Ruth Epstein, a former teacher whose husband was principal of Kent Center School for something like 30 years, is hardly anti-education. Others who work at the Rep-Am such as Jim Moore, Kurt Moffett, Kevin Litten and Steve Barlow, have written about my employer -- sometimes during the heat of controversy -- and have always kept their cool and written with clarity and a respect for the facts.

    Of the media that cover our area, the Rep-Am is by far the most professional and has the greatest resources. But that's just one man's opinion ...

  13. I have worked with and for a variety of schools and school systems. The leadership style that works for some schools does not work for others. I agree with Anonymous (and Mr. Pingpank) in that Ms. Foster Mosca's style did not seem the best style for the entire HVRHS community, and was in fact a lightning rod for controversy. However, I have seen this style work in other school systems.

    I agree with Andrea Down's comments at the meeting Gail Toensing and Pat Mechare organized in Falls Village that HVRHS needs STRONG leadership that pulls the faculty and staff together, giving members clearly defined roles. This will be extremely difficult to do (and resented by some) as the faculty at the high school has lacked clear leadership, as stated in the NEASC report in 2007. As a result many have been doing things their own way for a number of years.

    Personally, I prefer a strong principal who sets the tone for a building and lets people know exactly where they stand. Since Mr. Epstein's name was mentioned above, I offer his
    long tenure as principal of Kent Center School as an example. It is also well known that his first priority is, was and always will be the students.

    Call me old fashioned, but as a parent and former HVRHS student I also found the location of a PBIS reward area (outside a conference room used for PPT's and other professional meetings) inappropriate. Trying to conduct a meeting while students play ping pong and lounge on chairs and sofas outside the windows separating the conference room from the reward area does not present an appropriate picture of an academic institution to parents of incoming freshmen or community members. Students should not be paid or bribed to do what is expected of them. This lounge was also established under the tenure of the departed administrators.

  14. Terry ...

    I don't think anyone implied that Ruth Esptein was 'anti-education' ... your are making an implication that is not valid.

    There is an appearance in the reporting that indicates a certain bias. I can state that with full confidence since I too have been at these meetings.

    There is a pattern of quoting certain statements and ignoring others, specifically statements that promote the premise that something is wrong and is the direct responsibility of certain individuals.

    Please to not try to change these observations into something which they are not.

    We are making observations about people's actions and writings ... I don't believe anyone is 'anti-education' and I am surprised that you would even use that term.

  15. Mike, look at the salutation in my comment. I was not referring to your comment, but to that of Mr Anonymous, who opined that the Rep-Am "often seems somewhat tilted to produce one impression regardless of the actual comments at the meeting."

    Then as proof of the newspaper's "modus operandi," he quoted the editorial page's characterization of a teachers union as the “Confederacy of Greed.” If that isn't an attempt to cast doubt on the fairness of the education coverage of the news staff and Ms. Epstein, then I don't know what is.

    I used to field accusations of bias all the time in my reporting. You can't possibly report everything that's said and presented at a meeting, so you have to make decisions about what's important to the story and what your readers will find valuable. Invariably, those decisions will be at odds with the preferences of some of the people who attended the meeting -- including, in this case, you.

    In a word, complete journalistic objectivity is impossible. At CATV6, you have the advantage of presenting the entire meeting via video. And I am grateful for the public service that you and others perform. However, newspapers do not have that luxury. They are the first responders of the news, performing journalistic triage and trying to provide context -- and make money in the process.

    No matter what Ruth writes about a controversial meeting, there will be those who did not think she emphasized one thing or another to their satisfaction. It is an issue that will never go away because reporters are human beings, not video cameras.

  16. Terry ...

    I understood that you were not referring to MY comments ... However, Anon did not make such an implication (anti-education).

    I understand what you are saying.

    I disagree with your view on this ... given that those of you in the print media have to make judgement calls and deal with space allocations, it is still important that you deliver comments equally. There has never been a meeting (that I have attended) where everyone 'sings the same tune'.

    It is important to give some essence of ALL of the opinions that were expressed at said meeting.

    I am simply saying that the current reporting of the local Rep-Am reporter certainly displays the reporting of ONE side of the issue and tends to ignore the other.

    I do not consider that to be 'fair and balanced'.

    Regardless of the advantage that the camera has, the fact is (I am not so into myself that I actually believe that everyone watches the public access television) most people rely on newspapers and the internet to absorb their news in a fast and minimally time consuming way.

    Sad but true.

    I am only asking that the print media REPORT and not editorialize on its news pages.

    My issues with the reporting in this case has nothing to do with personalities ... it has to do with style and obligation.

    I too know Ruth and do not question here ablities or ethics ... I simply feel she has allowed her personal point of view (which I don't deny her) to mask her otherwise professional approach to journalism.

    My opinion ...

  17. Thanks, Mike, as you beat me to the proverbial punch. I did not use the words "anti-education", although that certainly is a description that many in the education field would use for the Waterbury Republican-American. I also do not question Mrs. Epstein's abilities or ethics.

    But, it is clear that (and I'll use Mike Flint's words here so as to avoid being misquoted), "The reporting in the Rep-Am seems to be tilting in one direction and only reporting the comments that support the view of the reporter (just my observation).” Consider the most recent article (published on January 7, 2011). Of the 444 words in the article (at least that’s the count from Microsoft Word), 95 are devoted Jack Mahoney’s comments related to the Assistant Superintendent; that’s 21% of the word count. Of the 444 words in the article, 19 are devoted to the “positive comments about the strong faculty and programs offered at the school”; that’s less than 5% of the word count. My recollection from listening to the meeting is that those “positive comments” were echoed by no less than 4 individuals: Amy Wynn (who is quoted elsewhere in the article), Andrea Downs, Pat Mechere, and Gale Toensing; the comments about the Assistant Superintendent were made by Jack Mahoney, alone (I believe, but I cannot bring myself to listen to the meeting another time!).

    Terry, I think that’s what Mike (and I) are talking about.

    Oh, and this thread has gotten somewhat off-topic, so let me get back on:

    Terry, I "cast doubt on the report" but then "proceed to quote it when it supports your view of Ms. Foster", to show how one fact pattern can lead to multiple conclusions. Without supporting evidence (and by evidence I mean actual quotes from people and quatitative data about the prevalence of the opinions expressed), one cannot make convincing conclusions. And without convincing conclusions, I am unclear as to what "plans of action" can be created by Ms. Chamberlain or any members of the high school faculty and staff. If the conclusions are not credible, then these plans of action may be targeting wholly incorrect areas!

    Now, I am done with this report.

  18. No, Anonymous, you did not actually say that Ruth is anti-education but you certainly suggested that the paper's owners are and, by extension, its news staff as well.

    As for your word count, should the remarks of an ordinary citizen be given the same weight and space in a news article as another speaker who was principal of HVRHS for 12 years? I'm not sure I know the answer to that question but these are the sorts of decisions reporters have to make and most do not make them lightly.

    You lost me in your last paragraph.

    Good debate here by the way. Thanks to all who took part.

  19. "You know a school district has a problem when an outside party conducts a fair review that reveals deep divisions in the high school and then the community at-large is equally divided over the report itself."

    Terry - I agree - it was a fair report ... but for $9000 we can expect (demand?)an EXCELLENT (or at least a good) report.

  20. For $9,000 what we should expect is for the report's recommendations to be discussed and perhaps implemented. Instead, it is being ignored. The hostile work environment continues, the assistant superintendent commands the interim principal, who wants the job but is unqualified. The teachers association does not represent the teachers and the school is in stasis rather than moving forward on the initiatives it claims to have adopted. The one ray of hope is the new assistant principal.

    Take it from an insider.

  21. Thanks for that update, Anonymous. I would have hoped things had improved, but ...

  22. Terry

    Interesting that someone continued a thread that is two months old.

    Also interesting that you accept as gospel the statements of a single, unidentified individual.

    Unhappy people tend to want to perpetuate their unhappiness. All is not as bad as "anonymous" would have people believe.

    Take it from another insider.

  23. It's also "interesting" that you yourself would be CHECKING a thread that is two months old. Far from "accept[ing] as gospel the statements of a single, unidentified individual," I'm active in seeking out the truth from as many sources as I can. That's what they train journalists to do.

    I've heard the previous commenter's sentiments echoed by several others on the "inside" -- that administratively the school is something of a mess, and morale isn't great, but that most of the faculty are able to tune out the noise and do their jobs well. The latter I can attest to personally.

    I myself taught high school English for 12 years, covered Region 1 for four years as a reporter and have a child at Housy. I have sources, too -- though not my son. He absolutely loves Housy and (thank goodness) hasn't a clue about the political ado.