Cheshire school officials lead session on contentious public meetings

CHESHIRE — In these contentious times, local school officials have faced increased tension when engaging with the public.

Whether the issue is COVID-19-related mask policies or critical race theory, many individuals attend Board of Education meetings in a heightened emotional state. It demands that officials learn how to handle such situations with delicacy in order to provide ample opportunity for residents to express frustrations while also ensuring order is maintained.

Earlier this month, the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education (CABE) asked Superintendent of Schools Jeff Solan and Board of Education Chairman Tony Perugini to host a webinar addressing these issues, including how to deal with upset parents when holding a public meeting. The webinar, held on Sept. 8, was viewed by school officials from around the state.

“Across Connecticut, and really the nation, we have been seeing an increase in the level of angst and just an overall heightened sense of emotion due to the stresses of this pandemic on our parents and families,” said Solan. “So, for us as a district and board, we really needed to figure out a way to take a step back and allow for discourse to happen, but not to the point where it disrupts the business of the meeting.”

CABE contacted Solan and Perugini after members of the “Parents Choice” movement interrupted an Aug. 25 meeting at Highland School attended by Gov. Ned Lamont and local school officials. Solan attempted to quell rising tensions during the meeting, but was met with more resistance from the crowd. He eventually abruptly ended the meeting, cutting off the question and answer portion of the event.

Some "Parents Choice" members continued to heckle state officials and representatives after the meeting ended. In the parking lot outside Highland, Lamont had to be escorted out by his personal guards as protesters followed behind and yelled profanities.

“After (that) meeting, I got a call from Patrice McCarthy, who is one of the legal counsels for CABE, and I was at first nervous that we had done something wrong,” Perugini said. “But she explained that we handled that meeting, and others in the past, really well and they wanted us to speak on it.”

Perugini admitted that Cheshire has dealt with its share of contentious issues, even before the pandemic. In 2018, a forum to discuss bullying was held, and, just a few years prior, a number of contentious meetings took place regarding a controversial online curriculum that had been implemented. 

“We had parents back then who were accusing us of being too sensitive and saying that we were too ‘Facebook focused,’ which couldn’t be further from the truth,” Perugini said. “But this year, the passions and the tensions definitely seem to be at a boiling point.”

The webinar Perugini and Solan created provides other districts with a series of guidelines to follow if they believe a meeting is headed in the wrong direction.

“The most important thing to do is to have a game plan before the meeting starts and to have a series of things set up, just in case something goes wrong,” Solan said. “That way, we are always in control of the meeting. We don’t want to punish people.”

Another tactic Perugini and Solan use is calling a recess when things become too heated. 

Solan also highlighted that sometimes the public doesn’t know the proper protocol for discourse and commentary.

“Usually, these people have never been to a public meeting before, so they don’t know what to expect,” he said. “So, I try to make sure that at the beginning of each meeting I explain how I want it to go down. That way, everyone is on the same page and there are no misunderstandings … but you can’t prepare for everything.”

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