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School board chairman offers apology to Salem parents

By Jessica Hopper

Publication: The Day

Published June 03. 2014 4:00AM

Salem - Monday night's Board of Education meeting began and ended with unusual additions to the agenda: first an apology from Chairman Stephen Buck, which did little to stop impassioned parents from calling for him to step down, and later, the reappointment of former member George Jackson to the board.

Buck's apology came after weeks of tension between the board and parents, which started after voters narrowly approved a controversial $14.9 million budget that passed by only 19 votes.

The budget also generated more comments than First Selectman Kevin Lyden and Board of Finance Chairman T.J. Butcher can remember ever receiving. Comments were put into a box that is placed in Town Hall during the budget referendum each year. Lyden said that in past years, the box has received four to six responses on average. But this year, Butcher found 89 comments filling the box, many complaining about too much administration at Salem School, poor communication by the school board and 15 specifically calling for Buck to resign.

"The Town of Salem and the Salem Board of Education have come through one of the most contentious and divisive budget seasons in recent memory," began Buck in front of a crowd of more than 30 parents in the Salem School media room. "Having read the exit comments from the referendum, it is clear that this board must reach out to re-establish open lines of communication and to heal the breach in trust which has become so evident in recent weeks."

While some parents expressed gratitude for Buck's apology, many continued to request his resignation.

"I'm thankful that you apologized," Diba Khan-Bureau said. "It's very evident that … the people of Salem are unhappy with the way things are going with the Salem Board of Education. The arrogance of the board … and particularly of the chair can no longer be tolerated."

"You've created a divide between the board and its community that in my nine years in the school system, I haven't seen before," Beth Highman said during public comment.

In addition to calls for a new board chairman, parents asked for increased transparency and communication from the board and the reinstatement of Jackson, who recently resigned.

"The man has heart for this town," Fire Chief Eugene Maiorano said of Jackson, who handed in his resignation last month after Buck, also a Republican, chose not to step down despite calls from parents for him to do so. "He really cares for the townspeople."

Maiorano added that he believed Jackson's resignation was a "knee jerk reaction" to a high-tension situation.

Jackson turned in his resignation after a school board retreat on May 19, after Buck initiated an executive session to gauge whether school board members wanted a leadership change. The majority did not. Jackson disagreed and handed in his resignation to Superintendent Joseph Onofrio.

Jackson had been a board member since November 2011. In his resignation, he said he was unhappy that the board had not responded sufficiently to parents' concerns.

When he spoke during public comment on Monday night, Jackson expressed regret for his "rash actions" and thanked those who spoke in support of him, but acknowledged that there was little he could do to return to the board.

"Despite my efforts of this past week to undo (my actions), a legal opinion was rendered today that it would not be possible," he said, adding that he believes that school board issues would be resolved if members were allowed "unfettered access" to the schools in order to have an understanding of the daily goings-on there.

Late in the meeting, during an amendment to the agenda, board member Robert Green proposed that the board reappoint Jackson to the now-vacant board position until the next municipal election in 2015.

"I think we can get a lot of these issues behind us if you can act on this, and act on it tonight," Lyden, the first selectman, said.

The board voted and with only one vote against and one voter abstaining, Jackson was reinstated.

j.hopper@theday.com

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