Board drops plagiarism investigation; resignation negotiations remain ongoing
The town’s highest-paid employee appears to be headed for the door — but has yet to exit, to the bewilderment and frustration of residents on both sides of the controversy.
Board of Education Chairwoman Fran Walton said Tuesday that resignation negotiations with Superintendent Karen Baldwin are still in progress, and that the superintendent remains on paid administrative leave.
“The negotiations are still ongoing and might be concluded this week,” Walton said.
Walton said the board did not retain a lawyer to investigate Baldwin’s alleged plagiarism of documents — as they voted to do at the March 9 meeting — because they did not wish to incur more legal costs for the district.
She did not say whether the potential investigation would have slowed down Baldwin’s resignation agreement.
The Press received a new document last week that showed Baldwin had copied from an April 2016 study conducted by Hanover Research for the Greenwich Public Schools in a letter sent to Ridgefield parents March 27, 2017. The letter discussed the outcomes of moving to later school start times.
Baldwin’s letter opens with a sentence that appears to have been lifted from the study’s introduction, and includes four bullet points adapted from the study without attribution to the original source.
The document is the fifth example of misattribution The Press has reviewed since late February.
Walton said she could not comment on the alleged copying as an individual board member.
Baldwin’s salary is $233,303 for the 2017-18 school year, according to her contract with the district. Her pay also includes an annuity of $14,660.
Under the terms of the contract, if “the Board determines that the performance of the Superintendent is deficient in any respect,” then the board can provide Baldwin with written notice of “any performance concerns” with “specific instances.”
Both the superintendent and board “may, by mutual consent, terminate the contract at any time,” the contract reads.
If Baldwin wanted to resign without mutual consent, she would have to provide the board with a written notice within 90 days, according to the contract.
If the board had voted to fire Baldwin, it would have had to give Baldwin a written 15-day notice, and cite one of five reasons presented in the contract. Those are “(1) Inefficiency or incompetence; (2) Insubordination against reasonable rules of the Board of Education; (3) Moral misconduct; (4) Disability as shown by competent medical evidence; (5) Other due and sufficient cause.”
Baldwin would also have the right to a hearing — either public or private — before the board, where she would be allowed to have a lawyer present.
Walton said the board is being represented in the proceedings by attorneys with Shipman & Goodwin. Baldwin has retained the services of a lawyer with Livingston, Adler, Pulda, Meiklejohn & Kelly PC.
Former Board of Education Chairman Austin Drukker said he thought the allegations of plagiarism brought against Baldwin may have been politically motivated.
“I think there’s a small group of agitators who wanted her gone — I’m not sure who they think they’re going to replace her with,” Drukker said Friday, March 16.
Drukker, who now lives in Florida, said he was surprised that the copied documents caused such a stir.
“My first thought was, Why are they being so hard on her?” Drukker said.
Drukker was chairman during Baldwin’s hiring in late 2014, and worked with her for several months before his own retirement from the board. His signature appears on her original contract, dated Nov. 24, 2014.
“The woman was very hard-working,” Drukker said. “I know she got let go from Suffield, but we vetted her very thoroughly.”
Drukker said the vote to hire Baldwin was a unanimous 9-0 decision from the bipartisan board.
“She makes changes, and we all know people don’t like change,” Drukker said. “She stepped on a lot of toes in town — and it may have been politically motivated.”
Baldwin reached a resignation agreement with Suffield Public Schools in December 2014, ending her tenure six months early.
She continued to collect pay through the end of the school year, but stepped down from her job as superintendent.
“They’re having a lot of issues, apparently,” Drukker told The Press at the time. “She hired three new principals up there and that ticked off some people in the system who didn’t like that change — that new direction she was trying to take the schools in.”
Baldwin was first accused of plagiarizing on Feb. 26. She was placed on administrative leave Friday, March 9. Three days later — on Monday, March 12, it was announced the board was exploring a resignation agreement with her.
The fast-paced timeline has left Ridgefield parents wondering what’s going on behind the scenes.
“It almost seems like someone — maybe Baldwin — called Fran Walton over the weekend and said, ‘Don’t investigate this, I’ll resign,’” said parent Tizzie Mantione, who has two children in the public school system.
Mantione added that at first glance a person reading about Baldwin’s resignation might conclude that all the decisions are being made behind closed doors.
“I think the money is bothering a lot of people,” Mantione said, referring to any severance or salary Baldwin might collect in the future. “I would be offended, or not support, paying her any more salary or benefits, because she broke her contract.”
Richard Steinhart, a former Board of Education member, said he was concerned by Walton ruling Ridgefield High School senior Paul Kim out of order at the board’s Feb. 26 meeting, when Kim first tried to bring allegations of plagiarism by Baldwin to the board’s attention.
“I don’t think the board is prohibited from listening to public comments,” Steinhart said, adding that “Paul Kim performed a real service to the community.”
Baldwin’s accusations of plagiarism include a Feb. 22 letter sent home to parents and students following the mass shooting in Parkland, Fla. The letter bore substantial similarities to a letter sent home to West Hartford parents by Tom Moore, superintendent of the West Hartford schools, on Feb. 15.
Steinhart added that if the board determined that it did need to discuss the copied documents in executive session, then Kim should have been invited in.
Under the town’s bylaws, meetings may be conducted in executive session for an employee’s performance review after a majority vote by the board. While the meetings are closed to the public, the board may vote to invite someone in for the discussion.
Sofia Rodriguez, Kim’s classmate, said many of her fellow senior classmates were happy that Baldwin is resigning.
“I feel grateful that someone exposed her for the actions she was committing, but I do feel sad that a woman who worked hard for our schools had her career and reputation decimated for making mistakes,” Rodriguez said.
“That being said, those mistakes are ones that she should have known better than to commit. These are things we’re taught at a young age, and it’s infuriating that the leader of the schools that punish us for the same act was caught plagiarizing.”