Plagiarism? Student questions superintendent's integrity, sincerity (WATCH)

Writing and the 2018-19 Ridgefield school budget seem destined to share an eternal, controversial dance.

In the last week of January, proposed cuts to the Ridgefield High School English department that threatened to remove writing conferences from the curriculum drew a heavy wave of criticism from students and parents. (The teacher positions have been put back into the budget; see related story.)

This week, it was a Feb. 22 letter written and signed by Superintendent Karen Baldwin to parents regarding the safety and security protocols in Ridgefield’s schools that drew the fury of one RHS senior and a cadre of residents on Facebook.

“I am speaking today because I am firmly devoted to the passage of a budget that works towards the best interests of the students, which leads me to have grave concerns regarding the professionalism and integrity of the chief architect of this budget,” said RHS senior Paul Kim at Monday night’s Board of Education meeting.

Board Chairwoman Fran Walton ruled Kim out of order for making a “personal attack” and cut him off before he was able to accuse the superintendent of plagiarizing her letter from a similar one written by the superintendent of the West Hartford Public Schools, Tom Moore, on Feb. 15 — the day after the school shooting in Parkland, Fla.

“Nobody wants to go right out there and say it, but there’s been a lot of talk among students and parents, and even teachers, who feel that the superintendent is over her head,” Kim told The Press Tuesday, Feb. 27.

“The general consensus among the teachers I’ve spoken with today, here at the high school, is that Baldwin has made an error,” he added. “There was a lot of agreement from the teachers with the way I saw the issue, and that’s that plagiarism has a lot of relevance when concerning the quality of the budget.”

Baldwin wrote an apology statement Monday — four days after the original letter was sent to parents and hours prior to the board’s public hearing.

“There are similarities between my February 22nd letter and that of the Superintendent of the West Hartford Public Schools, Tom Moore,” she said.

'Resource bank'

Baldwin didn't respond to several Press inquiries this week, but she did state in the letter to parents that she received Moore’s letter through the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents (CAPSS).

Fran Rabinowitz, the CAPSS executive director, said that she creates "a resource bank" of materials for superintendent's to consider when crafting messages.

"Resources are not meant to be copied," she said. "I never would encourage somebody to copy somebody else's letter like that and take it word for word...

"Resources and templates are two different things."

“As superintendents, we receive communications from our superintendents association (CAPSS) and from one another in efforts to be supportive in challenging and complex times for leaders,” Baldwin wrote Monday. “Tom Moore is a valued colleague, and the superintendent of two of my own middle school children. He shared this letter with the executive director of CAPSS on Thursday, February 15, 2018. I believed his communication in response to this tragedy placed into words the sentiment that I felt for students, parents, staff and our Ridgefield community as a whole.

“There is a community of practice among school leaders to share resources,” she said. “I recognize my decision to value another superintendent's words over my own voice may have compromised the important message, and I apologize for any uncertainty in our security practices it may have caused.”

‘Moved to act’

Kim questioned the sincerity of Baldwin’s apology.

“The apology was sent an hour before I went public with what I had found about her copying the Feb. 15 letter from West Hartford,” he said. “I think she was moved to act, and I don’t think her apology accurately portrayed the situation. …

“It came across to me as half-hearted,” he said, “and nowhere in it does she address plagiarism … she refuses to accept that she plagiarized.”

What triggered Kim’s initial suspicion was the tone of the letter.

“My friend’s dad noticed the quality of the writing and the tone of the piece was distinctly separate from her previous letters to parents,” he said. “So we went on Google and searched the first line and we found an immediate hit.”

The RHS senior claimed this wasn’t the first time she’s been accused of plagiarism.

“I actually was tipped off about going forward with my comments in front of the board by a teacher,” Kim told The Press. “Apparently it’s one of many incidents of plagiarism by Dr. Baldwin.”

“It’s clear that I struck a nerve from how the board reacted,” he added. “I think the most important takeaway is that the board silenced me because they were afraid of what I had to say, and that is a testament to the incredible power that young people hold when they engage in civics with civility and a respect for the truth.”

Editor’s note: This story has been revised to clarify statements that Rabinowitz had made about CAPSS resources. The Press had previously reported the document Baldwin copied was a template. Rabinowitz clarified that it is a resource letter, not meant to be copied.