As an advocate for children, education, and the overall welfare of people in the city of Hartford, it is my civic duty to avail myself to the people’s concerns. With my personal commitment to student achievement and involvement with school programs and with children, I’m often inundated with calls from hundreds of teachers and parents voicing their concerns about abuses in city management, from City Hall through Hartford Public Schools (HPS) Central Office. After all, teachers and parents are the ones who help to make quality education a reality, and they are our front line of whistleblowers when it comes to abuse of authority in the system.
A myriad of teachers, central office staff, and even principals have consistently complained that the present leader, Superintendent Dr. Leslie Torres Rodriguez, continues to abuse her authority and is empowered to do so by the office of the Mayor, Luke Bronin. In fact, it has been reported that the overall morale of this administration is the worst in the history of the Hartford Public Schools. This abuse of power has also resulted in irreparable harm to Hartford students, with broad and significant repercussions to their futures.
Case in point, two veteran teachers in the HPS district reported that the truancy rate in their schools ranges between 40 to 60 percent each year. Plainly put, about half of the students listed on the roster at the beginning of each year rarely show up to school at all, most having never attended one class. Yet these truant students are reported as enrolled, falsifying the annual HPS enrollment count submitted to the State of Connecticut Department of Education. However, when teachers contacted the Central Office and asked that non-attending students be removed from the roster, Dr. Torres Rodriguez and her Senior Cabinet informed them that the names could not be omitted unless a specific process was followed.
After almost 2 years the purported process was never explained nor implemented, and the truant students still show as enrolled. By failing to rectify this, the HPS district intentionally defrauded the State of Connecticut by overstating the numbers of student enrollment and receiving higher state funding. Although the teachers continued to ask that these absentee students be removed from the enrollment count, Dr. Torres Rodriguez and her Senior Cabinet gave clear directives not to utter a word about the inflated enrollment and were told they would otherwise face termination.
Interestingly, the graduation rate for the HPS in 2016-2017 was 68.8%, lower than the state average of 87.9%. Given the inclusion of truant students, the 68.8 % graduation rate still presents as inflated. Even if accurate, due to a merit-based system, more than half of HPS students who do actually graduate are functionally illiterate and do not understand academic basics. Sadly, for many HPS “graduates,” this ill preparation leaves them unable to function as a contributing member of society and vulnerable to being swallowed up by the penal system.
The literal costs of the penal system for Connecticut taxpayers is approximately $25,000.00 annually for the average prisoner and $32,000.00 for federal inmates. Going by those numbers it is clearly counterproductive to let our students slip out of the school system without a proper education. But in actuality it costs taxpayers far more when released prisoners are ill-equipped to function in society due to functional illiteracy. With such limited learning, these young men and women cannot compete in the workforce and struggle in various areas of their lives.
Ironically, incarceration costs are significantly higher than the average annual cost of $19,000.00 to properly educate an HPS student. So, why is this neglect of Hartford’s youth so blatant? It isn’t because of the teachers. The problem typically does not rest with the principals, but rather the administrative head—the Superintendent of Schools. Examine the striking correlation. Teachers pass failing students along because they are instructed to do so by the Superintendent and those who implement the directives. Students who miss half the school year can go to a five-week summer class and teachers are required to give them credit for the entire year.
This practice is not only unfair and illegal, but also perpetuates a cycle of student neglect that seems to be commonplace across Hartford Public Schools and negates the intent of an education. In Atlanta, Georgia, similar practices costed the school districts dearly when a ring of cheating was exposed. The cheating scandal was one of the largest in United States history. Many of the accused served jail time for their involvement. In fact, in 2013, 35 people involved in the cheating ring were indicted and 21 made plea agreements.Thanks to the investigative reporting from Atlanta Journal Constitution, the Atlanta school cheating scandal was brought to light.
However, in HPS, rarely is anyone investigated, charged, or convicted of their crimes. One reason is obvious – the Superintendent’s position carries with it a type of immunity from legal prosecution. Dr. Torres-Rodriguez is not above the law, however if and when she is suspected of breaking the law, city attorneys are in place to defend her position and Hartford taxpayers foot the legal expense.
Therefore, if the Superintendent is sued for slander, we pay her attorney fees. If she is sued for lying, cheating, stealing, or any crime committed while on duty, we pay for her defense. This carte blanche benefit, which is in addition to her $260,000.00 salary, should have reasonable measures connected to it, but it does not. This allows the Superintendent to irresponsibly and abusively utilize the city’s defense team, accruing defense fees in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, even if the claims pertain to her own questionable policies and job performance. Such was the case with her actions towards Ms. Joanna Laiscell.
In March of 2018, Ms. Joanna Laiscell, a twenty-two-year stellar employee at HPS Central Office was placed on leave, pending an investigation. Ironically, the investigation was initiated roughly one week after Ms. Laiscell interviewed for the position of Chief Financial Officer at HPS. During her two decades at HPS Ms. Laiscell rose through the ranks, starting out as an Account Clerk and being steadily promoted six times to her last position as HPS Executive Director of Financial Management. Joanna received rave reviews and superior evaluations throughout her career with Hartford Public Schools. Despite her success, in March of 2018 Dr. Torres-Rodriguez launched a fake investigation which ultimately cost taxpayers more than $55,000 just for investigative fees.
The objective was clear – “find something on Ms. Laiscell to terminate her.” Joanna was the obvious choice to become the next CFO, and Dr. Torres-Rodriquez and Mayor Bronin did not want that to happen. In fact, sources from the school board confessed that Mr. Bronin gave Dr. Torres-Rodriquez explicit orders to get rid of Ms. Laiscell. It has been alleged that Mr. Bronin was unhappy about Dr. Aaron Lewis’ advocacy for children in the city of Hartford, and his involvement in the exposure of former assistant superintendent Eduardo Genao’s two-decade habit of targeting young children in improper sexual situations and sexually harassing employees.
The HPS and city of Hartford cosigned his abhorrent behavior by allowing him to quietly resign and collect his full pension. Mr. Genoa was never fired. It was also said that Mr. Bronin did not have a problem with Eddie Genao’s pedophiliac actions and was complicit in the cover up so that the public would continue to view his leadership as untainted. His strategy was to create a distraction – the investigation of Joanna Laiscell – to cause Hartford dwellers to focus on an unsubstantiated false allegation, while he pretended to have no authority in the situation to bring justice to the victims of abuse at city workers hands.
Ms. Laiscell, who serves with The Scribe’s Institute, became targeted as an object of retaliation. Both John Griffin and Leslie Torres-Rodriguez prefabricated completely false information on Ms. Laiscell to scandalize her name and career. Mr. John Griffin is no stranger to manufacturing lies on city workers, especially those in prominent positions. In 2013 he launched a full investigation on city treasurer Adam Cloud with regards to insurance fraud. Note that Mr. Griffin had no authority over the city workers, was not Mr. Cloud’s superior, and overstepped his job function as risk manager for the HPS to create a total lie that could have cost Mr. Cloud his career and reputation. It did cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees. Thankfully Mr. Cloud was cleared of the false accusations.
John Griffin and Dr. Torres-Rodriguez will continue to abuse their authority as it is assured that Shipman and Goodwin, HPS’ law firm, will take on frivolous cases that are known to be uncorroborated. Every case makes their firm profitable at the taxpayers’ expense, even the illegitimate ones. Most Hartford residents did not know that Ms. Laiscell was an at-will employee and could have been terminated without reason. If that happened, it would not have cost Hartford taxpayers anything. The false claims of fraud were levied because of an imbalance of power of which I will go into greater detail in the blog to follow.
There are teachers and principals who know of alleged crimes that are being committed in the HPS that, if brought to the fore, would cost them their jobs. Despite whistle blowing laws being actively in place, the superintendent realizes that the average worker does not have the sufficient capital to pay for legal expenses after they’ve been falsely accused or wrongfully terminated. I would suggest that Hartford dwellers obtain FOI bills (the Freedom of Information Act) from Shipman and Goodwin to HPS and other law firms.
The bills that are put upon Hartford taxpayers are in the millions and are not merely for defense, but rather for creating intimidating circumstances wherewith most employees are bound to lose because of the imbalance of power. It is no wonder why teachers cannot get raises in 4 years, why police officers and firefighters are paying increasingly more for their benefits and being underpaid, or why the Hartford Police Department and public works department continue to go understaffed. It’s not because there is no money, but rather that the money is being spent unnecessarily with attorneys.
What I do know is that these practices will come to an end soon. HPS workers, teachers and principals especially will no longer have to feel like victims because of a system that is bent toward corruption and injustice. They deserve to be happy and fulfilled employees pursuing their passion in education.
In Abuse of Authority in City Management—Part Two, I will detail the confessions of several HPS employees and insiders, regarding the alleged criminal acts and labor law violations that have been committed for nearly 20 years by Natasha Durrant Banks, Executive Director of Human Resources at the HPS. In the meantime, understand that a better community begins when the people admit that things are not how they should be and have the courage to come forward and voice the truth.
Dr. Aaron Lewis January 11, 2019