Past probe of Staples principal finalist aired at forum
Updated 4:31 pm, Tuesday, May 26, 2015
Beginning her introduction to Westport parents by addressing a controversial issue from her professional past, Shelley Somers -- the educator most likely to become Staples High School's next principal -- appeared to get passing grades from most of those attending a forum at the school Tuesday morning.
Somers, the principal of Central Middle School in Greenwich, has been unanimously recommended by a search committee to succeed outgoing Principal John Dodig, and was introduced at the question-and-answer session by Superintendent of Schools Elliott Landon.
Board of Education members, all seven of whom attended the meeting, were scheduled to interview Somers behind closed doors Tuesday night and possibly vote on her appointment.
Somers, a Norwalk resident, has worked in the Greenwich school district since 2009 -- and this year was selected as the Connecticut PTA's middle school principal of the year -- but from around 1985 to 1996, she operated a day-care center in Granby. According to press accounts, she was under investigation by the state Department of Public Health during that time on eight allegations, including one that a toddler was left sleeping alone on a bus during a field trip.
According to a Hartford Courant article, a deal was struck in which Somers neither admitted guilt nor denied the allegations, but was forced to cut all ties with the center for five years.
Somers, the mother of four grown daughters, began her talk Tuesday by addressing the state investigation. "Twenty years ago I made a mistake," she said. "I owned and operated a day-care center and didn't do a second headcount of the children when they went into a performance ... It's 20 years and it's still very difficult to talk about that."
Somers cited the "vicious and malicious events that followed," putting some blame on the press.
"It was easy for the press to go after me," she said. "It was a lot of innuendo and rumor ... I don't really want to go into any details ... It was more or less a witch hunt, if you will, and I chose to not get involved in it."
Since that time, she said, during which she had to "start to recover from the sadness and, quite frankly, the shame ... I dot my I's and cross my T's."
"It also taught me a bit of humility ... I understand what it's like to mess up," she said, noting that it has helped her gain better insights into students' issues.
"It has helped me as an educator," she said. "It has helped me as a person ... but it's something that will follow me forever."
Somers said she feels that her ability to relate to students is a primary strength. "I am accessible to students," she said. "That is my first order of business."
She also spoke with pride of an open-door policy for families at-large at the schools that she has administered.
Somers also cited safety as the top priority for managing a school, "not just the physical environment, but socially and emotionally ... No learning can occur if you haven't put in an environment where students feel safe."
Regarding possible changes if she is selected for the Staples job, Somers said she would want to familiarize herself with the Staples community before any major recommendations. "I would like to look at what's here to see what next steps are," she said, noting that her intention would be to spend a lot of time visiting classrooms, learning about student clubs and activities, and how they relate to student needs, as well as talking with teachers.
"I'm kind of an out-of-the-box thinker, but first I have to assess what's going on," she said.
Several parents among the crowd of about 75 people attending the meeting said they liked her and found her honesty about her past had helped quell any concerns. But several said they were also a little disappointed that more consideration did not appear to have been given to promoting the next Staples principal from within the Westport district.
"I almost wish one of our qualified vice principals could be an interim so that we could evaluate ourselves," said parent Tracy Fincher, who described Somers as both a calm and inviting personality.
"I feel that it's a shame with Dodig leaving to not have groomed somebody internally to take over," said parent Amy Mandelbaum. "They've got all of these great vice principals ... We should be pushing someone up from that group of people."
Only one person publicly broached the subject of the day-care investigation, asking for some details on other items.
"The past is the past," said the woman, who did not give her name, "and I'm sure you paid your dues for it ... (But) what I read in Google is that your license was taken away ... I'm not judging your past, (but) I just need to understand."
Landon stood up at that point, however, and cut off the woman, despite comments that came from at least two Board of Education members to "let her speak."
"We don't think this is appropriate for discussion," Landon said.
If Somers wins appointment to the Staples post, it will mark the culmination of a sometimes bumpy process to filling the job.
Last week, Greenwich school officials prematurely -- and inaccurately -- issued a statement that Somers had already been hired, angering Westport officials who had not even revealed her identity as a finalist for the job.
In March, the search for a new principal had to be re-launched when neither of two finalists introduced at public meetings -- like the one Somers faced Tuesday -- was hired. Shortly after those sessions, Landon abruptly told the Board of Education that, "Neither would be moved forward."