A downpour didn’t keep more than 200 Norwich teachers, school staff, parents, and students from rallying again outside a board of education meeting last night—and their continued advocacy finally paid off with the board voting unanimously to put Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow on administrative leave during an investigation and naming an acting superintendent to replace her.
Teachers are relieved to finally see action from the board after enduring bullying, intimidation, and decisions that disregarded students’ educational needs. The district has lost 160 teachers since June 2022, and a teachers’ union survey conducted last spring found that 96% of teachers feared retaliation from the superintendent and nearly 90% felt that their job security depended on staying silent on important issues.
The crowd outside Kelly STEAM Magnet Middle School last night wore Red for Ed shirts and carried signs saying, “Stop the abuse,” “Support our students and teachers,” and “We need change.” The crowd chanted, calling for “action now,” and parents sported red shirts that read, “We fight for and with our teachers.”
“I’m so proud of this community of teachers, parents, and politicians for coming out and supporting us, even in the rain—the solidarity of other unions showing up,” Norwich Teachers League President Bill Priest said. “Teachers always say, ‘No students should have to come to school and be afraid,’ and after tonight, teachers can come to school, and we’re not going to be afraid. We’re going to speak out after this.”
“Thank you to your union leadership here in Norwich—I don’t know that we’d be in the place we are now without them,” Dias told Norwich educators. “There was a lot of risk taking on the part of your local union leaders to step up when it wasn’t comfortable, to have the conversations, to bring in support from CEA.”
Priest said teachers will now feel comfortable speaking up as the district conducts an investigation into Stringfellow’s behavior—an investigation teachers have been waiting for since the spring.
“We don’t want to wait any longer,” Priest said. “We want to get into what happened and get a resolution. I think now you’re going to see a lot of teachers come out and talk.”
“This is the change that all of our educators, parents, and children need in Norwich,” said CEA President Kate Dias. “Tonight is about looking forward, building up, and seeing all the things that are possible in this great school district and to celebrate those things.”
After nearly two hours in executive session, the board of education emerged with a decision and voted unanimously last night to put Stringfellow on leave and named Susan Lessard, principal of Stanton Elementary School, the acting superintendent. Priest said that teachers are happy with that decision, and many educators and parents greeted Lessard, a 25-year educator, with hugs following the meeting.
“Susan Lessard has always been a very fair principal—we’re happy with that appointment,” Priest said, adding that he foresees teachers being able to work collaboratively with Lessard.
Saying she’s hearing from teachers that the board made an outstanding choice in Lessard, Dias said, “The teachers are very enthusiastic, very pleased, this is somebody they respect. It sounds like it was a really solid choice on the part of the board of education to move in a different direction with somebody who is perceived as really steadfast, who is honest with their work environment and communication, and how they proceed is very above board.”
Stringfellow has been Norwich superintendent since 2019 and was hired by the board of education despite members’ knowledge that she had been placed on leave in her former superintendency in South Kingstown, Rhode Island.
Before adjourning the meeting, Robert Aldi, the board chair, read a prepared statement regarding the decision.
“The board has not reached any conclusion regarding whether Dr. Stringfellow engaged in any improper conduct. Rather, the board determined that it was appropriate and in the best interest of the district to place Dr. Stringfellow on administrative leave at this time during the investigation so that the investigation can proceed effectively and so that the district can move forward during the investigation.”
“This process doesn’t end for us tonight. It’s a step on a journey that ends with us having a really strong and outstanding Norwich Public Schools,” Dias said.