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School board members say they were misled by superintendent about principal's leave 

  • Jim Richards, a current school board member who is running for re-election in District A in Concord, at the forum at Concord High School on Tuesday night, October 29, 2019. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Concord School Board contenders discuss issues facing the Concord School District during Tuesday night’s candidates forum at Concord High School. From left are Jim Richards, Max Schultz, David Parker, Pam Wicks and Gina Cannon. School board candidate Patrice Myers was unable to attend the forum. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • School Board member Pam Wicks at the Candidates Forum at Concord High School on Tuesday night, October 29, 2019. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 10/30/2019 10:04:47 AM

Concord School Board members said they were misled by Superintendent Terri Forsten about the parameters of Concord High Principal Tom Sica’s “leave of absence” while an investigation into his handling of student reports of misconduct took place.

“I did not think that Mr. Sica in any way would have had contact with anyone in the high school or be involved in any way with the administration,” Jim Richards, a current school board member who is running for re-election in District A, said at a candidate forum Tuesday night. “I feel that for him to have done so ... was inappropriate.”

Pam Wicks, running for re-election in District C, said Forsten met with the board in June to tell them that Sica was on a voluntary leave of absence. In that meeting, Forsten said that Sica would be working on select “special projects” not involving staff or students, something the board was told was customary for employees being paid in similar situations, Wicks said.

Wicks was asked if she felt misled by Forsten.

“At the time, no. In hindsight, it seems that way, doesn’t it? I can’t sugarcoat that,” Wicks said.

Gina Cannon, who is running against Wicks in District C, said the board allowed the public to believe Sica was on a leave of absence when he wasn’t.

“I can’t speak for what people on the board knew and what they didn’t know. But I can say, I do understand the meaning of the English words ‘leave of absence.’ It means you’re not working,” Cannon said. “I’m not exactly sure why the board even got onto that slippery slope of what he was or wasn’t doing.”

If Sica was truly on leave, the board shouldn’t have allowed him to continue to work in any capacity while the investigation was ongoing, she said. The school board never communicated to the public that Sica would be working at all while on leave.

“The whole point of doing the investigation and having him go on a leave of absence – I don’t care if it was voluntary or involuntary – was that he was not supposed to be there at all,” Cannon said.

The questions were in response to the release of about 300 emails that revealed Sica continued to work after Forsten announced in June he was going on a paid “voluntary leave of absence.” Sica met with Concord High assistant principals and other staff about routine business while working at Abbot-Downing Elementary School and at other locations away from the high school, according to the emails obtained by the Monitor from the district through a right-to-know request.

The emails show that Sica was involved in school business throughout the summer and only stopped working when he was placed on paid administrative leave by the school board on Sept. 27, the week they received the investigation completed by independent attorney Djuna Perkins.

Cannon and candidate Max Schultz, who is running in District B, said they worried about staff members who may have been afraid of speaking to investigators for fear of retaliation while Sica was still working, and how that fear may have impacted the investigation’s results.

“In this particular case, with the level of authority that this man has, I don’t know how you could place him in a position where he’s still able to work and somehow view that as having no consequence on an investigation,” said Schultz, who is assistant director of the state’s fire marshal office.

David Parker, head of Parker Academy in Concord, also a candidate in District B, said he thinks there are systemic problems with the board and the administration in Concord.

“I think more and more of these things happen if you don’t have strong leadership and you don’t ask the right questions,” he said. “If you’ve been in education as long as I have, you find yourself in a lot of these situations and you have to be really decisive, you have to ask really good questions, you can’t assume that people are going to do the right thing because you like them, you sit in the same board room with them. It doesn’t work that way.”

Sica’s absence from the public eye followed a story published by the Monitor in June about Sica’s suspension of student Ana Goble after she told friends at Rundlett she felt former Concord teacher Howie Leung’s behavior with female students made her uncomfortable.

Goble, who was in seventh-grade at the time in 2014, was called into Sica’s office the day before Christmas break, accused of spreading “malicious and slanderous gossip” and suspended for three days.

Leung was arrested in April. He is accused of repeatedly sexually assaulting a Rundlett student starting in the 2014-15 school year, around the time Goble was suspended and silenced.

Stephen Bennett, an attorney hired as a liason between Perkins and the school board, said Monday that he and Perkins were aware that Sica remained involved in some school business during the investigation, but was not on the high school campus.

“Attorney Perkins scheduled all interviews through a SAU staff member who was not (and had not been) under the supervision of Mr. Sica. Witness interviews did not take place at the high school,” he wrote in an email. “Neither Attorney Perkins nor I are aware of any attempt by Mr. Sica to influence the statements of any witnesses. No witness expressed an unwillingness to cooperate with the investigation because of a concern about repercussions from Mr. Sica or other administrators.”

Concord School Board Vice-Chair Tom Croteau said he reached out to Bennett for more information following the news of Sica continuing to work, which Croteau said was a “disappointing” surprise to him and other board members.

Croteau learned that Perkins was told by staff that Sica was working at the Abbot-Downing School and staff had been told that he could be contacted there.

“She did not know the details of what duties he was performing,” Croteau said. “She told witnesses that Mr. Sica’s continued involvement in school operations would not influence her conclusions or findings.”

Croteau said he was assured that Sica working did not impact the independent investigation.

“It gives me some concern, but I am assured by attorney Perkins that she never heard anyone say, ‘I’m not going to answer your questions because I’m afraid’ ” Croteau said. “I never heard anyone refusing for any reason to speak with her.”

School Board President Jennifer Patterson, who was present at the forum, said she also thought Sica’s role was limited to special projects while on voluntary administrative leave.

“I was surprised by the extent of Tom Sica’s work as revealed by the emails,” she said. “When I said in August that Mr. Sica would remain on leave as school opened, I had no idea that he was working to the degree the emails reveal. I had not read any of the emails prior to the Monitor article.”

Patterson said she was not present for the meeting in June where Sica’s leave was discussed with Forsten, because she was away on a trip to Alaska.

Patterson and Croteau said that board members would not have seen Sica’s emails, since the Board does not monitor the day to day activity of its administrators as that is the responsibility of the superintendent.

In September, Patterson was asked by the Monitor what “voluntary leave” meant.

“It’s a good question,” Patterson said at the time. “I’m not going to answer it. But it’s a good question.”

Patterson said Tuesday she wasn’t trying to mislead the Monitor or the public.

“I didn’t know the answer,” Patterson said.

Nancy Kane, who is not running for reelection this year, said she agreed with Patterson’s statements about the board’s interpretation of Sica’s leave.

School Board members Liza Poinier and Danielle Smith also weighed in.

“I do not believe we were intentionally misled, but I was unpleasantly surprised to learn about the level and nature of Mr. Sica’s contact with school personnel,” Poinier said.

“The scope of these ‘projects’ far exceeded what any of us would have been comfortable with,” Smith said. 

School Board member Chuck Crush said he never imagined Sica was continuing to work on district property or was having contact with school administrators while away.

“I thought he would be sitting at home in his office designing a course for a few weeks,” Crush said. “I  as sumed the superinten dent would manage that, but now I do feel misled. I’m shocked at what was taking place.”

Board member Barb Higgins could not be reached for comment.

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