Board clerk apologizes for obscene gesture
President urges board to set better example
By Scott Bellile
New London School Board Clerk Connie Neely apologized for showing her middle finger to the board president last month during a contentious meeting where a referendum question was approved.
“I am sorry for my hand gesture,” Neely told President Terry Wegner before the start of the Sept. 10 school board meeting. “I have a little French in me so sometimes I talk with my hands. And it will not happen again.”
Wegner thanked Neely for her apology and responded: “It’s over. It’s done. We move along.”
“Absolutely,” Neely said, “and maybe someday we might even speak at each other’s eulogies.”
The obscene gesture occurred at the Aug. 27 meeting where the board passed a resolution to place a referendum question on the Nov. 6 general election ballot. The district will ask district residents for $13 million over 10 years to fund building maintenance and energy efficiency projects at New London’s six public schools.
In July during three public information sessions about the proposed referendum, district officials had repeatedly suggested going to a $15 million referendum to help complete a list of projects.
However, board members Chris Martinson and John Heideman said in mid-August they would not support a referendum higher than $13 million, suggesting the school district find the $2 million difference by reducing spending in the general operating budget.
The Aug. 20 meeting agenda did not list a dollar amount in its referendum-related items. To offer the public a ballpark figure, district officials listed on the Aug. 27 agenda a revenue limit of $1.3 million per year for 10 years – consistent with a $13 million referendum – but noted in a memo that board members could approve a different dollar amount.
At the Aug. 27 meeting, after two hours of debate over whether the referendum dollar amount should be $13 million, $14 million or $15 million, Neely made a motion to increase the listed $1.3 million revenue limit to $1.4 million. This amount would be consistent with a $14 million referendum.
After board Vice President Virginia Schlais seconded Neely’s motion, Martinson moved to amend Neely’s motion back to a $1.3 million revenue limit. Heideman seconded Martinson’s motion.
A roll call vote took place and Martinson’s motion was defeated 4-3. Board President Terry Wegner voted yes with them while the other four board members – Neely, Schlais, Kim Schroeder and Mark Grossman – voted no, believing a $1.3 million was not high enough.
After more debate, Schlais, Schroeder and Grossman settled for $1.3 million to avoid a split vote. They worried local voters might reject a referendum if all seven school board members failed to support it unanimously.
Grossman moved to amend the motion to a $1.3 million revenue limit again. Martinson seconded his motion. This time the motion passed 6-1 with Neely voting no.
Afterward, the board voted to adopt a resolution authorizing the district to exceed its revenue limit by $1.3 million for 10 years. This too passed 6-1 with Neely against.
On the last item, Neely joined the board in voting 7-0 on a resolution authorizing the district to place the referendum question on the Nov. 6 ballot.
After that vote, Wegner asked Neely if she wanted to change her two previous no votes to yes votes and go on the record supporting those two resolutions.
In response, she silently raised her middle finger at Wegner. He moved on to the next topic and no board member commented on the gesture during the meeting.
The topic was not brought up until Sept. 10, when Wegner opened the meeting by saying: “As elected officials and community leaders of the school district, we have an obligation as well as a responsibility to conduct ourselves with the highest level of professionalism. We cannot act inappropriately or unprofessionally while holding our administration, staff and students to conduct we ourselves fail to exhibit. When we fail to conduct ourselves professionally, we diminish our credibility to hold others to professional standards.”
Board members may disagree on how to solve challenging issues, but unprofessional behavior is “never acceptable,” Wegner said.
“Our diversity as a board is reflective of our community and should be our strength, not a point of personal conflict,” Wegner said. “We must always remember every member of this board has sought this position of leadership because they have a deep belief in the value of education and the opportunities it provides children in our district.”
Beyond nonverbal gestures, Schroeder asked board members to consider the vocabulary they use in a time when differences in opinion have escalated on the board.
“We all in the board could raise ourselves to a little bit better level of professionalism when we’re talking to each other,” Schroeder said.