A special education school in Wallingford may have deceived state regulators, according to what a recently terminated secretary told the Department of Education.
An administrator at the High Road School of Wallingford performs job duties for which she is not certified, according to a lawsuit filed by one of the school’s former secretaries.Not only that, but plaintiff Laura Borhman wrote a letter to the state’s Department of Education (DOE), where Borhman details how she helped conceal Admission Director Amy Zolnik’s true role at the school from a DOE inspector last year.The school’s owner denied Borhman’s allegation about Zolnik. The state never cited Zolnik for doing anything wrong, according to DOE Education Consultant Arthur Carey, the official who inspected the school last year. Carey recommended a five year recertification for the school in the wake of that inspection.The High Road School of Wallingford serves approximately 100 students, some with learning disabilities, others with more serious behavioral problems, owner Dr. Ellyn Lerner said. Lerner co-founded Kids 1 Inc., a New Jersey-based company that bought High Road in 1998 and owns 18 schools around the country. Though some parents pay tuition privately, most students are placed by public school districts, Lerner said. Their tuition is paid by those districts, or reimbursed by the state. Thus special education schools like High Road must be certified by the DOE if they are to receive this state funding, opening them to regular oversight.Borhman began work at the school in 2002. In December 2003 she came to work under Zolnik. Morale at the school was low at that time, because Kids 1 had just folded a Hamden location into Wallingford and terminated many staff members, Lerner said, including Borhman’s previous supervisor. Administrators at schools like High Road must be certified to perform certain functions, according to the DOE. For example, an administrator must be certified to discipline students or manage staff. But basic tasks, like communicating with parents on routine matters, do not require certification. After Borhman began working for Zolnik, Borhman anonymously contacted the state, claiming Zolnik performed tasks beyond what she was certified to do, according to the complaint filed in U.S. District Court. Zolnik is a certified teacher, not an administrator, Carey said.Borhman provided ctnewsjunkie.com with documents she claims demonstrate Zolnik’s true role at the school. For example, Zolnik signed Borhman’s employment contract as an “authorized” school representative. She also signed off on a lengthy checklist of supervisory tasks as the school’s “director.“The state cited High Road for violating these certification rules once before, in October 2003. Carey directed the school to strip the title of “program director” from another administrator and to reassign her job duties. That administrator left the school soon after, Lerner said.However, the information from Borhman that ultimately reached Carey in January 2004- an email summarizing Borhman’s anonymous phone conversation with another DOE employee- did not include the specific allegation about Zolnik’s certification. Carey said he received the email, but had recently been at the school for an inspection and saw nothing wrong.“I didn’t pick those things up when I was there” at the end of 2003, Carey said, adding that he didn’t believe Borhman’s tip rose to the level of a whistleblower complaint (Borhman alleges in her lawsuit that the school violated her First Amendment rights by firing her, along with state whistleblower protections).When Carey visited the school the following year, though, he saw parts of Zolnik’s job description that might require certification, he said, and questioned Chief Administrator Karin Bertero. However, Bertero assured Carey that the description was outdated, he said.But as Borhman tells it, she helped conceal Zolnik’s true role at the school from Carey in the lead up to his visit, according to a letter to the DOE.“Please know that about two weeks before each of your visits for the 2004/2005 school year, the staff and students were coached by Ms. Zolnik and Ms. Bertero on how to address Ms. Zolnik in your presence,” Borhman wrote to Carey this month, adding: “I was directed by Ms. Zolnik to help ‘clean’ class rooms, offices, student files and staff files…of anything that would suggest Ms. Zolnik was acting director of the program before each of your last two visits.“Asked why Borhman didn’t reach out to Carey while he was inspecting the school- considering she had already made an anonymous complaint- Borhman said she feared losing her job. Carey recommended High Road receive a five year recertification, which was approved by the DOE. Asked if he thought the students at the school are treated well, Carey declined to offer an opinion, except to say that the school met all of the state’s criteria. Many other schools do not receive a full five year term, as High Road did, he added.When told of the contents of Borhman’s letter about Zolnik, school owner Lerner said she never heard of any such behavior.“I am shocked,” Lerner said. “I never heard anything like that in my life.“High Road officials actually welcome visits from the state, Lerner said, because they provide an opportunity to improve their operations. “They find something sometimes and we clean it up,” Lerner said. “We like to do it.“Borhman’s relationship with Zolnik steadily deteriorated through the end of the school year, the lawsuit said. Last May, Zolnik accused Borhman of signing checks on behalf of Bertero, a violation of school policy. Borhman countered that she was authorized to sign the checks, but Zolnik attempted to discipline Borhman, the lawsuit said. Tempers flared.“She opened up a pretty fresh mouth during the confrontation,” Lerner said of Borhman. “[Zolnik] said this is not going to work, why don’t we just terminate this.“But Borhman contends in her lawsuit that Zolnik fired her when informed that she possessed documents Zolnik had signed as director, proving she violated state rules. Borhman contends Zolnik retaliated against Borhman for contacting the state, though Lerner said school administrators never knew of Borhman’s anonymous phone call to the DOE.Carey said he would evaluate Borhman’s allegations.