Hillhouse Probe Stretches Out, Tops $26K

Melissa Bailey PhotoFive months after the school district called an emergency meeting to announce an investigation into grade-tampering allegations at Hillhouse High, the probe plods on at a pace of a few hours a month.

In an “emergency” pre-Christmas meeting last year, Superintendent of Schools Reggie Mayo revealed that he had commissioned an official investigation into allegations that some Hillhouse students’ grades had been improperly changed. Principal Kermit Carolina swung back, calling the probe a “political lynching,” in alleged retribution for his declining to support Mayor John DeStefano in a campaign photo op.

In December, Mayo hired Floyd Dugas of Berchem, Moses & Devlin to conduct the investigation, which he estimated would take up to a month.

In other words, some time in January.

It’s May. The probe’s not over.

But that doesn’t mean the district’s lawyer has been burning the midnight oil to wrap it up.

Dugas’ firm billed the district $26,550 for work done on the probe through the end of April. Dugas did just 2.9 hours of work on the case in April, according to an Independent review of invoices. Dugas said he performed about the same number of hours in May. (The invoice was not yet available).

Carolina’s lawyer, Mike Jefferson, objected to the delay.

“This has to be the longest investigation that I’ve ever been a part of in my professional life,” Jefferson said. “I can’t for the life of me understand how an investigation could go on for four months and we have no conclusion, when it was supposed to be deemed an emergency.”

In an interview, Superintendent Mayo (pictured) said he had no way of predicting in December how long the probe would take.

“The more you get in, the more people you have to talk to,” he explained. Mayo said he has received a draft of an investigatory report, but he said there are errors that need to be corrected and the report is “not final.”

“I’ve asked [Dugas] to wrap it up and he will,” Mayo said. “Don’t ask me for a date.”

Jefferson has said the probe concerns the transcripts of three students at Hillhouse. The first two students took a summer course that was improperly coded; the transcripts did not reflect the fact that it was a college-level course. The transcripts were changed—probably sometime in September—to reflect the actual course the students took, according to Jefferson. The third involved a student who was supposed to get credit for a summer job through the Youth at Work program. Carolina has adamantly denied any wrongdoing in the case.

Reached Thursday, Dugas said he expects “very shortly” to produce an “interim report,” which would answer the allegations about the grade-tampering, and raise some additional concerns that were beyond the scope of his probe.

He said the bulk of the probe is completed: “We’re down to followup and clarification as opposed to any significant investigation.”

He called the duration of the probe typical. It was slowed by a “constellation” of factors, he said: “I had some difficulty getting documents and records that I needed to get.” And some witnesses were hard to reach.

“I did a draft report some time ago that I sent to the superintendent,” Dugas added. The superintendent “raised some questions that required followup.”

Dugas “finalized” a report on April 2, according to invoices his firm submitted.

Records show Dugas and his colleague, a 2007 law school graduate named Jeffrey Mogan, together performed 121 hours of work on the case from December through the end of April.

Dugas charged the city $225 per hour for his work; Mogan charged $185.

The probe dates back to Dec. 14, when Dugas had a phone conference with schools Chief Operating Officer Will Clark about the “Hillhouse Investigation,” according to an invoice.

On Dec. 21, Dugas “attended” an interview with Shirley Love-Joyner, the assistant principal who kicked off the probe then filed a whistleblower lawsuit claiming retaliation. His firm spent 33 hours on the case that month.

Dugas’ firm spent 54 hours in January on the case, including interviewing and re-interviewing Carolina; collecting documents; and interviewing staff at Hillhouse, Riverside Academy, the school system’s central office and IT department, and Youth at Work.

In February, Dugas and Mogan looked into the “potential benefits to NCAA eligibility based upon changes to courses” as well as the Tenex system, a computer program that Carolina named as the real culprit. Dugas worked on preparing his investigatory report. The pair spent 26 hours on the case that month.

The case began to wind down in April.

Dugas “finalized” his report on April 2. He prepared correspondence to Mayo and “reviewed additional grade information” on April 10 for 24 minutes. Then he spoke with Mayo for 12 minutes on April 27 to confer about the status of the report. On April 30, he prepared a summary of the investigation and talked to Attorney Jefferson about it for a total of 1.5 hours.

That brought the total hours worked in April to 2.9.

Mayo said Tuesday that some part of the report needed to be clarified because of the way it did not accurately describe standard operating procedure in the schools.

Dugas said in the process of investigating grade-tampering allegations, he came across some other concerns.

“There are some things that I could pursue that go beyond the scope of the original complaint,” Dugas said. “At this point in time, for a variety of reasons including the lack of funding under our contract,” Mayo “has not authorized me to pursue these things.”

Dugas’ firm has four contracts with the city to handle four categories of legal work. The “labor” contract, under which the Hillhouse probe falls, is capped at $75,000, he said.

COO Clark said the district will be able to cover the cost without allocating extra money.

Jefferson called the whole probe “a spectacular waste of taxpayers’ money.”

“I can’t possibly understand why the city is still being billed for this matter,” Jefferson said. “This thing has turned into something that you would see in terms of a murder investigation. It’s just ridiculous. People have to learn to admit when they’re wrong.”

As Carolina continues to run Hillhouse, Jefferson said, the probe has been “a cloud over his head.”

“I’m just looking forward to this thing being behind us.”

Related stories:

Asst. Principal Sues Ed Board In Hillhouse Case
Jefferson: School Official Shouldn’t Be In Room
Hillhouse Rallies For Carolina
New Suspect Named In Grade-Changing Probe
Jefferson Calls For “Conflict”-Free Investigator
He Was Where?
A Standoff In Grade Probe
Investigation Formally Revealed At “Emergency” School Board Meeting
Out Of Public View, Schools Rush “Emergency” Pre-Xmas Meeting On Grade-Altering Charges

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posted by: robn on May 29, 2012  8:57am

Lets say for a moment that this was just a political squabble and there was no wrongdoing WRT student grading; I’m happy to spend the money to know that..
a) Our grading system isn’t corrupt
b) College recruiters will know this also
c) We are not using defective software

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on May 29, 2012  9:22am

I smell mackerel with this probe.Didn’t the lawyer say last time that he would be finish in two weeks.

posted by: Thomas Alfred Paine on May 29, 2012  10:41am

The people of New Haven have a right to know what has been going on at Hillhouse. This extended delay in announcing the results of the investigation is unfair to the students, parents and staff of Hillhouse. It is also unfair to Mr. Carolina and Mrs. Joyner. There has been much bitterness, strife, division and contention in the school and the community as a result of the charges made.
If Mr.Carolina is found guilty of grade tampering what will be the penalty? Will he remain at Hillhouse, will he be transferred to another school as “principal on special assignment”, will he be given a job at Central Office or will he be terminated? If Mrs. Joyner has falsely accused the principal in a conspiracy with Mayor Destefano to oust Carolina for political reasons, will she suffer the same options?
For most of the school year, Hillhouse has been under a dark cloud of suspicion and scandal. This whole ordeal has had a very negative impact on the students and staff of the school. It is quite unfortunate that this investigation has dragged on for so long. One wonders if the superintendent and the Board hope that public interest in this case will dwindle and the case can be resolved quietly.
The eyes and ears of the people of New Haven have been anxiously waiting to see and hear the results of the investigation this crucial matter. The facts must be made public. Hillhouse’s academic integrity has been challenged and too many lives and careers have been negatively effected to allow nothing less than the truth and justice to prevail.
The people have a right to know by now.

posted by: junebugjune on May 29, 2012  11:51am

I hear you Robn, but this still seems like a massive waste of resources. 

These investigations are important, but there has to be a better way to do this.  When the budget gets tight, we cut teachers, books, and other essentials, but there always seems to be enough money for lawyers, consultants and other “outside contractors.” I’d like to see this kind of investigative reporting extended to the entire city government to see how much money we’re spending on this kind of stuff and what kind of results it’s yielding.  What happend with this investigation seems, at best, irresponsible and, at worst, corrupt.  The people of New Haven deserve to know how the city and school district are evaluating these contracts and making smart decisions about when and how to employ them (and how much to pay).  I’d especially be interested to know how contracted consultants, lawyers, etc. have played a role in school reform efforts since the initiative began in 2009.  How much has this cost the district? What have the results been? What are some alternatives that we could employ that might be more cost effective (and more effective in general)? 

I remember we dropped a lot of money at the beginning of school reform on a group of consultants who’s job it was to think about the best ways to hire new teachers.  Shortly thereafter, there were budget cutbacks that resulted in teacher layoffs.  What’s the point of thinking about hiring new and better teachers if we then have to reduce the number of teachers overall?  It’s one thing to let persistently underperforming teachers go (provided we have a fair and consistent system for evaluating teachers), but if the goal is to get the best teachers in, we wouldn’t be reducing teaching positions, we’d be refilling those positions with “better” teachers.

posted by: Curious on May 29, 2012  12:57pm

***“There are some things that I could pursue that go beyond the scope of the original complaint,” Dugas said. “At this point in time, for a variety of reasons including the lack of funding under our contract,” Mayo “has not authorized me to pursue these things.”***

This smells like a witch hunt.

posted by: junebugjune on May 29, 2012  3:12pm

“If Mrs. Joyner has falsely accused the principal in a conspiracy with Mayor Destefano to oust Carolina for political reasons, will she suffer the same options?”

Sadly, I think the odds of this coming out, even if it is the real truth, are pretty low.  How independent are these investigators? They were contracted by the district right? With district/city money? I imagine they don’t want this to be the last time they get a contract like this.  What are the odds that this investigation will in any way incriminate the Mayor even if he turns out to be guilty of retaliation?

posted by: RCguy on May 29, 2012  9:58pm

As someone who knows very little about our city government, I would like to ask the following questions of the esteemed community here:
For whom do Mr. Mayo and Mr. DeStefano work?
Also, what are the other prominent positions of city Government that are equal to the School Superintendent? Are there any other “Heads” that have been in their position as long? Just curious, thanks.

posted by: Dean Moriarty on May 30, 2012  1:17am

With the current and future state of New Haven’s budget, $26K (to date) is a deplorable cost for this.  Witch hunt indeed.  And Dr. Mayo’s comment “Don’t ask me for a date” is indicative of the aloofness and “untouchable” status he’s found himself in for far too many years now.  WE pay your outrageous salary.  How dare you make such a statement? Completely unaccountable is what this administration has grown to, and that, not the fiscal climate, is what will lead to the death of New Haven.

posted by: CT Taxpayer on May 30, 2012  7:55am

“There are some things that I could pursue that go beyond the scope of the original complaint,” Dugas said. “At this point in time, for a variety of reasons including the lack of funding under our contract,” Mayo “has not authorized me to pursue these things.”

Here is what bothers me about the above statement.  It seems that Mr. Dugas and his associate failed to establish that Mr. Carolina is guilty of grade tampering, and so he offered a vague suggestion that he may be guilty of something else, adding that he won’t be pursuing the matter.  My issues with this:

1. There is no reference to what the alleged issue is, and so the attorney leaves it to the imagination of the reader.  Is this a deliberate move to smear Mr. Carolina even further?  It certainly seems so.

2. If Attorney Dugas is using this as leverage to get the board of education to give him another $20,000, I think he is wasting his time.  At least, I hope the board isn’t foolish enough to do this.

3. Just as those behind this so-called investigation waited until the the last minute before the Christmas vacation to begin this nonsense, my money says that they are going to hold off until the end of the school year to announce that Mr. Carolina is innocent of the charges.  (I’m sure they won’t say he is innocent, but they may say that they haven’t been able to find the evidence they need, or they may say that they haven’t had the cooperation they needed to make a determination.  In my book, as in any court of law in this land, that means that Mr. Carolina is innocent.)

Will those who promoted this investigation issue a formal apology?  I won’t hold my breath waiting because that would require true character on their part.

posted by: Curious on May 30, 2012  10:20am

***Dugas’ firm has four contracts with the city to handle four categories of legal work. The “labor” contract, under which the Hillhouse probe falls, is capped at $75,000, he said.***

I am very curious about these open contracts.  Do these companies “find” work to do in order to bill out to the maximum on these contracts?  Are they doing unnecessary work so they get the full billable amount?

Someone needs to check into this.