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ISAAC charter school's probationary period extended as investigations into school mount

Students in front of school
Ryan Caron King
Connecticut Public
Students wait to be picked up in front of the Interdistrict School for Arts and Communication (ISAAC), as seen from Governor Winthrop Boulevard in New London.

The probationary period for a Connecticut charter school has been extended for at least seven months. This comes a year after the state found that the school was out of compliance with state laws and the school’s board was unable to provide effective leadership. Now our Accountability Project has found that the school’s accrediting agency is investigating the school’s climate and culture after former teachers complained of what they call a toxic work environment.

If you listen to the state Board of Education’s Accountability and Support meeting from September 2021, you might think it was a celebratory meeting.

In video of the meeting posted to YouTube, Nick Spera, the executive director of the Interdistrict School for Arts and Communication, also known as ISAAC, enthusiastically pumps his arms in the air as a state education official announces ...

“As of today, literally moments ago, four of the four corrective action plans have been approved.”

Zoom meeting
CT State Department of Education
CT State Department of Education
In the center-right square of a remote meeting, Nick Spera, executive director of the Interdistrict School for Arts and Communication, reacted with raised arms when a state education official announced that a corrective action plan for ISAAC had been approved.

The state requires Spera and ISAAC’s board chairman, Richard Muckle, to attend these meetings after the charter school of 270 students in grades six through eight was placed on probation last May.

The state Education Department found that ISAAC overcharged other districts that send special education students to the school when they tried to double the hourly rate. The state also said ISAAC improperly disposed of computer equipment and lacked proper governing board oversight of school finances. In 2020, ISAAC received $3 million in federal and state grants.

“Happy to be here, Dr. Lopez and the committee,” Spera said at the meeting. “We’re proud of the work. Obviously, we worked really hard to get to this point, but it’s been good work.”

Probation extended

ISAAC’s probation was supposed to end this month, but after state officials visited the school in mid-May, the probationary period was extended for at least seven months.

Meanwhile, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, also known as NEASC, which accredits ISAAC, has launched an investigation into the school’s climate after receiving complaints from former teachers.

CT Public reached out to Spera and board president Richard Muckle for interviews. Muckle declined the interview requests, saying they could not discuss personnel issues. He also said the board is “wholly and fully satisfied with Dr. Spera’s performance since his arrival in 2020.”

Former teachers and board director allege ‘toxic work environment’

Nancy Rodgers (left), Tunisia Melendez (center), and Barbara Zegarzewski (right) stand for a portrait in front of the Interdistrict School for Arts and Communication (ISAAC) School where Melendez was once a board member, and Rodgers and Zegarzewski used to teach. As the ISAAC school emerges from state-mandated probation, a group of teachers say their concerns about climate, culture and leadership of the school have been ignored by the state department of education. Now, the school’s accreditation agency has launched an investigation while the executive director faces CHRO complaints.
Ryan Caron King
Connecticut Public
Nancy Rodgers (left), Tunisia Melendez (center) and Barbara Zegarzewski stand for a portrait in front of the Interdistrict School for Arts and Communication in New London, where Melendez was once a board member, and Rodgers and Zegarzewski used to teach.

But Tunisia Melendez, a former ISAAC parent and board member, has gone public about issues at the school. She filed a state human rights complaint against Spera and the school alleging racial discrimination and harassment. Melendez says she knows all too well about ISAAC’s board governance issues. She says she had issues from the moment she joined the board.

“I was elected as vice chair of the board, I was elected vice chair of governance. Although I was never invited to one meeting,” said Melendez.

She says that once she started questioning what was happening and why she wasn’t invited to the meetings, her son started having trouble at school.

“My son was deliberately locked out of his large assignments, 200-point assignments. Couldn’t never (sic) get resolved to this day,” said Melendez.

She eventually pulled her son out of the school and resigned as a board member. Melendez says board members were also discouraged from addressing concerns of faculty and staff.

The Accountability Project spoke with three current ISAAC teachers, a former ISAAC administrator, a former board director and at least five former teachers from Spera’s previous school who all declined to comment, citing fear of retaliation.

Nancy Rodgers, who taught language arts at ISAAC for seven years, says she knows that fear all too well. She also claims she was forced to work in what she calls a “toxic work environment.” She says that when she returned to work after surgery and an extended medical leave, she wasn’t given accommodations and was asked to consider retiring early.

“It was it felt very much like, you know, you don’t look like a member of my dream team here, you and your walker. And you know, maybe it’s time for you to just, you know, figure out something else to do,” said Rodgers.

Nancy Rodgers
Ryan Caron King
Connecticut Public
Nancy Rodgers stands for a portrait near the Interdistrict School for Arts and Communication in New London, where she used to teach. Rodgers is part of a group speaking out about the school’s climate, culture and leadership, issues they say have been ignored by the state Department of Education. The school’s accrediting agency has launched an investigation, and the executive director faces Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities complaints.

Spera's past history

This isn’t the first time Spera has been accused of fostering a toxic work environment. He faced complaints from staff and students at Marine Science Magnet High School in Groton, Connecticut, where he was principal before being hired to lead ISAAC. Those complaints were even mentioned by state Board of Education member Malia Sieve during ISAAC’s charter renewal.

“There are serious concerns for the students and staff at ISAAC. Concerns for their mental and emotional health and the climate of the school,” said Sieve.

When contacted by The Accountability Project, Sieve said her comments from two years ago still stand.

Spera’s controversial tenure at Marine Science included two reprimands in 2013, according to his personnel file. The first from May 2013 admonished Spera for “discriminatory behaviors exhibited at the school.” That same month, a school climate survey at Marine Science found that faculty experience a culture and climate characterized as “emotionally abusive, manipulative and frightening.”

Later that year, Spera was reprimanded again after administrators received feedback from parents who said they perceived Marine Science as a place where special needs children were not welcome.

In 2019, complaints about Spera’s leadership surfaced on social media, and as Spera was leaving the school, the district overseeing the school launched an investigation.

For Barbara Zegarzewski, who was a student support coordinator at ISAAC, Spera's past history should have been a red flag, so she wrote the board of directors.

“I was written up for talking to the board, and I was told that I needed to apologize to Dr. Spera. I do believe from that point forward, I essentially was a target,” said Zegarzewski.

She says she was then reassigned from an administrative position to a teaching position. Zegarzewski once again contacted ISAAC’s board, leading to a one-day suspension without pay and another write-up.

Barbara Zegarzewski
Ryan Caron King
Connecticut Public
Barbara Zegarzewski, who was a student support coordinator and a teacher at ISAAC, said she was reprimanded after bringing up the past history of ISAAC’s executive director, Nick Spera, with the school’s board of directors. “I was written up for talking to the board, and I was told that I needed to apologize to Dr. Spera. I do believe from that point forward, I essentially was a target,” she said.

“Everything that the Marine Science teachers shared was happening at that school happened at ISAAC. There is a real fear of teachers of retaliation,” said Zegarzewski, who resigned her position after 21 years at ISAAC.

Emails obtained by CT Public show that multiple former ISAAC and Marine Science staff members as well as parents have emailed state officials complaining about climate and culture concerns.

CT Public requested several interviews from state education officials. Those interviews were not granted, but a spokesman says they have investigated the complaints against Spera despite the local board having direct authority over him.

The former ISAAC teachers say the retaliation continues. As this story was being prepared, Rodgers received a letter from an attorney representing ISAAC, threatening a defamation lawsuit.

“I think that he should be removed for [a] pattern of destructive behavior for single-handedly destroying the culture and climate of a school that’s been there for 27 years,” said Rodgers.

Spera’s contract extended

Despite ISAAC’s probationary status, conditional charter renewal and continued complaints, Spera’s 2021 evaluation received the highest rating — exemplary. This past February, ISAAC’s board extended Spera’s contract until June 2026 with an annual base salary of $180,000. Melendez, the former board member, says she’s not surprised.

“He’s very instrumental in every dealing of the board. And that’s not how it’s supposed to be,” said Melendez.

The state will continue to monitor ISAAC's special education billing rates and revisit ending the school's probation in December 2022 or January 2023. As for the investigation by the New England Association of School and Colleges, we’re told that it should conclude in July.

Walter Smith Randolph is Connecticut Public’s Investigative Editor. In 2021, Walter launched The Accountability Project, CT Public’s investigative reporting initiative. Since then, the team’s reporting has led to policy changes across the state. Additionally, The Accountability Project’s work has been honored with a National Edward R. Murrow award from RTDNA, two regional Murrow awards, a national Sigma Delta Chi award from the Society of Professional Journalists, three regional EMMY nominations and a dozen CT SPJ awards.

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