Charter Revisers Petitioned To Give Teens A Voice

Thomas MacMillan PhotoAs work began in earnest on revising New Haven’s foundational document, a petition began circulating to elevate the role of young people—by setting aside two seats on the Board of Ed for elected high school students.

Rachel Heerema, who runs the Citywide Youth Coalition, showed up to City Hall Tuesday night to submit that petition to the Board of Aldermen’s Charter Revision Commission as the group got down to business.

The special commission is working on the once-every-10-years task of revising the New Haven Charter, the document that enshrines in law the most basic facets of city government: length of terms, number of aldermen, number of wards.

The 15-member commission Tuesday split into three five-person working groups to tackle the 15 issues it is required to consider, as well as others that have come up during public input. The commission is aiming to submit recommended charter changes to the Board of Aldermen by mid-May. Aldermen will then decide which, if any, will be place on the ballot in November as citywide referendum questions.

The commission, made up of 15 members, including three current aldermen—has held several public hearings. A single issue has emerged as the most talked-about charter revision notion: Whether or not to move from an Board of Ed that’s appointed by the mayor, to one that’s partially or fully elected by city voters.

Heerema has been following the charter revision process closely and attended Tuesday’s meeting. She’s put together a petition calling on the commission to add language to the charter that would have students sit on the Board of Ed. Read the petition here.

The student representatives to the Board of Ed would be elected by the citywide student council, Heerema said. They would be elected in their junior year to staggered two-year terms, so that one election would happen each year.

They would not be token positions, Heerema said. The student representatives would receive one-on-one mentoring by an adult Board of Ed member and would have a teacher at their school assigned to help them gather input from students.

People can still sign the petition online; it had 128 signers as of Wednesday morning.

Some signers of the petition added their reasons for signing.

“Young people are the most important stakeholders in our public schools. Real education reform needs their full participation,” wrote Joel Tolman, director of development at Common Ground High School.

“Young people are the ones affected by decisions made by the Board of Education,” wrote Rosalyn Harris. “[T]hey deserve to have a voice in the making of those decisions.

“I have worked for many years with youth in New Haven and feel it is very important that they have a voice in what is going in their schools,” added Stefan Keller. “I have met some extremely smart and dedicated students in New Haven and I know they would do an excellent job in this leadership role.”

Last week, at a Charter Revision Commission meeting, city Corporation Council Victor Bolden and New Haven Public Schools Assistant Superintendent Garth Harries both argued against switching to a fully or partially elected Board of Ed . Heerema said their testimony did not convince her.

“Things are not as rosy or effective currently as their presentations would lead the public to believe,” she said. Decision-making on the board is not as inclusive at it could be, she said.

Asked about Heerema’s idea of elected students on the Board of Ed, commission chair Alderman Mike Smart said he doesn’t want to take a position yet. “I want to review it and check it out.”

Commissioner Carmen Reyes said students clearly want a voice on the board: “It’s something to consider, definitely.”

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Alderman Smart Tuesday night divided the Charter Revision Commission into three five-member groups: A, B, and C. Those groups will spend the month of March working on proposed charter changes.

The groups spent Tuesday’s meeting setting meeting dates and conferring with the commission’s lawyer, former Alderman Steven Mednick, an expert in municipal law who has advised other Connecticut communities on charter revision.

Group B will consider proposals on term limits. That shouldn’t take long, since state law does not allow the city to enact term limits. Group B will also spearhead the effort to update the language of the charter, including making it gender-neutral and modernizing the document.

The section on ethics will need some attention, said Mednick. The ethics section was “locked in in the Eisenhower era,” he said. Mednick also said the section on procurements will need updating. For instance, no one had heard of a “Request For Proposals” 20 years ago.

Among other proposals, Group C will consider enshrining the Civilian Review Board in the charter. During public testimony in previous meetings, many people called for giving the board subpoena power to help it investigate allegations of police misconduct. That’s impossible without a new state law, Mednick said.

Group C will also look at the possibility of residency requirements in the charter. Mednick said state law prohibits residency requirements for most city employees. Department heads are an exception.


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posted by: Christopher Schaefer on February 27, 2013  10:03am

According to today’s New Haven Register “Group A will consider and recommend whether to retain the current 30 aldermen; whether all board and commissions should be confirmed by the Board of Aldermen; whether the Board of Education should continue to be elected, appointed, a combination of the two or appointed and confirmed by the Board of Aldermen; clarify the process of amending wards and clarify the ability of the aldermen to abate motor vehicle and other taxes.
Group B will consider whether to increase the term of office from two to four years for the mayor, city clerk, aldermen and registrar of voters; whether to impose term limits, whether to change the salaries for elected officials and whether the mayor should sit on any boards.
Group C. will consider and recommend issues related to the Civilian Review Board and Democracy Fund Board’s powers and composition; qualifications for deputy director of the Department of Parks, Recreation and Trees; and the definition of residence as it relates to residency requirements and the process by which a member of the Board of Aldermen will serve as minority leader when the board is fully composed of members from one party.”  All of these items mentioned above are from the original list put forth last fall—meaning that the various ideas proposed by citizens at the 4 public hearings were not considered. The final message here is that public hearings are a pointless charade; the Commission’s agenda already was a done deal.

posted by: anonymous on February 27, 2013  10:45am

State laws can be changed.

posted by: RHeerema on February 27, 2013  10:49am

The legislative staff are still compiling the comments from the public hearings.  I understood Chairman Smart to say that all issues raised (including the students representation on the BOE)will be assigned to a committee for consideration.  Of course, that assignment doesn’t mean that any/all of these issues will be recommended out of the committee.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on February 27, 2013  11:43am

How come they are ducking Term Limits.

posted by: jdossgollin on February 27, 2013  12:05pm

I could not come out more strongly in support of this proposal. When I was a senior and Vice-President of Wilbur Cross Student Council a few years ago, we met with Dr. Mayo to discuss this very issue. We were told that the only barrier to this initiative was charter reform. Now, we have the opportunity to begin showing our city’s young men and women that they are worthy of our respect.
While there are plenty of obstacles, they are mainly bureaucratic—primarily setting an election procedure for this individual. When I was on the Student Council at Cross, a lack of a clear election procedure caused quite a bit of drama (you’ll remember the stories about election results being thrown out.) However, creating a clear and obvious election procedure should be something that New Haven is capable of doing.
The only other argument that I heard in opposition to giving students a voice AND A VOTE on the Board of Ed is that they are easily manipulated. There’s certainly some merit to that argument. However, I also think most voters and taxpayers in New Haven would point out that youth are not the only ones who are easily manipulated.
In the end, I really can’t think of a good reason to oppose this. Putting a student on the Board of Education will give the youth a say in their own education. It’ll signal that we respect the youth of this city and we trust them, and would encourage student leadership. A student on the BOE is not going to be the only person involved in this process; it will revitalize student involvement across the district, which can only make our schools better.