As 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.