Daisy Y. Gonzalez, the 54-year-old president of the Board of Education, died unexpectedly Thursday morning.
A longtime advocate for the district’s parents, Gonzalez was the mother of two boys. The younger one, Marc, could often be seen hunched over homework in the corner while his mom presided over evening board meetings.
An honors student at Career High, he hoped to attend Yale or Wesleyan to be near home, aware his mom’s health was declining.
Her older son, Mikey, meanwhile, attended Gateway Community College and now works for the online retailer Amazon.
The cause of death wasn’t immediately apparent, according to fellow board member Edward Joyner, who with his wife Shirley Joyner spent hours with Gonzalez’s family at the hospital Thursday morning.
“[The doctors] said it wasn’t a heart attack, and that they’ve given the family an option to decide whether to do an autopsy to find the cause of death,” Ed Joyner said.
“It started this morning: She couldn’t breathe. They called 911. When [the paramedics] got there, she wasn’t breathing. Then, according to her son, on the way to the hospital, they couldn’t resuscitate her.”
“The shocking news of Daisy Gonzalez’ passing showers sadness across the city, particularly among all who worked with her over many years to ensure a dependable public education system for all students of New Haven Public Schools,” Mayor Toni Harp said. “Through my work with Daisy on the board of education I knew her to be a sincere, effective advocate for parents and their students; her dedicated efforts on behalf of the city and its residents will be sorely missed.”
Gonzalez first got involved in advocating for her sons’ schooling simply by volunteering. She was a regular sight at East Rock Community Magnet School, where both children graduated, appearing at PTO meetings, report card nights, orientations, field trips and other school functions. Prior to her appointment to the Board of Education, she served on its School-Based Building Advisory Committee, advocating for parents while the $49 million renovation fell behind schedule. She also participated in the Citywide Parent Leadership Team, an open group where parents tackle the district’s issues collaboratively, and the East Rock Community Management Team.
Based on her involvement, Mayor John DeStefano named Gonzalez to the school board in September 2013 — the last of his picks, alongside Carlos Torre and Che Dawson. “One of the most important issues for me is finding ways to increase parent involvement in schools. The more we as parents get involved in our children’s education, the better they do in school and in life,” Gonzalez said at the time.
Gonzalez was unanimously elected board president by her colleagues this January, replacing Mayor Harp. At sometimes emotional board meetings, she was seen as a calming presence, known for her easygoing manner and her kindness.
Her four-year tenure on the Board of Education was set to end this coming September.
But that timeline for Gonzalez’s service wasn’t always so clear. In January 2016, the addition of the school board’s first two elected members meant the panel exceeded the number of members allowed by the charter. The Board of Alders first voted to cut her appointment short, then sued Gonzalez in state court in an attempt to unseat her. They eventually settled on a fix in March 2016, when the school board members agreed to rotate, so that no more than seven would vote at any given meeting.
“Daisy had to really fight to secure her position as a Board of Ed member,” said Florence Caldwell, a grandmother who attended many outreach workshops with Gonzalez. “Daisy was the voice of so many parents, speaking out for their rights and their responsibilities, asking the question that maybe parents wouldn’t dare to ask. She was about credibility and accountability.”
Caldwell said she hopes that the district’s parents remember Gonzalez’s constant advice: “Be involved. Get to know anybody and everybody that has anything to do with your child’s education, and also remember that there’s a dignified way of doing it.”
The night before her death, on Wednesday at an election fundraiser for Ed Joyner, Gonzalez arrived early and chatted with former school board member Alicia Caraballo, longtime Hillhouse High School teacher Robert Gibson and others while seated at one of two tables. “It’s devastating. We had a lot of time to talk yesterday; we were the last ones to leave. She was feeling good. We talked about her family, all kinds of things,” Caraballo recalled Thursday morning. “We were both feeling so encouraged and so proud, really, to be a part of this district, to be a part of what’s going on, to be a part of Dr. Joyner’s reelection.”
Caraballo said that she’d never had a conversation with Gonzalez about why she chose to get involved. “I guess it was pretty much understood,” she said. She was one of those people who “just understand the importance of being involved. And parents need to be involved: It’s what makes a good school a great school. People just can’t go at it alone: That was always understood. From the moment I met Daisy, it was clear that she was an activist. She had a strong commitment to the schools her sons attended and to the city as well, to every school as if every student was her student.”
In her absence, the president’s duties on the Board of Education will likely fall on Joyner, who was elected vice-president in January. The Board of Education can be expected to vote on new leadership when it reconvenes on Monday night for its regularly scheduled meeting at L.W. Beecher School.