A Thanksgiving card showed up at Superintendent Reggie Mayo’s door. Inside, he found a photo of a blackened piece of pizza from a school cafeteria.
The card was delivered by a parent group called Teach Our Children (TOC), which has teamed up with the student group Youth UnleashED, in a new joint campaign focused on improving city schools.
“Dr. Mayo, Happy Thanksgiving! May your meal be healthier and more appealing than New Haven’s school food,” the card read.
“May your transportation to your destination be safe unlike the school buses. We need you to work with us!” it continued.
Subsequently, at Monday night’s school board meeting, Mayo denounced TOC’s approach. The group was active a few years ago, known for frequent public actions and visits to the school board, many of which devolved into confrontations. Mayo accused TOC of not working in good faith with school officials; they in turn accused Mayo of ignoring their concerns and in one case walking out of a meeting. The bitter, public dispute came to an end with the help of community mediators. The group had been quiet for the past three years.
Now, Mayo announced to the school board, “they are back.”
And he wasn’t cheering the news.
“It appears they have not moved on from their former tactics of communication by ambush,” Mayo said.
In a meeting Tuesday, TOC parent leader Renee Wells (at right in photo) said she joined a small group of parents and one student delivering the Thanksgiving card to Mayo, and a similar one to Mayor John DeStefano, last week. She said the card came only after Mayo and DeStefano failed to respond to requests to set up a meeting.
Wells said the group aims to meet with the top decision-makers to come up with solutions to problems parents are facing with school bus safety and school food. Included in the card were two photos students took at Hillhouse High School depicting unappetizing food—a piece of chicken and a dark piece of pizza.
Wells and her group also included parent testimony recounting problems on school buses. For example, Wells said her 8th-grade student, who attends Betsy Ross Arts Magnet School, has been bullied and teased on the bus. Parents issued a list of demands, including: aides on all school buses, “functioning cameras” and anti-bullying signs on school buses, and better communication about when buses are running late.
On Nov. 8, Wells and Mark Ifill-Haney (pictured), a student leader at Youth UnleashED, wrote a letter to Mayo requesting a meeting with him and the mayor to discuss these issues, as well as others surrounding school food and sanitation. They gave Mayo a Nov. 14 deadline to respond to them, and requested to set up a meeting before Dec. 1, when they plan to hold a public meeting on the topic. When they didn’t hear back, they followed up with emails on Nov. 19.
In a Nov. 19 email, Sean Matteson, the mayor’s chief of staff, replied that the mayor “is away this week and is unable to respond to your email regarding your letter.” That was the only response the group got, Wells said. So TOC and Youth UnleashED decided to take it to the next level with the Thanksgiving cards, she said.
After the Thanksgiving delivery, Mayo responded to parents with an email. He offered to meet them on Thursday at his office at 6 p.m.
However, Mayo reported to the school board Monday, TOC turned down that offer.
“They insist we meet at their office,” not the Board of Ed, Mayo reported. He interpreted that as an unwillingness to cooperate. “Everything has to be their way.”
Wells later explained that her group isn’t trying to be difficult—TOC just wanted to meet Mayo in a location that has childcare and enough parking. She said she made that clear in her email, which she said aimed to mimic the language Mayo had used, in a professional and polite way.
Mayo, meanwhile, Monday night distributed copies of Youth UnleashED’s flyers advertising their meetings.
“School lunches making you sick? Bathrooms grossing you out?” one flyer asks.
Mayo called their language “inflammatory” and “sarcastic.” He said in the last few years since TOC became inactive, the school system has made great strides in engaging parents. He cited a newly revived Citywide PTO, volunteer canvasses knocking on parents’ doors, New Haven Promise offering college scholarships, and a Parent University that brought 250 parents to Gateway Community College for workshops.
He said he doesn’t want to see the district’s relationships with parents regress.
School board members agreed.
“I’m just sad to see this group is still operating in this manner,” Susan Samuels said. “I feel for Superintendent Mayo and Mayor DeStefano. I just am glad I am not in their shoes.”
Board President Carlos Torre, who met with TOC years ago, said, “at one point I thought it was difficult” to meet with the group. “Then I thought it was not very useful at all.”
He welcomed them to be “straightforward” and operate “without the ambush.”
“This group doesn’t seem interested in dealing with issues,” Torre said. They’re more interested, he said, in “throwing bombs.”
“I wouldn’t say don’t engage them,” suggested DeStefano. He said the district needs to ask for specific examples of problems in the schools, then set up working groups to address them.
Mayo replied that in his response to TOC, he did ask for specific examples of their broad complaints.
“I don’t think they’re coming in good faith,” Mayo said, but he would meet with them.
As of Tuesday afternoon, Wells was still negotiating with Mayo’s office over the meeting details. She said Mayo tried to meet with her one on one, but she refused because she’s representing a group.
Meeting or not, TOC and Youth UnleashED plan to hold a public meeting on Saturday, Dec. 1 from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Center Church on the Green Parish Hall at 311 Temple St.