Mayoral candidates Justin Elicker and Gary Holder-Winfield say they believe so strongly in the ideal of an independent school board that, were they get elected, they may not even sit on it.
Elicker, an East Rock alderman, made that statement during a campaign fundraiser at BAR restaurant on Crown Street. Contacted by phone, Holder-Winfield, a Newhallville state representative, subsequently said he wouldn’t sit on the Board of Ed as mayor.
New Haven’s mayor appoints the Board of Ed and has a set on it—and has played a central role in a school reform initiative.
Elicker is, as he joked on Wednesday, “one of 35 candidates for mayor.” He is running to replace Mayor John DeStefano, who will step down at the end of this year after two decades in office.
He and Holder-Winfield are two of four Democratic candidates who have officially declared their candidacy. They and others who are likely to join the race face off in a Sept. 10 party primary and perhaps in a general election in November.
Another declared candidate, former city development chief Henry Fernandez, said he would sit on the Board of Ed as mayor.
While Elicker and Holder-Winfield said the mayor should give the school board room to act independently, Fernandez said a mayor needs to take a more active role, to be accountable for public schools through service on the board.
At the fundraiser last week in the back room at BAR, Elicker (pictured) mingled among about 60 people drinking and eating pizza. Shortly after 6 p.m., Elicker gave a speech and took a few questions, one of which took him by surprise.
A woman mentioned Elicker’s support of a “hybrid” Board of Ed, one that’s partially elected and partially appointed by the mayor. The woman asked if, as mayor, Elicker would sit on the Board of Ed.
“I haven’t thought about it,” Elicker said. “Which means it’s not a priority for me to sit on the board. … The short answer is no.”
The Board of Ed needs to be independent, he said. “it’s important to have separate bodies.”
Asked later about his answer, Elicker said he hasn’t made a final decision about if he would sit on the Board of Ed as mayor. “My instinct is probably not.”
Elicker said he needs to do some research about the idea. The New Haven Charter requires the mayor to join the Board of Ed. In fact, the mayor is required to sit on all boards and commissions except the civil service board. In practice however, the mayor has not always taken his seat on the school board.
Asked if he would sit on the Board of Ed as mayor, Holder-Winfield said, “No, I would not.”
A mayor can lead without having to have “his finger on everything that happens,” Holder-Winfield said. The mayor’s responsibility is to “set forth a vision.”
Taking a seat on the board might lead to “undue influence,” Holder-Winfield said. If appointees are sitting next to the man who appointed them, that “may not always allow them to use their expertise,” he argued.
Holder-Winfield said he favors a hybrid, partially appointed Board of Ed, which would still allow the mayor to have a role in shaping education in New Haven.
Proponents of a mayoral presence on the board argue that the mayor needs to take responsibility for and have a strong hand in shaping the city’s schools. Mayoral candidate Fernandez falls into that camp.
A mayor needs to be an essential partner with the superintendent of schools, Fernandez said. As mayor, he would “take a leadership position with regard to the Board of Ed,” Fernandez said. In other words, he would “absolutely” sit on the school board.
“We elect our mayor to be accountable,” he said. “I am more than willing to be held accountable for high-quality schools.”
Fernandez said a fully appointed Board of Ed “makes the most sense.” In successful school reform efforts around the country, the “role of the mayor is essential,” he said. A fully or mostly appointed school board allows the mayor to be held fully accountable for public schools.
Wednesday night’s fundraising event marked the debut of new Elicker campaign buttons, reading “Just Elicker.” Chris Ozyck, one of the hosts of the event, came up with the slogan and had the buttons printed in a union shop in Arizona.
The phrase is a play on Elicker’s first name, incorporating other cultural references, like Nike’s “Just Do It” slogan.
When he introduced Elicker to the crowd, Ozyck said he had always favored the phrase “a just man.” He later learned that it came from the Bible, where it says that a just man will fall seven times and rise again, while a wicked man will fall once, into mischief.
Ozyck described Elicker as a man of “character, intelligence, and unbridled energy.”
Semi Semi-Dekoko, a Westville activist, also introduced Elicker. He praised him for his work on the Board of Aldermen’s Finance Committee and his leadership on environmental issues.