At future Board of Ed meetings, nine people would be present: five appointed, two elected, and two non-voting student members. And the mayor would be nowhere to be found.
That vision inched closer to reality Tuesday night when the Charter Revision Commission voted to recommend changes to the city’s foundational laws to make that happen.
The commission voted to recommend moving from a school board of seven members appointed by the mayor to a seven-member board in which two members are elected by voters.
Under the new model, the city would be divided into two equal districts, each of which would elect a school board member. In another change, the five members appointed by the mayor would be subject to approval by the Board of Aldermen.
The mayor himself would not be a member of the Board of Ed, as either a voting or non-voting member. The mayor is currently a voting member of the school board.
The commission also voted to recommend adding to the school board two non-voting seats for high school students elected to two-year terms by their peers.
Those recommended changes were the latest developments in the once-a-decade process of revising the city charter. Every ten years, the city is required to form a special commission to consider whether changes are needed to the document, which enshrines the most basic laws of the city, including the number of wards, the powers of the mayor, even the name of the city.
The commission is closing in on its final recommendations for charter changes. Those suggestions will be submitted to the Board of Aldermen by May 13. Aldermen will then decide which, if any, of the changes should be put to the voters as city-wide referendum questions on a November ballot.
This time around, the notion of moving to a partially elected Board of Ed has emerged as the hot-button charter revision issue. New Haven has the state’s only school board completely appointed by a mayor. Proponents of an elected board say it would give voters a more opportunity for input on the board and act as a check on mayoral control. Opponents say elections would politicize the school board and make the mayor less accountable for the effectiveness of city schools.
On Tuesday night, Commission Will Ginsberg, the head of the Community Foundation of Greater New Haven, argued the latter position—and was outvoted.
Twelve of the commission’s 15 members gathered at 7 p.m. in City Hall’s Meeting Room Two.
Commissioner Melissa Mason (pictured), the facilitator of the subcommittee that worked on the hybrid school board idea, said her group had come to consensus that “we needed to insert some mechanism for people to have input.” That input would happen through Board of Aldermen approval of mayoral appointees and through electing two of the school board members.
Mason said the Board of Aldermen would determine how the transition to the partially elected board would happen.
Commissioner Nilda Aponte said the subcommittee was influenced by the many people who called for an elected Board of Ed at public hearings earlier this year. “There’s an outcry for that,” she said. “Two seats can really reflect what the community wants.”
“I’m not in favor of this proposal,” said Ginsberg. “Diluting the mayor’s control dilutes mayoral accountability.”
Ginsberg said that, with all due respect to the idea of community input on the board, “that’s not the point.”
“The people of this city want stronger schools,” he said. The way there is by holding the mayor accountable, he said.
Ginsberg made a motion to strike the language about elected members, retaining language about aldermanic confirmation of appointees.
Several commissioners spoke up against Ginsberg’s motion. They said having two elected seats would be a good compromise. Commissioner Arlene DePino voiced support for Ginsberg. “I’m concerned about special interest groups coming in and influencing the vote,” she said.
Ginsberg’s motion failed nine to three.
Commissioner Joelle Fishman (pictured) proposed an amendment stating that the mayor, in appointing Board of Ed members, should consider recommendations from teachers, parents, school support staff, and administrators. Her amendment passed seven to five.
Mason then proposed that the mayor not sit on the Board of Ed as a voting or non-voting member, not be able to appoint himself, and not be able to run for one of the elected seats.
Ginsberg again spoke up against this idea: “My framework here is trying to maximize mayoral accountability. This seems to cut 180 degrees in the other direction.”
“I think we believe that having five appointed by him and also having his presence there can intimidate and influence whatever decisions are going to be taken,” said Aponte.
“I thought part of doing this charter revision was to give the Board of Aldermen a little more power than what they’ve had, not to take the mayor’s powers away altogether,” said Commissioner Helen Martin-Dawson (pictured). “It’s one thing for him to sit on the board and not vote. It’s another thing if he can’t even sit on the board. How would he intimidate people if he can’t vote?”
With five appointees, the mayor would still have influence, said Commission Chair Alderman Michael Smart.
Another vote on the hybrid Board of Ed recommendation ensued—no mayor, two elected members. This time, Ginsberg was the lone “nay” vote.
The commission moved on to less controversial items. Commissioners unanimously voted to recommend that two students sit on the Board of Ed as non-voting members. The high schoolers would be elected to two year terms by other high school students.
The commission then voted unanimously to recommend that all mayoral appointments to boards and commissions require approval by the Board of Aldermen.
The commission voted on an idea from Alderman Smart, that all mayoral appointments to department heads also require aldermanic approval. “I don’t think the department heads respect the Board of Aldermen like they should,” he said. He said one alderman has recently been waiting for nearly four weeks for a department head to return an email.
The recommendation passed by a vote of 12 to one, with Commissioner Ted Fertik (pictured) as the dissenting vote.
After the meeting, Rachel Hereema, head of the Citywide Youth Coalition, hailed the student representation recommendation. She’s been lobbying the commission to suggest just that change to the charter.
The commission will meet again on Thursday night to deliberate on more suggested charter revisions.