The search for the next school superintendent has hit the skids and interviews with semi-finalists have been canceled, thanks to a new outbreak of infighting that has paralyzed the Board of Education.
After an executive search firm deemed no internal candidate worthy of a second-round interview, the Board of Education has splintered: Three board members want to proceed with interviewing those candidates that the company recommended; three others want to retool the selection process that rejected all local applicants.
With that even split — which held Monday night after intensive closed-door lobbying of one board member, Frank Redente — the process has jammed to a halt. While the board members arm-wrestle over Redente’s swing vote, interviews with six semifinalists, originally scheduled for this Wednesday, have been postponed indefinitely.
While board members are split on whether an internal candidate from New Haven’s schools should get a shot at becoming superintendent, they are tussling internally. Tuesday morning, the board’s president weakened a fellow board member’s control overseeing the search process; the board member refused to accept the change.
New Haven has been without a superintendent since the board pushed out Garth Harries last October. (Since then, retired Superintendent Reggie Mayo has filled in on an interim basis.)
And the Board of Ed has been short-handed since July, when Daisy Gonzalez, the former president, died unexpectedly. Among her priorities had been hiring a new superintendent. The month before her death, Gonzalez pledged that firm the board hired, Hazard, Attea, Young & Associates (HYA), would scour “nationwide” in order “to find the right leader for New Haven Public Schools.” But that process Gonzalez initiated now looks ready to slip out of control.
The schism over whom to hire next is just one of the roadblocks that the panel is facing as the school year begins. Its squabbling members haven’t been showing up, and a tie-breaking appointment must wait on a months-long nomination and approval process at the Board of Alders.
And the ed board’s members are arguing about ... how to hold meetings, as two members, including the mayor, have boycotted sessions.
The fractures on all those issues exploded on Tuesday morning when the school board’s two elected members, Ed Joyner, the board president, and Darnell Goldson, the superintendent search committee chair — former allies in last year’s board wars — traded scathing emails. Goldson, amid all the fighting, has appealed to the state to rule against the board’s process as a violation of open meeting laws.
At 6:23 a.m., Goldson emailed Joyner, copying his colleagues, three district employees and the two search consultants. He asked when Joyner planned to inform him about the interviews being cancelled. Then he added, “This interference by you has been a major stumbling block for moving this process forward, beginning when you convinced the BOE to switch search companies based on hearsay regarding the former company’s potential to complete the job adequately” — a reference to Joyner’s suggestion that they avoid one head-hunting firm the district considered before HYA — “now leading up to scheduling illegal and improper meetings. I implore you to discontinue this interference and allow the process to move forward with increased community and stakeholder involvement, as I have outlined throughout my tenure as Chair.” Goldson said he’d tell the candidates of the cancellation directly, if he didn’t hear from Joyner by noon.
At 7:36 a.m., Joyner replied, in bold, “You are no longer the chair.”
He continued, “Your chronic absence and admission that you were boycotting general meetings, your failure to engage in phone conversations with the firm during the entire process, along with your having missed every event the group scheduled with community stakeholders, are other reasons that I exercised my prerogative as board president to make changes” — a reference to his addition of two board members as search co-chairs. “You have no authority to inform potential candidates of anything. That would be a matter decided by the whole board and not one chronically absent member.”
At 7:57 a.m., Goldson responded, “The full BOE ratified my chairmanship, and only the full BOE can remove me as chair. Since you have not included an item on an agenda of a duly and legally called meeting, you don not have the authority to remove me or add chairs to the committee. Despite that, you certainly are derelict in your duties as the president of the board to call and cancel meetings without full notification of ALL BOE members. Despite your inaccurate description of ... my attendance ..., I am an ELECTED member of the BOE that you cannot ignore or remove. You are now violating state and local laws in your current activities. Very disappointing. Your leadership thus far has been a dismal failure. We are now at a crossroads of disfunction which you have not only failed to successfully manage, but have actually caused.” He continued, “[P]lease discontinue on this path. Please follow state and local statutes, ordinances and our bylaws, and more than anything, please work with ALL your board members to gets us back on track. ... PLEASE PLEASE fix this.”
The Swing Vote
The decision when to resume the superintendent search rests with Frank Redente, Sr., a 40-year employee at Farnam Neighborhood House who was appointed to the school board by Mayor Toni Harp this past January. He chairs the school board’s Finance & Operations Committee, which doles out millions in contracts. He’s the swing vote that’s vacillated on how quickly the hiring process should proceed.
Last week, Redente told the Register, “I want to select as soon as possible. This has been going on and going on and going on.” He added that he hoped to have a superintendent in place by the year’s end, as “a nice Christmas present for the kids.”
But a few days later, he flipped. On Monday, he told the Independent, “This has been going on for 10 months. What’s the rush?”
In between, Redente sent an email to his fellow board members detailing his thought process. “I am especially concerned that not one applicant with New Haven connections is even being given an interview for the position,” he wrote in a Saturday email. “What does it say about the process when qualified applicants (those with an 093 certification),” state-issued credentials to be a superintendent, “who work in New Haven … do not have a chance to lead the district? And what does it say about us — all of us on the Board of Education — when we do not seem to care if there are any New Haven candidates interviewed?”
That email set off a lobbying campaign by both sides. On Monday morning, Harp and Jason Bartlett, her youth services director and liaison to the school board, called Redente into a meeting at City Hall. Redente left the meeting on Harp’s side, in opposition to the current search process because the interview finalists do not include an internal candidate and and the search process hasn’t involved more consultation with New Haveners.
Later in the evening, after two board committee meetings ended, three school board members — Ed Joyner, Carlos Torre, and Che Dawson — asked the press to leave the room and cornered Redente about his position. Their arguments didn’t persuade him, and the superintendent interviews, which candidates expected to happen two days later, have been called off.
Right Fit for New Haven
The conflict about internal hires revives a debate that swirled around Harries’ promotion from assistant superintendent to the district’s leader. Back in 2013, parents and teachers felt that he’d been groomed for the role and that his pick as superintendent was inevitable. They were proved right when the board unanimously voted him in.
This time around, the board has tried to avoid another coronation. That’s part of why it hired HYA to conduct the search, paying the firm $24,500 in compensation, plus up to $13,785 in reimbursements for ancillary costs like “advertising, background checks, travel costs and other expenses.” The firm has been criticized for interviewing only 41 people, none of them students, about what they wanted in the next superintendent; the firm said they believed they’d collected enough feedback with over 1,000 responses to an online survey that matched their in-person focus groups.
At an Aug. 28 board meeting, where HYA presented its findings from those surveys, Dawson said the district is “battling this perception that someone is already pre-selected.” In response, the search firm’s lead consultant, Ed McCormick, shot down the idea that there’d be any “insider trading.”
“We’re arm’s length; we’re third-party,” McCormick said. “We take great pride in the integrity of the candidates we bring to you. That’s why we spend a lot of time on this process and what you believe are the right fits for New Haven.”
“Politics,” he added, “has not entered our process, and I don’t think it will as we move forward.”
(McCormick did not respond to a request for comment on Monday night.)
When HYA first began looking for candidates, the consultants asked board members in executive session whether they wanted to award additional points to internal applicants. Those present all said no, according to Torre, who’s now the board’s vice president.
Only after the revelation of the results of that decision, with no New Haven candidates among the six semi-finalists, did a non-issue suddenly become front-and-center.
Torre questioned why the board hired the search firm if it wanted to meddle in the process. “They put the candidates that fit the bill the best in front of us. We knew that from the beginning; this is what search firms do. Now people are objecting,” he said. “We need to look at what’s best for our kids and not individual agendas.”
Joyner noted that criticisms could have been brought up earlier, rather than days before candidates were about to fly in for interviews.
“Why do I believe the process was fair? All of this was negotiated with the board at the beginning, and it’s up to the [search committee] chair” — Goldson — “to, in a timely manner, communicate if he felt that things were not going well,” Joyner said.
At least two internal candidates whose applications were rejected have since emailed the board requesting interviews.
“I was disappointed that internal candidates were not seen as viable candidates by the search firm to interview for the office of Superintendent in this school system in which they have devoted their lives,” Iline Tracey, one of the district’s three directors of curriculum and instruction, wrote on Sunday morning. “The Board is not obligated to select any of us, but at least I would like to know that my work is valued.”
Redente says he wants to give Iline and other internal candidates a chance to make their pitch to the board.
“From the start, the community has said that it wanted someone who knows New Haven, knows our kids, and can connect with our kids. Who knows our kids better than the people who work here every day, or live here, pay taxes and/or send their kids to school here? I’m not saying that living in New Haven or working here should guarantee a candidate the job but my God, at least they should be given an interview,” he wrote to his colleagues. “The Board hired the search firm to work for us. We don’t work for the search firm. … Therefore, I am demanding that we interview all qualified applicants with New Haven connections…. If doing so slows down the process again, so be it, because our families deserve to have the best person as superintendent no matter how long that may take.”
Goldson said the process should resume only after the interview committee is expanded, more stakeholders get involved and the process by which potential candidates were ranked is reviewed.
“We only get once chance to get this right, so rushing the process without adequate stakeholder buy-in would be a huge mistake,” he said in an email to the Independent. “We should have learned from the previous process what to do and what not to do. Not getting community buy-in would be disastrous.”
Beyond that hire, the school board is also having trouble completing its regular business.
Joyner said he has been concerned about the bylaw’s quorum requirements, which necessitate five members be present before opening a meeting, ever since Gonzalez died. That’s because, while her replacement Jamell Cotto’s nomination is still pending approval before the Board of Alders, the school board can afford to lose only one additional member per session to meet the five-member bar for a quorum. “If you don’t get that straight, you can’t do business,” Joyner explained.
A majority of board members voted to change those rules to allow for a quorum. But questions have emerged about whether that was done legally.
At an Aug. 14 board meeting, Dawson, the governance committee chair who’s is in charge of keeping the bylaws up to date, suggested lowering the requirements for action from a “unanimous vote of five members” to just four. That change would reflect the new number needed for a majority, ever since the board was shrunk to seven members in the charter revision. Harp seconded his motion, and it was approved by the four members present and one who’d called in by phone.
One problem: That meeting wasn’t properly called to order. A district employee had failed to post the agenda 24 hours ahead of time, constituting a potential violation of the state’s open meetings law.
Joyner, who was assuming the role of board president for the first time, said he contacted Thomas Hennick, the public education officer at the state’s Freedom of Information Commission, about whether the vote was invalid.
Here’s the conversation, as Joyner recounted it to the Independent:
“‘It depends. That was put in place to keep agencies from fooling the public, from having something they want to do covertly.’ Because there’s freedom of information. So, anything that we discuss should be out in the public: That’s why democracy lives in light, not darkness, OK?
“So I said, ‘The vote that we made?’ He said, ‘Was it a public meeting?’ I said, ‘Yes, it was. We had press there, so I wasn’t trying to hide anything.’
“He said, ‘Did you discuss stuff that wasn’t on the agenda?’ ‘No, we didn’t. We followed it.’”
That was enough for Joyner to believe he was on sure legal footing, he said.
A week later, though, the bylaw change showed up on the agenda again, at an Aug. 22 special meeting. Goldson agreed to call in to the meeting approve crucial hires and contracts, on the condition that there not be a vote on the bylaws. That’s exactly what Joyner announced before the meeting: “We’re going to skip the approval of bylaw policy on quorum,” he said.
Goldson later explained what was going on at that moment: “They took it off, because I told them I wouldn’t attend the meeting if it was on the agenda.”
Why? “I said it was a major change; I was uncomfortable making those sort of changes, without having the process in place on how to amend our bylaws,” he told the Independent last week.
That’s important to Goldson, he said, because he worries about what changes outgoing board members might make before their terms expire at the end of the year. “I think it’s unfair to handcuff the new board coming on and the new superintendent that will eventually be coming on with parting shots from these guys who are leaving. I believe the quorum is just the beginning. I believe that sets them up for some other stuff; I don’t know what it’s going to be.”
Calling The FOIC
Goldson has since filed a complaint with the Freedom of Information Commission against his colleagues. He said that the non-vote on the quorum requirements at the special meeting was revealing. “You can’t admit that you didn’t do it, schedule a special meeting to re-do it, don’t re-do it and then come to another meeting and say, ‘Well, it was done the first meeting okay,’” he said. “Here’s the deal: I don’t care if the mayor’s doing it or Ed’s doing it. If they’re doing it wrong, I’m going to try to correct it.” He said he’s considering hiring an attorney to file an injunction.
“They’re a rogue board that are not following the rules, not following state law, and are out of control,” Goldson concluded. “I’m just shocked by it, and I’m not quite sure what to do about it. Because I keep telling Ed, the last thing I want to do is have a public fight about it, which will then cause [superintendent] candidates to drop out and leave us in a worse position. But I can’t allow them to continue to operate like this.”
Joyner said that Goldson, by filing a complaint, is “trying to hang the district on a technicality.”
He added that he would repeat his decision. “If you have to weigh risking whatever sanction or punishment that ensues from voting anyway to put people in classrooms, allow them to retire properly, get contracts done, and you have to risk that knowing that a person has said, ‘I’m not coming,’ I’ll take that,” Joyner said. “There’s certain things I won’t compromise. I won’t compromise our children, and I’m not going to have someone tell me I’m wrong for doing something right.”
Hennick clarified to the Independent that he said he “recommended that they reschedule the meeting and revote on everything in question, because even if a violation was found — I’m not sure if there was or wasn’t — then they’ve fixed the problem.”
There are three possible outcomes, following Goldson’s complaint to the FOIC:
(1) The panel could find that there wasn’t a violation;
(2) The panel could determine there wasn’t proper notice and issue a reprimand, effectively, “Don’t do it again,” Hennick said; or ...
(3) The panel could say that the violation was so egregious that they find all actions that day “null and void,” Hennick said. In that case, votes at the last two meetings, on Aug. 28 and on Sept. 11, when only four school board members voted on major items needed to kick off the school year, could technically be thrown out. Among the items that could be challenged, there’s the school board’s election of Torre as vice-president, a review of the district’s policy on administering medication to students, $371,250 in grants for off-hours community learning centers and $1,306,047 in other state funds, a $643,765 Yale University School of Medicine study on the early identification of dyslexia, $5,748,783 in contracts, 76 new hires, two firings, 38 food-service staff assignments, and 39 transfers.
“As we sit here today, all of this may be in play,” Hennick added.
At the Aug. 28 meeting, the questions about the board’s legality continued, when only four members showed. Dawson noted, “Right now, we have four board members present, and there’s some question about whether that’s a quorum,” he said. “It’s unclear as to what was approved. I know we had to bring that to the board again, but it is imperative that we can move ahead with business in circumstances like this.” During a five-minute recess about halfway through the meeting, the four board members agreed to go ahead with approving hires and contracts, as if the quorum had been lowered two weeks prior.
Dawson and the others haven’t had a chance to officially ratify the change since. Neither Goldson nor Harp hashown up recently.
Goldson missed two meetings. On Aug. 28, he was in Puerto Rico on vacation, and on Sept. 11, he was boycotting the meeting to avoid a vote on lowering the quorum requirements. He also didn’t show up on Aug. 14, where the quorum change was first voted on, because he’d been told that was not a meeting.
Harp missed three meetings. On Aug. 22, she was at the Connecticut Open tennis tournament; on Aug. 28, she double-booked her schedule with a press event, a meeting in her office, and then a political event; and on Sept. 11, even though she scheduled an hour-and-a-half block for the Board of Education, she skipped the meeting.
The mayor told the Independent Monday that she skipped the most recent meeting because it was the night before the Democratic mayoral primary But she said she skipped the previous two meetings intentionally because she was unhappy with the way the board’s leadership handled amending the bylaws and rushing the search schedule. (Harp had seconded the motion to lower the quorum threshold on Aug. 14; the interview schedule wasn’t discussed until the Aug. 28 meeting.)
“I felt uncomfortable being railroaded in a particular direction,” Harp said. “Until we function like a group, not a dictatorship, I thought it was best not to go.” She said she anticipates attending the next meeting, figuring that quorum and search-process issues will be resolved.
Joyner, the school board president, said disputes with the board’s leadership are a poor excuse for absenteeism from meetings. “Tell us what those problems are. Come to a meeting and say, ‘The board president is not doing this or that.’ Or if you’re being respectful, call the person and say, ‘I don’t think you did that right,’” Joyner said. “It’s hard to talk to people when you recognize that they may have another agenda, instead of being about the kids.”
One Last Member
Meanwhile, a lot of this wrangling would have been unnecessary if the board had filled the vacancy created by Daisy Gonzalez’s death. But that takes a while.
It took about a month for Mayor Toni Harp to choose a successor to Gonzalez, Jamell Cotto.
Cotto can’t take the seat until the Board of Alders confirms Harp’s appointment.
That vote can’t happen until the board’s Alder Affairs Committee holds a hearing on it, and that won’t happen until the full board refers the matters to it.
Because the full board meets only twice a month — and in the summer, only monthly — it can’t do that until it has a full meeting. That finally happened in August, when the full board and referred Cotto’s appointment to committee.
But the committee didn’t hold a hearing in August; in fact, it didn’t have one scheduled until Sept. 25. Cotto’s appointment is on the agenda for that upcoming meeting.
After that, the matter returns to the full board for consideration. But the board doesn’t vote on the matter at its next meeting. It has a “first reading.” Then it waits until another meeting for a “second reading” before a vote. So it’s mid-October at the earliest.
Mayor Harp said she has spoken with alder leaders about speeding up the approval process. She said she respects the right of alders to question and vote on appointments, but believes it needn’t take months, especially to replace someone who has unexpectedly died.
Board of Alders President Tyisha Walker was asked about that issue Monday night.
“We’re going to deal with the Board of Education like we deal with all the boards and commissions,” she responded. “And if it’s a conversation that needs to be had about trying to develop a process so that we’re meeting quorum, I’m always open to have that conversation. But I’m not committing to developing a fast track process without more information on timeframes on when everything needs to happen.”
Paul Bass and Markeshia Ricks contributed reporting.