Ed-Boarders Learn Why Parents Don’t Show Up

Melissa Bailey PhotoSchool board members asked why no more than six parents came to a public hearing about a superintendent search. They soon got a lesson—about the way officials interact with school parents in New Haven.

The lesson came Tuesday evening at Hill Regional Career High School, where the school board held the first of three public hearings aimed to gather public input on the search for a new schools superintendent.

The city hired an Illinois-based firm, PROACT Search, to conduct a fast-tracked search for a new superintendent. The school board aims to have a new candidate in place when longtime schools chief Reggie Mayo retires on July 1.

Angelina Bua of the PROACT flew in from Chicago for an action-packed week of three public forums and 17 private “stakeholder” focus groups that are set to comprise the “public engagement” portion of the search.

She sat at a table in the front of Career’s spacious auditorium. For nearly an hour, she took feedback from six members of the public who sat scattered through the audience in the low-lit room. Two members of the school board sat in the back to observe.

After about an hour, several more members of the school board walked in from another meeting they had held at City Hall. Two more members of the public sat down, too.

At 8 p.m., just as Bua was about to adjourn the meeting an hour early for lack of participation, school board Chair Carlos Torre turned to the audience and professed disappointment in the turnout.

Torre (pictured) said he “expected a big crowd” there. He asked why more parents didn’t show up.

The conversation quickly devolved into a debate between parents and school board members.

Parent activist Dawn Gibson-Brehon said she had learned of the meeting through a robo-call only two days prior, which she said was not enough lead time for most parents to plan to put the event on their calendars. She said the lack of notice made the process feel “rushed.”

Board member Susan Samuels raised her hand from the back of the row of seats. She said she was trying to wrap her head around why members of the public feel the process is “rushed.”

Samuel T. Ross-Lee, a pastor and a parent of elementary schoolchildren, said the July 1 deadline for hiring a new superintendent sounded like a short amount of time.

Rachel Heerema, who heads the citywide youth coalition, noted that the compressed timetable for “public engagement” also made the process feel rushed.

Torre said that deadline isn’t firm—if no candidate surfaces by that date, the board would ask Mayo to stay on for another month or two until a replacement is ready.

Wooster Square Alderman Mike Smart asked why the school board couldn’t just appoint an internal candidate for the next year. He was referring to Assistant Superintendent Garth Harries, though he didn’t name him.

Appointing an interim superintendent would be the equivalent of “pressing pause” for one to two years, replied school board member Alex Johnston, because the person would not be empowered to make significant changes.

“Less than half our kids are reading at grade level,” Johnston said. Johnston said while the district has much work to do, it has begun some promising new initiatives, such as new emotional supports for kids at Barnard School, that address the poverty-born trauma that parents at the meeting had expressed concern about.

“If you press pause,” Johnston said, new initiatives like that one “start to fall by the wayside.”

He argued the work is too important to put the brakes on for one or two years.

“What’s going on is too important to rush,” countered Lee.

“We’re not rushing,” Torre replied.

After a back-and-forth with Samuels, Lee tossed up his hands. “You wanted community input,” he said. “That’s my community input.”

Alderman Smart, who had been listening to the exchange, drew a lesson.

“This is why people don’t come to meetings,” he said. Instead of taking feedback from the public, he said, board members “push back” defensively against public comments.

“You need to listen!” he urged.

Similar lessons about school board accountability and openness to students and parents have been drawn in previous encounters like this one, this one and this one.

Johnston hit a conciliatory tone.

“We’ve had challenges in the past with people who have a defensive tone” when members of the public approach the board, Johnston said.

“I regret the tone that emerged during this discussion,” Johnston said. “This isn’t a debate. This decision is just so consequential,” he said, that board members feel passionately about not delaying the search for a replacement for Mayo.

He vowed to take parents’ concerns about the “rushed” process back to the school board, and to take any measures necessary to better communicate about the next two hearings.

The next two hearings are set to take place Wednesday, April 24 from 7 to 9 p.m. at Fair Haven School, 164 Grand Ave. (Spanish translation provided); and Saturday, April 27 from 9 to 11 a.m. at Hillhouse High School, 480 Sherman Parkway.

Members of the public are also invited to weigh in through an online survey, available in English and Spanish.

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posted by: anonymous on April 24, 2013  11:43am

Two days is too short notice.  Let’s scrap this and start over with someone who has taken public engagement 101.

posted by: mechanic on April 24, 2013  11:55am

“Board member Susan Samuels raised her hand from the back of the row of seats. She said she was trying to wrap her head around why members of the public feel the process is “rushed.””

Maybe because they’re rushing the process.  They have given themselves 3 months to get someone into place.  They gave parents very little notice that they’d be having these forums.  Then they scheduled them all within a week’s time.

Trying to “wrap her head” around this?  Is she trying to sound out-of-touch with the parents of kids in this district?  This was in response to a parent giving her a very specific example of why it seemed rushed to her.

Thank goodnesss for Michael Smart’s good advice.  Attention Board of Education:  you don’t have to react to everything a member of the public says to you immediately.  Thank them for their feedback.  Tell them that you’ll share it with the rest of the Board.  Think about it, maybe when you’re not feeling defensive, talk about it with the board, and give it more than the two seconds the reptilian part of your brain needs to respond.

(Note, this is not to say that the Board members are reptilian.  This is in reference to brain function that we all have as humans.  I just want to make it very clear I’m not trying to slur anybody here.)

It seems that most stories of Board-Parent interactions go this way.  Parents share their feedback (not always nicely or politely, but sometimes it takes courage or a big problem to get oneself to the point of addressing the board).  A board member becomes defensive to the comment.  A back and forth ensues.  Alex Johnston becomes conciliatory.  The meeting ends, and we’re all a little unsure if anything will come of it.

This is business as usualy with our Board of Ed, and it needs to stop.

posted by: Curious on April 24, 2013  11:55am

I don’t understand how board members don’t see this as a rush decision, considering we will have A NEW MAYOR in the next year. 

The only thing that makes sense is to keep an interim appointee in place until the new mayor is on board.  Spending all this money on a search for someone who might get ousted in short order is beyond wasteful, it should be criminal.

posted by: Paul Wessel on April 24, 2013  12:14pm

I’ve been to a number of these kind of public meetings in the schools’ large auditorium spaces.  They are ill suited for these kind of meetings unless you have a huge turnout.

School libraries (or “media centers” as they now appear to be called) are much more conducive to the goal of these meetings and the typical crowd sizes. 

And if you hit the jackpot, you can always move into the auditorium…....

posted by: Samuel T. Ross-Lee on April 24, 2013  12:29pm

The inimitably intelligent Alex Johnston, attempted to convince the assembled parents last night who, like I, feel as if this process is being rushed, that our children will be irreparably harmed if the next Superintendent is not in place by the beginning of the new school year. 

His emotional appeal geared to attaching this immediate hire to our children’s ONLY year in their respective grades was nothing less than pathetic and demeaning to our collective intelligence.

Any Superintendent hired in June will take AT LEAST the next year learning the job. And NO Superintendent in just one year is going to have so direct an impact on students’ lives that the students’ academic year will likely be greatly affected positively or negatively by her/his presence.

Johnston’s reported “conciliatory tone” has been accurately described, but perhaps not as exact as the reporter intended it.  For, Johnston did, it seems, intend to pacify a small, albeit vocal and intelligent, group of citizen/parents whom he seem to believe are intellectual infants.

It is not just the aggressive tone of one school board member that turns people away from wanting to deal with this city’s elected and appointed officials, but the condescension of the others is a turn-off as well. Stop responding to our intelligent questions and critiques as if we are stupid, or as if we have no right to raise them in the first place.

Rev. Samuel T. ROSS-LEE

posted by: Wooster Squared on April 24, 2013  12:44pm

“This is why people don’t come to meetings,” he said. Instead of taking feedback from the public, he said, board members “push back” defensively against public comments.

I have typically not always been the biggest fan of Michael Smart, but he nailed it on this one, well put, Mr. Smart. The current attitude at City Hall, whether it’s the school board or the economic development dept, or the Mayor’s office, is one of arrogance and condescension toward the general public. To them, the public are just there to be cajoled and bullied into agreeing with decisions that have already been made.

This arrogance has been on display during budget hearings, the Route 34/Downtown Crossing project, discussions about the Byzantine school enrollment process, and countless other times.

The folks over at City Hall and on the School Board need to learn that they are there to serve the public and not the other way around.

posted by: ELMCITYPROF on April 24, 2013  12:50pm

The Board seems to be completely out of touch with the parents who have children in NHPS. The overwhelming majority of those parents work and have complex schedules to coordinate. Two days notice is insufficient for a meeting of this magnitude. Why wasn’t this type of forum held as part of Parent University? Does the Board plan to use other methods to gauge parental input e.g. webchats, etc?

posted by: dorothy25 on April 24, 2013  12:53pm

I don’t think the problem here is the choice of venue.  It’s that the BOE gave two days notice for an event for “public engagement” which signals that they may not actually want public engagement.  But given all of the parents they claim are engaged, they couldn’t enlist them to come and bring other parents?  That rather than just a notice on the BOE website could yield something approaching community engagement. 

I just hope they get the message coming from the Charter Commission. Things need to change.

posted by: Noteworthy on April 24, 2013  1:03pm

The failure to listen, to act on what you hear, is why people don’t spend their valuable time in these meetings. I’ve attended BOA meetings where the public input is part of fulfilling the law, not of incorporating anything they hear. Sometimes, the disdain for the public is palpable. The same is true with the school board. Beyond that, when you call the central office, you never get the person on the phone. It is rare to get a call back. If you do, it is weeks later or only after you call there several times. I have attended 2 school board meetings in 10 years - both were to learn and one was to learn and then testify about the school lottery program.

I didn’t testify because what I learned shocked me into silence. While these new schools are three and four times the size of the old schools, they effectively can only handle the same number, and sometimes fewer number of children than they did before the new building. That creates systemic problems for the lottery, a tremendous pressure on the operating costs and an extraordinary construction cost per student ratio. Add in the debt, debt service and requirement to serve a regional student with that state funding, why would people who make these kinds of decisions listen to what we have to say about a search for a new superintendent? Or anything else?

posted by: mechanic on April 24, 2013  1:07pm

ELMCITYPROF:  NHPS did send out a survey for parents to provide feedback on the search.  I don’t know of any other opportunities for parents to provide feedback.

posted by: anonymous on April 24, 2013  1:11pm

Dorothy, which of the candidates for Mayor support an elected Board?

posted by: ELMCITYPROF on April 24, 2013  1:19pm

mechanic: was that survey sent to all parents or just to “randomly” selected parents? I’m an active parent in NHPS and never received such a survey. The school climate survey was a completely separate tool that made no mention of the search. thanks for the info!

posted by: Curious on April 24, 2013  1:22pm

Why is this?

***While these new schools are three and four times the size of the old schools, they effectively can only handle the same number, and sometimes fewer number of children than they did before the new building***

posted by: GoodNatured on April 24, 2013  2:43pm

Why don’t parents show up to these meetings?

a) I didn’t hear about the meetings until 2 days before, via robocall (just as Dawn Gibson pointed out_

b) 7-9 pm on a school night is just about the WORST timing. I can’t attend anything at that hour - kids have homework to do and bedtime routine.

c) Sat morning is also bad. If you wanted parents to come, why not try during the day—at least some parents can make it.

d) The school board doesn’t listen anyway.  The board looks like it’s rushing to get their candidate in place before we know who the new mayor will be—or even if the new charter will make the board a hybrid.

If they want parents to show up - hold meetings at the LOCAL school, give people at least a week notice, and provide a place for kids to play (like the school gym or the library) so parents can bring kids with them.

And show that they are willing to listen.

These meetings are just a fig leaf of pretending-to-take-input.  Nobody believes they are for real, and we don’t want to participate in a sham.

posted by: JustSaying on April 24, 2013  3:09pm

New Haven politics noted, the Superintendent has already been handpicked.  The BOE is doing what is usually done ~ playing the game.  They know (and expect) that parents will not show up for these meetings. Congratulations Superintendent Garth Harries!  If you have been following the NHBOE happenings, this was a done deal when they brought him to New Haven.

posted by: Brutus2011 on April 24, 2013  3:18pm

There are many constructive comments here.

“Wooster Squared” posted:

“The folks over at City Hall and on the School Board need to learn that they are there to serve the public and not the other way around.”

Right on.

posted by: mechanic on April 24, 2013  3:27pm

ELMCITYPROF:  I’m not sure how I heard about the survey.  I believe from a friend.  Here is a link from the NHPS website for it:  http://www.nhps.net/node/2957.  It is available in both English and Spanish.

posted by: CreatingUrgency on April 24, 2013  6:30pm

I don’t believe Garth Harries has the correct credentials to be a superintendent. My supposition is that Commissioner Pryor will “appoint” him as “Special Master”.

BTW. Teachers were told TODAY! about these meetings.

posted by: Honest in New Haven on April 24, 2013  6:32pm

Why this Board insists on hiring a new Superintendent when there will be a new mayor next year is beyond belief.  They are setting up the City for a big payout to whoever they hire because that person will—rightfully so—insist on a big payout if he/she is fired or otherwise dismissed by the new Mayor, who understandably would want their own person in that job.  The Board knows this, so why they are acting contrary to that is simply unbelievable!  As for this notion that hiring an interim somehow presses a “pause” button, that seems absurd!  To hear that come out of Alex Johnston’s mouth is just disappointing.  Hiring an interim—Garth or whoever—makes sense given the political circumstances, and also from an operational perspective, puts in place someone who can run with the so-called reforms that are happening and move them along farther than any newcomer or outsider ever could.  Someone new will need time—at least 8-10 months—to figure out what is what, and who is who.  Hire an interim and don’t saddle New Haven with yet another big payout to make someone go away!

posted by: ElmCityVoice on April 24, 2013  6:52pm

What’s the rush? Let the new mayor in on the decision making. This process is so smelly that there’s nobody in the city who believes the excuse the board is giving—that our children’s education is so important to them they MUST immediately find a replacement. Keep Garth if you want to maintain consistency. Let the new mayor in on this closed door operation.

posted by: nokoolaid on April 24, 2013  7:17pm

Why hasn’t the Board considered the other Assistant Superintendent - Imma Canelli- who has been in the district for decades—as the “interim”. 
She knows the system, the families, the staff, the schools, the curriculum…

posted by: Brutus2011 on April 24, 2013  8:40pm

I think Imma Cannelli is a very talented manager with NHPS.

She is the district’s “fixer”—sort of the “Michael Clayton” of NHPS and absolutely indispensable to NHPS information asymmetry approach to management.

No disrespect to her, she seems to be really, really good.

She even has the respect and admiration of other central office admins in other cities.

Maybe she should be the one to take over once Dr. Mayo retires—if she can take a more transparent approach to how the district operates.

posted by: Edward_H on April 25, 2013  12:34am

Two days is too short of a time-frame for people who work and have kids, but when is a good time to have a meeting? During the day people work, 7-9PM people have to cook ,do homework, Saturdays are bad for some reason and Sundays people go to church.

posted by: Samuel T. Ross-Lee on April 25, 2013  10:42am

Edward H:

There is NO good time to have “a meeting”.  That’s why there should be several different meetings at several different times, in several different media, and at several different locations.

posted by: streever on April 25, 2013  12:47pm

Smart is right. I’m glad Johnston apologized for getting out of hand.

The Board is there to serve parents, not to lecture and patronize them.

posted by: Samuel T. Ross-Lee on April 25, 2013  2:07pm


A REAL apology is a change in behavior, not an articulated statement of regret.  Statements from politicians (and Johnston is nothing if he’s not a politician) are little more than posturing when they are not backed up by significant action, and in this case significant CHANGE.

I arrived at the 2nd so-called Community input meeting last night at 8:35pm.  The meeting was scheduled and announced to last from 7pm-9pm.  As I arrived, the people hired to engage the public on this issue were exiting the building and returning to their cars.  You know what?  THAT’S not being serious about getting community in-put.

A parent or citizen who could not get to the meeting before 8:35, but wanted to participate in the discussion (and still had a good TWENTY FIVE minutes to do so) was chopped out to the process because the time scheduled AND ANNOUNCED was not honored.

Political posturing for the sake looking good in the press is not about apologizing or changing, especially when the spirit and actuality of said apologies are violated with business as usual.  The Board of Ed members should have INSISTED that the meeting and those conducting it last until the allotted AND ANNOUNCED time was up.

The Board of Ed has failed the public now in 2/3rds of the meetings planned for this engagement. And then they have the audacity to ask us why we think the process is being “rushed”.  We THINK it’s being rushed, because it IS being rushed. 

Rev. Samuel T. ROSS-LEE

posted by: Optional on April 25, 2013  4:43pm

I got my Robocall the day before. Terrible start to what I believe will be a terrible process.

posted by: Tom Burns on April 25, 2013  10:48pm

I agree with you all on the short notice—its a problem and you all make good points—yet we need input from people in the know—and if anyone knows anything about the New Haven reform movement—it is second to none in the US—and we will continue to work it and make it happen—to all you parents out there—we plan on getting it right and we are working every day to make New Haven the best place to attend school—when Garth Harries came here from New York, I was more than skeptical—but after working with him over the past three years I have come to understand that he is the real deal—-he is a great talent—who gets it—
and Alex Johnston gets it too—-do not hinder our momentum—No Mayor in their right mind would not pick Garth to lead their education system—-he has no equal in what he does—when the new mayor meets him and understands what he is worth to our children—he/she will stay the course and our education system will benefit immensely—-the search is a joke—we have the man we need already—and any of you who wish to comment from afar without knowing where we were and where we are now since Garth arrived—keep your uninformed comments to yourself—or call me and I will get you up to speed on all the great things happening in New Haven—Tom 860-227-6668 Believe me Garth has had many offers over the past three years and I am thankful that he hasn’t taken any—

posted by: Curious on April 26, 2013  9:25am

“...the New Haven reform movement—it is second to none in the US….No Mayor in their right mind would not pick Garth to lead their education system—-he has no equal in what he does”

That’s a lot of strong talk, and considering how badly the schools are doing, I have a hard time believing it.

I may have had differences of opinion with him in the past, but I would support Sam Ross-Lee for one of those elected school board seats.

posted by: William Kurtz on April 26, 2013  2:47pm

Tom Burns wrote:

—-do not hinder our momentum—No Mayor in their right mind would not pick Garth to lead their education system—. . .—-the search is a joke—we have the man we need already—and any of you who wish to comment from afar without knowing where we were and where we are now since Garth arrived—keep your uninformed comments to yourself—

I’m unsure what Mr. Burns’ role in the NHPS is, but his comments lend credibility to the central complaint in this article: the perceived disdain school officials have for people with “uninformed” opinions. And what’s with that punctuation?

posted by: Brutus2011 on April 26, 2013  5:36pm

NHPS is another of New Haven’s “secret societies.”

Virtually no one except its management is “in the know” as to what is really going on. The public gets told what it is deemed to need to know and often gets fed disinformation to keep NHPS management in power with control.

Sounds nefarious?

Look at the words, in the article and comments, of some of NHPS top players.

Anyone who actively reads these words can only conclude that the inner sanctum does not want the riff-raff (us) in on their plans.

Plans for what? How about those who run NHPS keeping their very well paying jobs and pensions and we citizens being kept in the dark as to just what a dismal job those who run NHPS are in fact doing?

Sometimes the best place to hide is in plain sight.

posted by: anonymous on April 26, 2013  6:24pm

Tom wrote: “we need input from people in the know—and if anyone knows anything about the New Haven reform movement—it is second to none in the US”

If we have “people in the know” and a “movement that is second to none,” then why is this process such a spectacular failure?

posted by: Samuel T. Ross-Lee on April 27, 2013  12:13pm

Tom Burns, apparently one of those persons who is “in the know”, clearly does NOT know that he is not suppose to be so blatant and obvious about his disdain for community input.  Maybe he will be taken to the woodshed by others who are “in the know” for his impolitic revelations here.

Mr/Ms. “Curious”: Thanks, but No Thanks for the endorsement. There will ALWAYS be a need for informed voices outside of the establishment.  I’m happy being one of them.

The Rev. Mr. Samuel T. Ross-Lee

posted by: NewHavenPublic on April 28, 2013  10:37am

This “superintendent search” disaster shows how deeply the corporate style “school reformers” have infiltrated the New Haven Public Schools.

A few days ago John Tierney wrote about the rogue’s gallery:


In this moment, we may have the opportunity to lay the groundwork that will allow us to reinvent New Haven’s public school system to better serve our children.

posted by: CreatingUrgency on April 28, 2013  5:07pm

From our Union Vice President, Tom Burns: and Alex Johnston gets it too.

A union man supporting a union buster?

Ridiculous, Tom.

Charter schools have led to MORE segregation. Charter schools have NOT PROVEN themselves time and time again.

100% of Amistad’s high school students took the AP EXAM last year. 4% passed! FOUR PERCENT!

And the answer is MORE TESTING?

Tom, you have drunken the kool-aid.

Time for new Union Representation.

posted by: Tom Burns on May 1, 2013  1:16am

I love uninformed opinions—that’s why I listen to you guys and gals—and I guess you believe these uninformed opinions should rule the day—and by the way—have any of you seen my prior posts for what I believe in—things like community, parent and student voice—-no more charters and no reliance on standardized tests for anything—no more charters at all—and teacher voice—come on people—don’t pick on the champ—T