New Haven’s fractious school politics burst into public view Wednesday night as citizens spent three hours lined up to weigh in on whether controversial Board of Education member Jamell Cotto should be reappointed to a second term.
In the end, Cotto won a critical vote of support in his bid to stay on the board, but not before an aldermanic committee cautioned the youth advocate to better heed a group of parent-critics.
That vote came at the end of a heated three-hour public hearing held by the Aldermanic Affairs Committee on Wednesday night in the Aldermanic Chambers on the second floor of City Hall. Cotto’s reappointment next goes before the full Board of Alders for a final vote.
Over 60 students, parents, teachers, school administrators, politicians, Board of Ed members, and other education watchdogs showed up to see if the alders would sign off on the mayor’s reappointment of Cotto to a new four-year term on the Board of Education.
The three-hour hearing saw an outpouring of impassioned support and criticism of Cotto, a lifelong New Haven resident who is the executive director of the Farnam Community. He joined the board in 2017 after the unexpected death of then-President Daisy Gonzalez.
Supporters praised him as an innovative, compassionate, dedicated leader who represents the city’s Latino and African-American student populations and who needs more than a year-and-a-half to leave his mark on the Board of Ed.
Detractors slammed him as unresponsive to parent concerns, disrespectful to fellow board members, laden with conflicts of interest, politically motivated in his decision making, and unqualified due to his lack of academic credentials.
Cotto dismissed his critics as a vocal, privileged minority bent on character assassination, and lambasted the media for promoting a false narrative about his time on the Board of Ed and for being too sympathetic to his most pointed critics, the New Haven Public Schools (NHPS) Advocates parent group.
“These are lies that are being told here,” Cotto said about his critics’ concerns with his credentials, tenure, and character. “These are all lies.”
The four alders on the committee ultimately voted in support of Cotto’s reappointment, now sending the matter to the full Board of Alders for a final vote later this month.
But before providing their unanimous support, the four alders advised Cotto to take to heart the bitter divide on display at Wednesday’s hearing.
“Take this meeting not as a place where there’s nothing to be gained,” said Downtown Alder Hacibey Catalbasoglu, “as a place where all you found was conflict, but rather take this meeting as a place where you found some of your weaknesses, whether or not they’re true, and you did a little bit of thinking, and you grew from it.”
“I hope Mr. Cotto improves in terms of parent communication,” said Hill Alder and Aldermanic Affairs Committee Chair Evelyn Rodriguez. “Parents are crying out.”
“I’m A Grassroots Man”
Smartly dressed in a navy blue suit and hair coiffed high above his head, Cotto told the alders that he is not a professional educator, but rather a professional community advocate.
A native New Havener who grew up in foster care, Cotto is half Puerto Rican and half African-American, he said. He heads a Fair Haven nonprofit that provides athletics and after school programs for city teens. He said he has an intimate personal and professional understanding of what life is like in 2018 for the city’s 22,000-plus public school students.
“I am the epitome of what should be on the Board of Ed,” he said. “The board has been run by educators for decades, and that hasn’t gotten us anywhere.
“I’m a grassroots man,” he said.
Quinnipiac Meadows Alder and Aldermanic Affairs Committee Vice-Chair Gerald Antunes asked Cotto about his accomplishments during his year-and-a-half tenure on the board to date, and how he plans to support Superintendent Carol Birks in her leadership of the public school system if he is given another four years on the board.
“We’re still trying to mitigate the deficit,” Cotto said. As the chair of the Board of Ed’s Finance and Operations Committee and as the vice president of the board itself, he said, he has played an instrumental role in reducing the school system’s deficit from $21 million over 10 months ago to around $9 million today.
“We didn’t receive any money from the Board of Alders because you told us to work it out,” he said in reference to the alders’ refusal to increase the schools budget by $5 million this fiscal year. “I’ve been a leader” in mitigating the deficit, he said.
He said, if reappointed, he will prioritize further addressing the board’s budget concerns, advocating for more bilingual educators, starting a new Latino leadership academy, beefing up the school system’s emotional and behavioral health services for underprivileged and vulnerable populations, and working with the parent group CHANGE to host regular off-site meet-and-greets between Board of Ed members and parents of public school students.
“My motto has always been,” he said, “if you engage the community, stand by and watch the magic happen.”
“Conflicts Of Interest” vs. #CottoBOE
For the next two-and-a-half hours, Cotto and the committee alders got to witness an engaged community in action, as 32 individuals took their turn speaking up during the public testimony section of the hearing.
Around half of those who testified, including a cavalry of young graduates from Cotto’s lifeguard training program who were nearly all wearing white t-shirts emblazoned with the text #CottoBOE, championed the Fair Haven youth advocate for being a positive role model for the city’s Latino youth.
The other half, led by a diverse array of parents associated with NHPS Advocates, criticized Cotto for acting in bad faith during his Board of Ed tenure to date and for failing to live up to the standard of considerate, open communication between parents and the board that was set by his late predecessor, Daisy Gonzalez.
Click here to download a statement that members from NHPS Advocates read on Wednesday night in opposition to Cotto’s reappointment.
“The truth is that Mr. Cotto has not asked reasonable questions parents brought to his attention about major contracts,” said Lee Cruz, a father of two sons at Columbus Academy and a NHPS Advocates supporter.
“I am of the opinion that one representative from Farnam House on that board would be sufficient,” said retired Hillhouse High teacher Robert Gibson, referring to Cotto’s current fellow Board of Ed member Tamiko Jackson-McArthur, who is the president of the board for Farnam Community, and to former Board of Ed member Frank Redente, who recently retired from a long career at Farnam Community.
Even current Board of Ed member Ed Joyner came out to testify against Cotto’s reappointment.
“Mr. Cotto’s a good person,” he said. “But there are a lot of good people in this city who shouldn’t be on the school board.”
As the sole professional educator remaining on the current board, Joyner said, he believes that Cotto’s position should be filled by someone with background and training in education, by someone who is more interested in education policy than in embarrassing and stymieing the superintendent.
“When you have reasonable people that are well informed and that make rational decisions,” he said, “then that facilitates better relationships.”
“We Like That He Is Latino”
Cotto’s supporters came out swinging against the notion that Cotto is ill-suited to remain on the board.
“Let’s be frank,” said Camille Ansley, a Cedar Hill neighborhood activist and the head of the public school parent group CHANGE. “We like the fact that he is Latino. The data shows that Latino males are the population that’s hurting in New Haven Public Schools. It’s a good look, and it’s someone who really wants to be there.”
“The truth is this,” Newhallville resident and Board of Ed watchdog Rodney Williams said, “Cotto represents a group of people, and they need to be represented.
“The educators are the ones who got us where we are right now,” he added.
Board of Education President Darnell Goldson also testified in Cotto’s defense.
“You can’t have an active and a strong school system without having balanced books,” he said. He praised Cotto for his leadership of the Finance & Operations Committee, and for helping steer the board towards a lower deficit.
In response to the concern expressed by several Edgewood School parents in particular that Cotto had unnecessarily targeted that school for closure for political reasons, Goldson said that a multi-million dollar schools deficit means that “no school is untouchable.
“Just because one school has strong parents advocates,” he said, doesn’t mean that school’s finances can’t be scrutinized.
Cotto also received a half dozen testimonies in support from young men associated with his lifeguard training program. They all said that Cotto is a born leader, and will succeed on the Board of Ed if given a second chance.
“Mr. Cotto is a big role model in my life right now,” said Julian Segui, who said he is currently training with Mr. Cotto to become a lifeguard. “He pushes us mentally and physically to better ourselves. To strive in the community.”
“If there’s one thing I know,” said Cotto’s son Joseph, who is also a graduate of the lifeguard program, “it’s that he doesn’t believe in minimal effort and he does not believe in non-believers. ... He’s been a good role model in my life and for many individuals who participate in the program.”
“An educator does not need a degree,” added Board of Ed student representative Nico Rivera. “An educator does not need to work in a school.” He said Cotto has been a mentor for him since he was 8 years old, and that he is confident not just in Cotto’s commitment to helping city youth, but in his abilities as a leader to bridge evident differences between himself and his fellow board members for the sake of the city’s students.
“Cotto is an educator because he is a leader,” he said.
“You’re A Good Person”
After closing the public testimony, the four alders maneuvered their ways towards a unanimous vote in support of Cotto.
Catalbasoglu said that his parents used to sit him down whenever he received bad grades halfway through the school year and talk with him about what he was doing well, where he was struggling, and how he could improve.
“In a lot of ways, I see this meeting here as that for your tenure on the Board of Education,” he said to Cotto.
“At your core, I don’t think you’re a bad person,” he said. “I think you’re a good person.” That said, he advised Cotto to make more of an effort to meet with and reach out to concerned public school parents.
Rodriguez said she was moved by how many teenagers came out on Wednesday night to share the depth of Cotto’s impact on their young lives. Nevertheless, she warned, Cotto needs to work extra hard to bridge the gaps between himself, his supporters, and his critics on and off the Board of Ed.
“We have major problems,” said Fair Haven Alder and Aldermanic Affairs Committee member Kenneth Reveiz. “We all know what they are.
“I just want to create a culture,” he added, “where we’re working together across our differences.”