After Hours Of Debate, Cotto Clears Hurdle

Thomas Breen photosNew 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 he is also proud of calling into question the school board’s no-bid maintenance and transportation contracts

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.

 

In particular, they criticized Cotto for failing to ask any of the questions regarding five schools contracts worth $345,000 that NHPS Advocates had emailed him several hours before a recent Board of Ed Finance & Operations Committee. They also criticized him for retaliating against specific alders when .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), and for serving on the Board of Ed while his organization, Farnam Community, is the beneficiary of a state education contract administered by the city.

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.”

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posted by: THREEFIFTHS on January 3, 2019  8:21am

Aldermanic Affairs Committee Alders Kenneth Reveiz, Gerald Antunes, Evelyn Rodriguez, and Hacibey Catalbasoglu.

Mark 8:36 KJV: For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?
No shame hast the Judas Goat!!

posted by: Noteworthy on January 3, 2019  8:26am

Useless Public Hearings Notes:

1. Again, in the face of significant opposition, the BOA members overrule the public and support the irresponsible and irrational - and the at best, mediocre performance a connected personal favorite of the Harp House.

2. If a normal employee had such a review, that person would be fired. In New Haven, they’re celebrated.

3. Darnell and Cotto speak of his work on the school budget - I’m underwhelmed. It was out of balance last year by millions. The deficit this year has been lowered but it has not been solved because it currently stands at $9 million and will grow over the next six months. The BOE is on track to deliver its largest ever deficit back to taxpayers. There is no plan for further mitigation. But Cotto says this is an accomplishment. So does Mayor Harp - who has delivered three consecutive deficits riddled budgets.

4. So educators have done a poor job, now it’s time for the lay people with zero expertise to take over. On a department that carries the future of so many kids in their hands - that’s quite the rationale. And if that’s true, then why not listen to the parent advocates and respect them? They see the failures of the BOE every day in the faces of their children.

5. Teaching kids to be lifeguards and how to swim is a credential for BOE leadership?

6. When will public hearings, the time people invest in making their concerns and voices heard ever fall on receptive ears?

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on January 3, 2019  8:32am

“Let’s be frank,” said Camille Ansley, a Cedar Hill neighborhood activist and the head of the public school students’ 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.”

My latino brothers and sisters.Just as we african americans have Judas Goat sell out leaders,You to have Latino Judas Goat Leaders who are selling you out.

posted by: Noteworthy on January 3, 2019  9:48am

Gotta love the Latino comment - we have black and female mayor too. How’s that working for you?

posted by: Hart123 on January 3, 2019  9:54am

It should not have been a popularity contest. It was an occasion for the BOA to right a mistake made over a year ago in allowing the appointment of yet another Farnum associate onto the BOE. Independent of Cotto’s qualifications, or lack thereof, the Alders have a fiducial duty to create and maintain a diverse, independent, knowledgeable and effective BOE to manage the education of New Haven students. So far, the BOA is taking the easy way out and letting us all down.

posted by: 1644 on January 3, 2019  10:33am

He said he is also proud of calling into question the school board’s no-bid maintenance and transportation contracts
As I recall, the BoE voted to rebid the transportation contract, over the objections of Will Clark.  As Clark (or anyone vaguely familiar with the market could have) predicted, the new bids were higher than the old contract.  Clark is now gone.

posted by: tmctague on January 3, 2019  11:51am

The people pictured testifying against Cotto are community leaders, educators, etc.  Pillars of the community!  These people have no strings attached; they’re not looking for favors or political gains, and they take time out of their day to provide input at a long, boring meeting.  And then our BOA bluntly ignores their advice?  The beat goes on.

posted by: Gary Stewart on January 3, 2019  12:42pm

Unfortunately, this Aldermanic vote comes as no surprise, what Toni wants, Toni gets. Cotto has been , and will continue to be, her lap dog. Remember when he first came on the scene? He was picked to run against the lone actual educator on the Board, Dr. Joyner, only to pull out when it became clear that Dr. J. had the respect of thousands of New Haveners . So the Mayor bided her time and waited until she could appoint him. Now, he responds to criticism by claiming , w/out saying anything specific , that ” it’s all lies.” Who does that sound like? Hint: ” Fake News.” The comparisons between the Trump and Harp administrations continue to grow.
The only way to straighten out the BOE mess is to get a new Mayor. The best ways to do that are : check out the new, grassroots organization - Our New Haven , that Dennis Serflippi ha started . Secondly, those of you who are members of / supporters of Yale HERE - UNITE unions, start asking your leadership what deal they’ve made w/ the Mayor and how it benefits you , beyond pressuring Yale. That is not the only issue you should care about , especially if you live in New Haven.  Lastly, if you’re an Unafilliated voter , register as a Democrat and ask your Ward Co- Chairs to allow you to join your Ward Committee, so that regular folks like you can have a say as to who the Machine endorses. Believe me, it is a ” Machine” , I was on the Dem. Town Committee ( DTC) , until my mouth got too big. I would welcome being contacted about this , since most of you probably don’t know who your Co-Chairs are , or how to contact them .
The time is ripe for change but first comes education and organization. My # is: 203 285-5427. E-Mail is : .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

posted by: 06511 on January 3, 2019  3:28pm

tmctague,

But did they have #COTTOBOE shirts? I rest my case.

posted by: Thomas Alfred Paine on January 3, 2019  7:30pm

This story is a testament to the dangers of a single party government in which a Democratic party controlled Board of Alders typically conducts itself as a rubber stamp of a Democratic mayor with rarely any dissent.
New Haven need an independent Board of Education as well as an independent Board of Alders.
Whenever any mayor’s judgment on any issue is questionable, the Board of Alders has a responsibility, as the PEOPLES’ REPRESENTATIVES, to ask the tough, probing questions, and when warranted, reject any mayor’s unwise proposals or appointments.
After voting to support Mr. Cotto’s reappointment to the BOE, members of the Aldermanic Affairs Committee advised him to listen and be better responsive to the parents.
The Alders would be wise to take their own advice, listen to the public & examine the facts, and vote without considering the political repercussions from City Hall.
Mr. Cotto may be a good person, a caring father and role model, but people appointed to the BOE must have a solid grasp of the various complexities of serving on the BOE. Knowledge of the responsibilities and duties of the BOE, about the experiences of teachers and administrators in our schools, possessing knowledge of school law, federal law (U.S. Department of Ed.), state law, the city charter, school finances, labor relations, contracts, curriculum and curriculum development, testing, transportation, building construction and management, and most importantly a sensitivity to the needs and concerns of all students & parents, is critical.
This is not a place for on the job training when such crucial decisions have to be made.
A person on the BOE has to be dedicated to volunteering many hours to attending BOE meetings and committee meetings and reading complex reports and responding to the public. Special expertise should be required to successfully serve on this board.
The alders have dismissed this premise & made their decision.
They need to be reminded of their role as representatives.

posted by: FacChec on January 3, 2019  8:21pm

Aldermanic Affairs Committee Alders Kenneth Reveiz, Gerald Antunes, Evelyn Rodriguez, and Hacibey Catalbasoglu.
The four alders on the committee ultimately voted in support of Cotto’s reappointment,
It apparently makes little difference which set Alders are on the Affairs committee, during Cotto’s initial appointment to the Board on Sept 17, 2017 a different set of Alders, Brackeen, colon, Santana, and Jose Crespo, voted unanimously as well to move his nomination forward to the full BOA. The major difference is that in his initial hearing in 2017 he was questioned extensively by Brackeen who elicited this response from Cotto. “Brackeen had a final question: Would Cotto make a public commitment to continue the legacy of Daisy Gonzales and continue to meet with parents all over the city and be their voice on the board?
“Absolutely,” Cotto replied. ....But, he didn’t…..

https://www.newhavenindependent.org/index.php/archives/entry/cotto_gets_committee_ok/

This FAc is apparent in this new hearing on Jan. 3, 2019, where the parent advocacy group:
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. In particular, they criticized Cotto for failing to ask any of the questions regarding five schools contracts worth $345,000 that NHPS Advocates had emailed him several hours before a recent Board of Ed Finance & Operations Committee. They also criticized him for retaliating against specific alders when he went public earlier this year with a list of schools he said were in danger of being closed, and for serving on the Board of Ed while his organization, Farnam Community, is the beneficiary of a state education contract administered by the city.

Clearly he violated his sworn oath to the Alders on Sept. 2017, yet the Alders here knowingly provided cover for his deceit.

posted by: Conscience on January 3, 2019  10:45pm

Cotto indeed does good work at Farnam. The NHBOE has awarded Farnam a fairly large contract. It is likely that this will continue. Yet, the mayor appointed him. Toni Harp has made a mess of city government and is using a young man, Cotto, who has unlimited leadership potential, to carry her water. Let us hope he wakes up before it is too late. New Haven is sinking fast while Harp is trying to get the ten years she needs for a pension. Shame on us if we re-elect her.

posted by: Brian L. Jenkins on January 4, 2019  11:58am

Though I take issue with the “Latino” comment, I understand it. 

However, this surreptitious move by some to skirt resources specifically to one ethnic group over another, I highly disagree with.  Every inner city kid in NH is vulnerable in areas of speech, health, safety and negative peer pressure.  So set aside resources should be divvied out equally. 

I’m not in agreement that the board should compromise of only educators.  Not all members of congress have a college degree.  So a mixture is always helpful in areas of providing raw perspectives that aren’t found in books or in sophisticated discussions. 

As has been said, it was the previous “educators” who drove the budget in the ground.  Notwithstanding, the barrage of criticism warranted or unwarranted, Mr. Cotto, if accurate, has done a brilliant job in reducing the current debt.  That people, is where this man should be commended.

Does he have an inviting presence?  According to some adults, NO.  But so what if he doesn’t.  The youth love him.  And believe me, that’s a powerful sentiment.  For after all, it’s the results that count. 

I encourage my former colleagues; and to those in whom I haven’t had the pleasure to serve with, to vote YES on Mr. Cotto’s reinstatement to the board.