Democracy Inaction — Or In Action

Is this the best way to run a city?

That question has popped up repeatedly over the past year, along with the broader question about how much and in what ways to involve citizens in day-to-day government decision-making.

The latest episode to spark those questions occurred this week. After a year of internal squabbling and endless recrimination-laced public meetings over how to go about selecting a new schools superintendent — during which two leading candidates withdrew their applications because of the political infighting — the Board of Education Monday night made a choice. On a 4-3 vote. In a room filled with hundreds of angry people who disagreed with the choice. In a raucous meeting punctuated with personal accusations and yelling interruptions, ending with a board member threatening to sue the chairman — and the chairman challenging the board member to a “duel” at Bowen Field before being escorted from the room by a cop.

For real.

The meeting capped a process in which the board changed the rules of the search process several times and the selection of a top administrator took on the trappings of a political election campaign. Students and parents got the chance to see and question the three finalists in person. Proponents of candidates mobilized supporters. Finalists barnstormed around town. Thousands of students, parents and teachers and the majority of 1,400 readers responding to an Independent “True Vote” poll made clear that they overwhelmingly supported either of two candidates ... while the Board of Ed instead picked the third.

Now, before the winner, Carol Birks, has even begun the job, high schools students are planning a Monday walkout in protest.

Amid the wreckage, some involved in or watching the controversy concluded this week that the answer may have less to do with the exact process New Haven chooses for making decisions — and more to do with civility, transparency, communication, and sticking to one set of rules. Or, put another way, acting like adults and walking the walk.

The Post-DeStefano Era

Christopher Peak PhotoThis week’s explosion of incivility and division was the culmination of moves by New Haven officials to make education policy, and decision-making in general, more democratic. At least that has been the theory.

For two decades the previous mayor, John DeStefano made choices for top administrative jobs like police chief without extensive public processes. He fully appointed and controlled the Board of Education working closely with Superintendent Reggie Mayo, who ran the schools with little or no dissent. Board of Ed meetings featured little if any debate. DeStefano acknowledged in 2009 that the schools were not performing well and needed a radical “change” plan, and he and Mayo oversaw the introduction of new policies.

Big decisions were made faster, with less public acrimony, not just in the schools, but in the police department and other agencies. The voters got to weigh in every two years at election time. Whether the public bought into decisions made that way — and whether they were vetted enough or benefited from adequate public input or buy-in — remained a subject of debate.

How New Haven operated started changing dramatically in 2011.

That year, a labor-organized political team gained control of the Board of Alders with a promise to strengthen the legislative branch as a check on executive power and a conduit for grassroots input. As part of that quest, the alders succeeded in changing the city charter that so two adult members would be publicly elected to the Board of Education and so that more mayoral appointees would need alders’ approval.


The change also added two high school students to the board, elected by their peers. Those students have turned out to be active, productive board members adding a youth perspective to debates — and sometimes keeping wayward adults in check and preventing ill-considered decisions. But those students don’t get to vote at the board. If the two student members had been allowed to vote Monday night, the outcome would have been different, more in line with popular sentiment.

Meanwhile, neighborhood community management teams, born under community policing, have become first-stop grassroots vetting venues for developers looking to build in New Haven.

And the city elected a new mayor in 2013, Toni Harp, who promised a more inclusive, “collaborative,” “consensus-building” decision-making process in city government.

That has meant extended, public search processes for police and fire and schools chiefs, in which committees of neighbors take part and the public debates the merits of the candidates before Harp makes her pick. The idea was to make the public feel more included in a democratic decision-making process.

That ended up with an amicable resolution for the fire chief, who was hired from outside the city. The police chief process, like the schools chief process, featured public protests and political divisions, charges of favoritism— particularly after internal and quasi-local candidates were chosen, leaving the losers’ supporters convinced the process was rigged.

Board of Ed meetings have lasted long into the night with factional fighting and personal attacks, arguments about process, and the need to dedicate months rather than weeks to some hiring and budgeting decisions.

A good way to govern? Too much democracy? Not enough? Just enough, but poorly executed?

A Good Mess

Thomas Breen PhotoDemocracy is supposed to be messy, two close and independent observers of city politics noted.

The problem is how people have been conducting themselves in some of these passionate public debates like at Monday night’s board meeting, argued Quinnipiac University political scientist and regular NPR pundit Khalilah Brown-Dean.

“Democracy was never intended to be a neat and conflict-free process and passion has its place in deciding important issues like education,” Brown-Dean argued. “Indeed we’ve spent the last year watching people assert their voice from NFL games, to Charlottesville, to Washington. I don’t have a problem with people vehemently defending their preferences or expressing their opposition. Dissent and engagement are critical to growth. But vitriol has no place in civil society.”

More important than who will lead the school district are “the values we want to develop and promote as a school district and as a city” and “the behaviors we model for and expect of the young people who look to us,” Brown-Dean continued.  “Until we reflect on those questions and develop a comprehensive plan to address them, we will continuously pervert the democratic process as privileging personality over people. We can all want what’s best for children while disagreeing on the path to pursue it. Democracy isn’t a one-shot deal. It’s about a genuine commitment to sustained engagement. If we don’t start from a place of agreement on what the process is and commit to following that process, then we usher in conflict over transparency and accountability.” 

“This is needed democracy and accountability. Democracy was intended to be adversarial to an extent, an open display of competing ideas,” agreed the Rev. Samuel Ross-Lee  “Those who are ‘turned off’ by that fact, should consider how ‘turned off’ they would be with a dictatorial process that allows no involvement from the public, i.e. ‘the people.’”

That said, Ross-Lee argued that the ed board’s selection of a new superintendent did follow the rules of democracy. The city’s charter allows the mayor and fellow board members to pick that superintendent. They have the right to go out and listen to public opinion and still make a different decision if they believe that’s best. If the public disagrees with that system, it needs to change the charter.

Christopher Peak PhotoHowever, if the Board of Ed was sincere in wanting to hear what the public had to say about the superintendent search, it should have done a better job of publicizing forums with adequate notice and time for people to engage, Ross-Lee added.

Reflecting on the extensive arguments during the search, Mayor Harp too said the board failed in carrying out a consistent process. The problem wasn’t in having a public search process, she argued on her latest appearance on WNHH radio’s “Mayor Monday” program; it was in changing that process in mid-stream. “It wasn’t stuck to,” she argued. “Nor was it well-defined.”

“I do think it’s important to have a public process. But I really wish the public would understand that we interviewed everybody. We asked them in-depth questions. They gave us in-depth answers. We know who these candidates are. We know what they can do,” Harp said.

Ross-Lee noted that American government doesn’t pretend to be a “pure” democracy in which the citizens make every decision; instead, they elect representatives and “empower them to make decisions for us. That is what happened here. The Board of Education ‘heard’ the voices of ‘the people,’ as much as they did, and then a majority of the board disagreed with ‘the people.’ ‘The people’ need to take that disagreement up at that next election, but the process was democratic insofar as it was supposed to be.” Ross-Lee also called the current hybrid ed board “a joke” because the mayor appoints most of the members. Only two of the seven adult members are elected.

Trust Building

Christopher Peak PhotoWatching the debacle this week, a veteran city schoolteacher activist involved in the search process debate concluded that the problem with the board lies not in its makeup (though she’d like to see more elected members and to see students members allowed to vote), and not with long meetings and disagreements. The problem lies in the need to build trust through “Transparency and oversight.”

The city government is able to send her informative robocalls about the Yale-Harvard Game and street sweeping. It has a website and a Facebook page. Yet it couldn’t get the clear word out to the public about opportunities to participate in the superintendent search process, observed the teacher, Leslie Blatteau, an organizer of the New Haven Educators Collective. The group lobbied hard to have the board name anyone other than Carol Birks the next superintendent.

Rather than blame individuals or organizations for the breakdown in trust between the Board of Ed and the community, Blatteau suggested, leaders should “take a page out of the Comer Model for School Improvement and engage in no-fault problem-solving. I want to work collaboratively with the mayor, the BOE and NHPS to make sure these kinds of trust issues get resolved. What can we do as leaders, community members, parents and teachers in New Haven to repair the harm that has been done and work to rebuild trust? What is each of us willing to do? This must be addressed as we work to move forward. “

She recommended some specific fixes, too: Moving public comment to the beginning of board meetings. Publishing agendas promptly and openly. (Sometimes special meetings get called with the minimum 24-hour notice.) Doing more board business out in public rather than in executive session.

A fellow teacher and Collective organizer, Nataliya Braginsky, did fault the board for not taking into consideration more the clearly expressed preference of teachers, parents and students for a superintendent other than Birks.

“The board should not only ask for public opinion, as they have repeatedly done but should actually consider these views when making their decisions,” Braginsky argued. “The public — including students, families, teachers, and community members — made their views about the superintendent search clear to members of the Board through public comments, phone calls and letters, and through petitions with over 1,000 signatures. The mayor and three members of the board chose to disregard the views of their constituents, who also happen to be the people most affected by this decision, which seems very undemocratic.”

“The public had already lost confidence in this Board of Education long ago,” observed Justin Elicker, a former alder and mayoral candidate and current New Haven Land Trust executive director who attended Monday night’s meeting. He called it the angriest and most divisive public meeting he’s ever seen in New Haven.

“After years of dissension, inappropriate behavior, lack of accountability and leadership, it’s no wonder that the public feels the board isn’t concerned about what they think. At the end of the day, I believe we need to honor the board’s decision to hire Birks. I am hopeful and optimistic that, if she accepts the job, she will thrive as the leader of our school system. However, she will be starting her task already facing incredible obstacles that have been created in large part by the slow and steady disintegration of public trust by the very board to whom she will have to answer.”

Elicker supported the creation of a hybrid education board when he ran for mayor in 2013. Watching the dysfunction of the current board, he has reexamined his position, he said. In the end, he concluded that the addition of two elected members didn’t cause the problem. “The current board’s disagreements and lack of civility don’t originate only from the elected members. And any person can always run against the two elected members should they feel dissatisfied with their performance,” he reasoned. “For example, in my opinion, we have a United States president who is incompetent and whose values are contrary to the vast majority of mine, but I don’t then jump to say that we should dismantle democracy.”

Previous coverage of the superintendent search:

Wanted: Schools Chief To Rebuild Trust
Infighting Puts Super Search On Hold
Super Search Gives Nutmeggers 2nd Look
“Tonight Has Been An Embarrassment”
2 Superintendent Candidates Withdraw
Read Their Resumes
Supe Candidates Split On Charters
Student Rep: School Board Should Reconsider
Opposition Mounts To Birks
Highsmith: No Deal For #2
Divided Ed Board Selects Birks
Ed Board Combatants Urged To Apologize

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posted by: THREEFIFTHS on November 24, 2017  10:44am

Let us take a look at the Dictionary on what is a democracy.

A system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives.

Notice where it says a system of government by the whole population.And there is the problem.The people are not being represented as a whole due to the fact you have a two party duopoly which dominate the political system.Along with the help of sell out Judas Goat Leaders and there is no shortage of sell outs and traitors, They block or at least impeding any threat to their control.True democracy is the system of Proportional representation which will give the people more of a voice then a two party duopoly .

Proportional Representation
Electoral system that seeks to create a representative body that reflects the overall distribution of public support for each political party. Where majority or plurality systems effectively reward strong parties and penalize weak ones by providing the representation of a whole constituency to a single candidate who may have received fewer than half of the votes cast (as is the case, for example, in the United States), proportional representation ensures minority groups a measure of representation proportionate to their electoral support.

Elicker supported the creation of a hybrid education board

We need a full elected school board and we can use the system Proportional representation to elect the members.

For example, in my opinion, we have a United States president who is incompetent and whose values are contrary to the vast majority of mine, but I don’t then jump to say that we should dismantle democracy.”

Under the way democracy is being run under the system now.It must be dismantle.It is not working for the masses   of the people because if it did those on the BOE would have voted for the will of the people which was Dr.Brown.

posted by: 1644 on November 24, 2017  11:03am

Regarding public participation, it is important to remember that those who show up and speak at public meetings do not necessarily represent the public at large.  They speak only for themselves.  No one elected them to represent them.  New Haven is too large, and most citizens too disengaged, to function with a open town meeting, so it has representative democracy.  If one hundred people show up at a meeting, those one hundred represent a tiny fraction of New Haven’s voters, and many may not even be voters, or even citizens.
  One thing New Haven, and other Connecticut cities would benefit from, is guaranteed minority representation.  Most Connecticut towns have this, where, for example, no more than two thirds of a town’s Board of Selectmen or RTM can be members of the same party.  The result is that there is also someone present at meetings to present a minority report if warranted, and there is always an experienced bench of people to choose from should voters become dissatisfied with the ruling party.  New Haven’s problems largely arise from one party rule, which leads to inside deals and corruption as the Mayor maintains political support through a spoils system.  As I have said many times, New Haven needs a second party, whether that be Republicans, Greens or something else.  Two many involved in New Haven politics are there to advance their own financial and personal goals, rather than looking at the good of the city overall.  Hopefully, the two new, unaffiliated Alders can at least make it uncomfortable for Alders who put special interests above the common good.

posted by: Jill_the_Pill on November 24, 2017  11:48am

“We asked them in-depth questions. They gave us in-depth answers. We know who these candidates are. We know what they can do”

That is the heart of the problem right there.  We do completely understand that.  Many of the things we believe the mayor would like the superintendent and board to do are contrary to our hopes for nhps.  That is the essence of lost trust. 

Funds diverted to excessive layers of managerial bureaucracy—internal or contracted—are funds stolen from the direct care and teaching of children in schools.  Imposed competition for resources has no place in vital public services.  Children and teachers are more than numbers on a spreadsheet; education is more than scores.

Time will tell who was wrong.  Watch the money carefully.  In a few months, we’ll know. 

I sincerely hope the error will prove to be ours.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on November 24, 2017  12:42pm


What is your take on the system of Proportional representation.

posted by: Samuel T. Ross-Lee on November 24, 2017  2:29pm

The statements concerning the DeStefano era are factual, but they are not true.  When one has complete control of all government jobs, which is the primary employment of all middle class (and many working-class jobs), civility is forced, which equals an undemocratic shut down of any meaningful dissent. 

The DeStefano/Mayo era did not promote civility; it frightened away dissent.  This present display of uncivil democracy is a direct offspring of that era/error, I believe.  People are FINALLY getting a chance to speak out, and they are taking full advantage of it, to the point of illicit behavior and unrealistic expectations.

As for students voting on the BOE, I say “No.” The students are elected by persons who mostly cannot vote in an open election. The student board members should not have the power to make decisions, therefore, for people who can legally vote in public elections.  Student members were placed on the board to have their voices heard.  Their voices are being heard.  But, listening to someone and agreeing with them are two different things. Some adults need to understand the difference between those two as well.

Being allowed to participate in a decision where you are not empowered to make the final decision is not “undemocratic.”  I too disagreed with the board’s pick, but I also understand that the board has the ultimate responsibility to make that decision, not me.  That’s how representative democracy works. The public participates to persuade, not to control. 

The change should not be in the BOE’s right to decide.  The change needs to be in the BOE itself.  When one person can go to the vote with 4 to 5 of 7 votes at his/her disposal, there is something amiss.  The appointed Board members are not responsible to the “voices” of the city, they are responding to the person who selected them.  DeStefano had all of the votes. Harp as an overwhelming majority.  What’s the qualitative distinction?

The Rev. Mr. Samuel Ross-Lee

posted by: beyonddiscussion on November 24, 2017  3:57pm

A very good analysis. Harp promised a collaborative, inclusive government post-DeStefano. The actuality is that it’s never been more political, petty, divisive and insider driven. The tone and style is always set by leadership at the top of any organization. Her decision to be president of the Board of Education was a huge destabilizer. Now she wants a $10,000 raise after her pseudo-election while city employees work for years without contracts or raises. There’s a pseudo process to cover pre-determined political decisions. The press cozies up to her with nice weekly radio chats.  It’s no wonder good people are leaving city employ in droves, morale has never been lower and so many residents are ready to leave a city they love.

posted by: 1644 on November 24, 2017  4:42pm

3/5’s:  Proportional representation leads to unstable, coalition governments and disproportionate power to very small, minority parties.  You may look at Israel for an example of minor, extremist parties holding a nation hostage.  German is presently without a government due to the unwillingness of any party to engage with the very minor (but growing) far-right.  In a first pas the post system, neither the far right in Israel or Germany would have any seats.  Many other states with proportional representation also have unstable governments.  Think of Italy.  I do like ranked voting.  It actual would prevent third party candidates from being spoilers and allowing someone with a minority of votes to win an election.  One may think of Clinton’s victory over Bush I, when Perot drew votes from Bush, or Bush II’s victory over Gore, when Nader drew votes from Gore, especially in Florida.  I believe Stein pulled enough votes from Clinton in Michigan to tip it to Trump, although Trump still would have won the Electoral College.  Or, maybe we would have had a President Perot, or Nader, or Stein or Gary Johnson.  Ranked voting in the primaries might have made Rubio or someone other than Trump the Republican candidate.  Ultimately, I favor systems that lead to consensus and compromise, whereas our present system leads to division.  Major party candidates no longer try to reach the middle of the road voter, but take extreme positions to GOTV of fringe elements.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on November 24, 2017  6:16pm

posted by: 1644 on November 24, 2017 3:42pm

3/5’s:  Proportional representation leads to unstable, coalition governments and disproportionate power to very small, minority parties

But under the two party duopoly Power elites own the government and use it to serve their interests and protect a corporate plutocracy.It is much hard to do this under Proportional representation.Also the two major parties maintain a collusive stranglehold on our government. Third party candidates are purposefully disadvantaged. Now with proportional representation the number of competing parties will create more and better ideas while just two big parties resulting from the majority election system tend to be at a deadlock with inflexible positions(as you and others saw when it came to the state budget).Also under proportional representation there is more choice and voters are more likely to find a party that does represent their major political convictions than would be possible in a two-party system. Last there are many forms within Proportional representation that can be used.

Types of PR Systems

Party List Voting
Open Party List Ballot
Mixed-Member Proportional Voting
Allocation of Seats in MMP
Single Transferable Vote Or Choice Voting

They are more types of PR Systems.Also under Proportional representation it is found that the little parties are the have more power with levage.

Even French sociologist Maurice Duverger who wrote Duverger’s law suggests a nexus or synthesis between a party system and an electoral system.He said a proportional representation (PR) system creates the electoral conditions necessary to foster party development while a plurality system marginalizes many smaller political parties, resulting in what is known as a two-party system.

How & Why Other Countries have Ended the 2-Party System

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on November 24, 2017  9:29pm

I think the students on the Board should have the right to vote.Also I am for the student walking out in protest of the School Board Members who sold out the will of the people. Just study the Soweto uprising and you will see students in thein the lead.

posted by: jamesj@newhaven on November 24, 2017  10:53pm

The superintendent search process highlighted New Haven’s tendency toward mediocrity.  There is a long history in this city of the wrong people getting important jobs because they are “connected” or can be controlled.  Just to remind us of how the works, local candidates were added to the candidate pool even though the consultant’s review found none of the local candidates met the criteria the Board itself established.  Some believe the next Superintendent has to be from New Haven, which is outright nonsense.  Why would one ever put such a restriction on hiring for such as important position?  The performance of the BOE, and the behavior of certain Board members is outright embarrassing.  The youngest people on the Board seem to be the only ones acting like adults!  They give thoughtful, articulate points of view without attacking anyone or anything.  The New Haven school system is the last bastion of patronage for the Mayor, and no one played that better than Johnnie D who built schools we didn’t need in order to make money for his political patrons.  I predict that some BOE members will waste no time in making Dr. Birks tenure in New Haven unbearable, and we’ll be buying out her contract before she completes her first three years.

posted by: Brian L. Jenkins on November 25, 2017  12:37am


With all due respect, the two gentlemen made a public apology.  I think that should’ve been highlighted extensively in this article.  Rarely would you find public officials apologize publicly.  We all agree that time will tell the depth of their sincerity.  That said, every adult reading and commenting in this paper has said or done something that they too are or were ashamed of. 

Knowing both Ed and Darnell for over 30 years, their inability to conduct themselves as professionals and honorable men at the last meeting was disgusting.  No one needs to tell them that they both used poor judgement while in the process of doing the city’s business.  However, unlike many, more broadly; I have faith in them both that they will put the personal enmity that they obviously have towards one another to the side and agree to disagree cordially for the sake of the public.  If they cannot live up to their volunteered expressed level of contrition, and another embarrassing episode surface, then they should be removed from the board expeditiously.

posted by: robn on November 25, 2017  10:35pm

We’re not a democracy. We’re a democratic republic for the simple reason that the general public has NO F-Ing idea how to run a half billion dollar organization. Prior administrations may have done less than perfectly, but that’s why we have elections.

posted by: Truth is Truth on November 26, 2017  7:15am

No need to bash internal candidates as unqualified, because they are qualified. However, from the beginning the Mayor and Joyner did not want internal candidates. Getting them back in the pool was a political move because the Mayor would not have had Rendente’s vote if they didn’t do so.  No amount of public input or outrage would have stopped this board, because the fix was in long before the interview process.

This is New Haven politics at its best. Dr. Joyner had it fixed for Dr. Ramos and Mayor Harp had it fixed for Dr. Birks. The fight was to see whose choice was the pick—How many BOE member support was in for both sides. Rendente was the spoiler why Joyner’s pick lost out. His action played right into the Mayor’s hand to solidify her choice. SO, it was not about interview process or community voice.

The die has been cast, so let us move on to put the emphasis back on running the school district. Politics or not, let’s support the choice made, and let us not assassinate Dr. Birk’s character before she even get started. NOT FAIR TO HER.

By the way—both board members set a very poor example for our community of how to handle dissent. They need to engage in “restorative circle.”

posted by: robn on November 26, 2017  10:45pm

I regret that my last comment may give readers the impression that I’m satisfied with NH Public Schools because I am not. Bottom line is that centralized administration began in the post WWII period as a means of attaining economies of scale for purchasing goods and transporting students. It was NOT originally intended to be a vast, cash cushioned landing pad for parachuters from the teaching profession. I write this not only with intimate knowledge of NHPS but also of nearby suburban school systems which have followed its model and have, ceaselessly fed into the voracious but unrewarding black hole of State driven data collection. A leader of backbone would dynamite central administration and start over.

posted by: 1644 on November 27, 2017  9:27am

Robn:  In reply to your earlier comment, the problem is not that the general public has no idea how to run a half-billion dollar operation.  The problem is that New Haven’s elected and appointed leaders may have no idea how to run a half-billion dollar operation.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on November 27, 2017  11:54am

posted by: robn on November 26, 2017 9:45pm

I regret that my last comment may give readers the impression that I’m satisfied with NH Public Schools because I am not. Bottom line is that centralized administration began in the post WWII period as a means of attaining economies of scale for purchasing goods and transporting students. It was NOT originally intended to be a vast, cash cushioned landing pad for parachuters from the teaching profession.

What you say the same thing for CEO’s of some charter networks.

If Charters Are Public, What’s Up with Those Exec Salaries?

If you make your living by heading up a school system, at least in Connecticut, it pays to choose to work for a charter school system. Connecticut Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, recently released a study of charter school management salaries, it threw more fuel on this fire.In districts where the charter schools are located, the leaders are paid $227,000 (New Haven), $234,000 (Bridgeport), $194,000 (Hartford), and $151,000 (Stamford).The two co-leaders of the Achievement First Charter system, with an enrollment of about 4,000 students each in Connecticut and 7,600 more in New York and Rhode Island, earned more than $260,000; at the two-school Domus charter system in Stanford, the chief executive was paid $325,000 in 2014, a level that would make him the highest paid superintendent in the state.