Jamell Cotto says he’s just getting started on the school board. He’s asking for another four years, while an advocacy group wants to see an educator take his place.
Mayor Toni Harp submitted Cotto’s reappointment to the Board of Alders on Thursday, Nov. 29, in a form letter.
“I am most confident, given Mr. Cotto’s credentials and commitment to our City, that he will serve the citizens of New Haven in a most conscientious and productive manner,” Harp wrote.
The Aldermanic Affairs Committee plans to take up the appointment at a January meeting.
According to the charter, the Board of Alders has 60 days to weigh in. That means that a decision must be made by Feb. 3, 2019. If the board misses the deadline, Cotto’s reappointment will be approved automatically. That happened last year with Tamiko Jackson-McArthur’s nomination.
Cotto, the executive director at the Farnam Neighborhood House and a lifelong Elm City resident, joined the Board of Education in 2017, replacing then-President Daisy Gonzalez after her unexpected death.
Preoccupied with the superintendent search and a budget crisis, Cotto said that he hasn’t had a chance yet to take on his own projects.
“Due to the fact that I had to immediately deal with a $20 million budget deficit, I haven’t had an opportunity to work on some initiatives I would like to see the Board of Education address. I think I should have that time to serve a full term,” he said. “I now have the experience and institutional knowledge to keep this board focused and moving forward during the crucial stage while a new superintendent and management staff are getting acclimated.”
Since then, as the board’s vice-president, Cotto has gone after maintenance and transportation contractors, pushing for all existing agreements to be re-bid. He has questioned the expansion of Central Office, asking about pointed questions about the role of a deputy superintendent and a talent chief.
He voted to close Creed High School, and he put six elementary schools on the chopping block. Darnell Goldson, the board’s president, later apologized for any appearance of aiming school closures at neighborhoods whose alders flat-funded this year’s budget.
Cotto said he’s most proud of how he has managed difficult financial decisions.
“Though any reductions will eventually impact students, we were able to reduce those negative impacts,” he said. “The changes we make will have a long term positive effect on the system and will eventually help to reduce costs and target funding towards classrooms.”
Everyday Citizens Or Educational Experts?
NHPS Advocates, a watchdog group of parents and teachers, has been pushing for future school board appointees to have a background in education, to be free from conflicts of interest and to have some connection to the city’s public schools.
The Board of Alders approved a task force to discuss qualifications, but it isn’t expected to release recommendations soon. The task force has not convened yet; its membership is still being determined.
Cotto said that he doesn’t believe putting educators on the Board of Ed had necessarily improved the schools.
“What the board needs is a balance between educators, parents, students and community leaders who are familiar with the city,” he said. “For 25-plus years, this board was overwhelmingly dominated by educators. To be frank, what has that gotten us? The achievement gap was not reduced, graduation rates plummeted and parents were fleeing from the city.”
Since 2014-15, after New Haven’s transition to a hybrid board with two elected members, New Haven’s performance indicators have been mixed. The graduation rate and test scores have risen; the achievement gap has widened for students with higher needs at all levels in both reading and math. Enrollment is also down slightly
Cotto added that other school boards across Connecticut, nearly all of them elected, also aren’t stocked with experts in pedagogy. They “are populated with everyday citizens who are committed to education, and most of them appear to work well,” he said.
In an email sent to Mayor Harp and President Tyisha Walker-Myers on Tuesday morning, the NHPS Advocates proposed nine alternative candidates for the Board of Ed, including several professors, community organizers, social-service providers, recent graduates and active parents.
[Updated: They are Lauren Anderson, an education professor at Connecticut College; Hillary Bridges, a co-founder of Students for Educational Justice; Chaz Carmon, president of Ice The Beef; Nora Heaphy, a recent Engineering & Science University Magnet School graduate now a sophomore at Yale; Allison Kenney, a sociology professor at Quinnipiac University; Anika Singh Lemar, a law professor at Yale Law School and member of the East Rock Community Magnet School PTO; Amber Moye, a talent policy fellow at the Connecticut State Department of Education who previously taught at Celentano Biotech, Health and Medical Magnet School; Matt Wilcox, the associate director of Quinnipiac’s Health Sciences Library and a father of three kids, including one who graduated from the district’s alternative schools; and Delores Williams, a mother of two Davis Street School students.]
“Based on the information provided to us, all appear to have education expertise, no conflicts of interest, and a demonstrated commitment to public education,” the Advocates wrote. “We hope that you will do so and consider them for upcoming appointments.”