The mayor should still pick a majority of the school board, but the appointees should meet basic qualifications for the job.
Dozens of public-school teachers, parents and alumni showed up at City Hall on Monday night to make that argument to the Board of Alders Aldermanic Affairs Committee, which vets appointees to boards and commissions.
The committee responded by narrowly voting to approve a measure calling on Board of Alders President Tyisha Walker-Myers to establish a working group “to identify individuals for the upcoming Board of Education appointee” and consider criteria for such appointments. The measure now goes to the full Board of Alders for a final vote.
After watching the Board of Education violate open-meetings laws, decide matters with conflicting personal interests, and nearly break into fist-fights over major decisions, citizens said they were all eager to change the dynamics on the body that oversees city schools.
NHPS Advocates, a watchdog group that led the effort, presented a petition, signed with at least 800 names, that called for the alders to set some basic parameters on who should sit on the school board.
At the meeting, citizens suggested that the next mayoral appointee to the Board of Education should have some expertise in education, should demonstrate a commitment to public schools and should be free of conflicts of interest. (Currently, only Ed Joyner, one of the two elected members on the seven-member hybrid board, has worked in schools.)
They said requirements would bring New Haven in line with other cities across the Northeast, whose appointees are all vetted by a nominating panel that represents different interests around the city.
The alders’ stepped-up involvement will determine whether Jamell Cotto, the board’s current vice-president and executive director for Farnam Community, will be reappointed to a full four-year term. Currently he’s serving out the remainder of Daisy Gonzalez’s tenure, after she died unexpectedly last year. Cotto’s term expires in December.
The most recent charter revision gave alders the power to review all the mayor’s appointees, but so far, they’ve used it sparingly. In the past year, the committee gave three nominees leave to withdraw from spots on the Parking Authority, the Housing Authority and the Youth Commission.
But at the end of last year, the alders missed a deadline to hold a hearing for a Board of Education appointment, putting one member onto the board automatically.
After that, NHPS Advocates turned out for an Aldermanic Affairs Committee meeting in February to request basic standards for appointees. But after a three-hour hearing, the alders adjourned without even considering the request.
This time, on Monday night, just enough alders were convinced to take action. Noting that constituents stayed until 9 p.m. to testify, Edgewood Alder Evette Hamilton said she’d been convinced that this issue was important enough to factor more public feedback into the selection process.
“We’ve heard from over 1,000 people. This is important to our communities. Something has to be done. I’m not sure exactly what that looks like or sounds like,” Hamilton said. “For me, to get a cohesive group together that can come up with ideas to hear the public’s outcry, let’s make it happen. Let’s work together.”
Hill Alder Evelyn Rodriguez, the committee chair, argued that the push by NHPS Advocates for more expertise on the board was a “serious interjection” that tried to get ahead of the mayor’s powers, as described in the charter. She added that the Aldermanic Affairs Committee could take its nominations to the school board “more seriously,” but said the sole responsibility for a final vote should stay with them.
In a 4-2-1 split vote, Hamilton, Hacibey Catalbasoglu, Kenneth Reveiz and Rosa Ferraro Santana all voted to form the working group for vetting school board nominees, while Rodriguez and Jill Marks voted against the measure. Gerald Antunes, the vice-chair, raised his hand to vote no, but it was recorded as an abstention, the city’s legislative staff said.
Mayor Toni Harp has consistently opposed any constraints on who she can appoint to the board, arguing earlier this year that she’d chosen a “very well-rounded board.” This week, she argued that setting criteria for board membership might limit the range of perspectives.
“I firmly believe diversity in any organization is a source of great strength – even in nature, monocultures are unsustainable – so I believe a well-intentioned call for Board of Education prerequisites would instead deprive the board of a desirable cross-section of background, experience, and thought among its members,” Harp said in a statement. “Beyond that, government is meant to reflect the people it serves; I think the governing body of New Haven Public Schools ought to represent the many facets – and faces – of New Haven.”
The presenters at Monday’s meeting said they are not trying to cut out a range of backgrounds. Rather, they said, they are trying ensure those perspectives were represented on the board.
“When we’re thinking about expertise, skills and perspectives, there’s no one way to understand how a district should run,” said David Weinreb, a fifth-grade bilingual teacher at Fair Haven School and a member of NHPS Advocates. “We want to be sure that our Board of Education is full of a variety of experts.”
Weinreb walked through examples of how other cities pick their school boards.
In Philadelphia, anyone can apply for a seat on the school board, be vetted by a “nominating panel” of 13 mayoral appointees, then be selected by the mayor to face a final up-or-down vote at the city council.
Similarly, in Boston, 10 designated groups, including city government, school unions, parents and private industry, pick anywhere from three to five candidates for each empty seat. They’re explicitly told to find candidates who reflect the “ethnic, racial and socioeconomic diversity” of the city and its public schools. In Boston, the mayor picks straight from the pre-vetted list without further confirmation.
Weinreb said NHPS Advocates are asking for the alders to think about how they can “strengthen our systems, both in the short term and the long term.” To him, that meant adding another educator for the next vacancy and figuring out a plan for how to review future candidates that could be passed as legislation.
“The board has the opportunity to confirm or deny any candidate that comes before you,” Weinreb summed it up. “For us, that seems like an opportunity to be thinking about who should be on the Board of Education.”
Jason Bartlett, the mayor’s liaison to the school board, countered that allotting positions for specific constituencies might limit those group’s representation. After the death of Gonzalez, who was known as the parents’ representative on the board, many people said she should be replaced by another mom or dad.
“There should be a whole lot of positions [for parents]. People were thinking that there should just be one,” Bartlett said. “We’ve been conditioned that educators, not parents, should be on the board. It strikes me as a little elitist to say that someone should have a certain pedigree to serve in a certain position.”
Bartlett added that more parents on the board, like the three who are currently serving, could cut through the jargon used in educational circles to make the issues understandable to the wider community.
“What is being proposed here, essentially, is educators supervising educators, and I don’t think that’s really a good formula,” Bartlett said. “I would argue that this actually takes us back, and says that, as a black or brown person, in order to take a vote, you have to take a test.”
The move touches on a broader debate in education about who’s ultimately responsible for public schools: the state, the mayor, the alders or the school board.
In recent years, researchers have tried to figure out if data on financial management and academic performance points to an ideal way to govern an urban school system. They’ve weighed the pros and cons of state takeovers, mayoral control and elected school boards.
Today, most experts say education is just too complicated to figure out a clear answer.
“Experts say that too many other factors are involved, such as funding levels, the demographics of the student body, and the quality of leadership in state and city governments, in the school districts, and in individual schools,” Larry Eichel, a researcher at The Pew Charitable Trusts, writes in a 2016 report. “But there is strong agreement that any governance system must avoid uncertainty about responsibility and accountability in order for schools to make progress.”
Advocates of mayoral control say that the system creates the clearest accountability. If you don’t like the way the schools are run, you should vote out the decision-makers at the top, they posit.
In New Haven, mayoral control allowed John DeStefano to win concessions from the unions, trading evaluations for pay raises in the 2009 contract, Kenneth Wong, the chair of education policy at Brown University, points out in a 2013 report.
Wong, who served on Birks’s transition team, argues that’s because independently elected school boards have “limited leverage” to set citywide priorities. Turnout is often low for school board elections, meaning they have less of a mandate than mayors, he says.
But opponents say that’s rarely the way elections work. Public schools are just one issue in a range of topics that are up for debate. Just because a candidate wins office by, say, vowing to cut taxes doesn’t mean every voter agrees with his approach to raising test scores.
In New Haven, the system of mayoral control is especially warped, because, more precisely, it should be described as “last mayoral control.” School-board appointees serve four-year terms, meaning they regularly outlast the mayor who picked them.
Technically, an appointee could even serve under three different mayors. In that case, even if New Haven voters signal that they want a shakeup on Meadow Street, they’ll have to wait four years to hope the next mayor hears their message.
That bug wasn’t noticeable as Mayor John DeStefano held office for decades, but it led to some nasty politics, as Harp had to run out the clock on her predecessor’s appointees.
In September 2016, as then-Superintendent Garth Harries faced mounting opposition, Harp had a police officer deliver a letter to Alicia Caraballo’s house, informing her that she was no longer a board member.
Then, last fall, by skipping meetings to deny a quorum and pausing the search to reinterview local candidates, Harp made sure to replace one board member who died unexpectedly before any vote could happen.
Those maneuvers secured the numbers Harp needed to install Carol Birks as superintendent, beating out Orlando Ramos and Pamela Brown, the Spanish-speaking candidates whom DeStefano’s appointees preferred.
Members of NHPS Advocates haven’t come to a consensus on how the school board should be structured. They say it doesn’t matter much now anyway, since the charter isn’t up for revision until 2020. The goal for the alders, they add, is just to figure out how the next appointment fits in with what the board needs to function.