Walkout Called Off — For Now

Christopher PeakStudent leaders called off a mass walkout — for now —while vowing to organize a mass protest if Board of Education members don’t start listening to the voices of young people incensed over the choice of a new schools superintendent.

Makalya Dawkins and Jacob Spell, the board’s two non-voting student representatives, issued that ultimatum during their report at Monday night’s ed board meeting at L.W. Beecher school.

The pair urged all the school board members and the board’s choice to become the next superintendent, Carol Birks, to attend a forum with the citywide student council at Wilbur Cross on Tuesday, Dec. 12, or to face a reckoning.

The students’ demand was just one of the issues that the Board of Education handled at the meeting, as it tries to get back on track after a controversial 4-3 vote last week to hire Birks. The vote defied the opposition of thousands of parents and students and ended with a threat of physical violence between board members. Monday night the school board also addressed claims that it hadn’t followed its own rules with the vote to pick Birks and voted to lawyer up to write a better contract for her tenure.

“Nothing Short of Essential”

The walkout had been planned at high schools Monday morning. Then, the students said, they feared reprisals if they carried out their plans. So they came up with a Plan B.

According to a statement Dawkins read, students said they hope to open a “constructive dialogue” about their concerns, rather than risk the consequences of a walkout. But if the board proves unwilling to do its part, students will stop showing up to school, the statement said.

“During this crucial transition, after a process that was rife with controversy and misinformation, it’s necessary for all new board members and the superintendent to be informed, to renew the relationship with the students and the Board of Education, and to foster a constructive dialogue moving forward. We kindly ask that you attend, so we can report to you directly about the concerns regarding our education,” Dawkins read. “As the next generation of leaders and the most affected constituency, it is nothing short of essentially that we directly communicate with those who represent us.”

Dawkins said that while a walkout would have been a very powerful and effective tool, students shouldn’t need to feel that they were breaching the school’s security and their own safety to have input in the district’s direction. That’s why, “on edge” about the potential sanctions that students would face, students decided to call off the walkout, Dawkins said.

In an email after the meeting, Dawkins clarified that she personally hadn’t heard any principals threaten students with suspensions, but she did hear rumors that students at some schools would be penalized if they left the building in an “unorganized” or “unsafe” way. On the whole, Dawkins added, some administrators supported the walkout, while others advised students that the action would disrupt the school’s safety.

Glen Worthy, Hillhouse’s principal, said he hadn’t decided what the appropriate response to a walkout would be. “It’s hard to suspend 900 kids,” he observed.

So he sat down with student leaders and asked, “What’s the outcome you want? What do you want to gain from walking out of school? How else can we get attention to some of the issues that you’re raising?” That conversation led to the idea of approaching the school board members and alders for a dialogue.

But while students are making the offer, they’ve taken the walkouts off the table only as a show of good faith in wanting to collaborate, Dawkins explained.

“If you don’t show up to the meeting,” she added, “then students will lead walkouts, strikes and protests. Just know that I will stand by my peers and many others will too.”

Strife Continues

After last week’s vote to name Birks as superintendent (now negotiations start over a contract), the school board is struggling to move forward, with continued controversy about the process.

Citing the Board of Ed’s bylaws, parents and the board’s vice-president argue that five votes were needed to select a new superintendent, and that all those votes needed to be cast in person. Birks was selected on a 4-3 vote; one of those four votes was cast by phone. Click here to read the parents’ letter.

Carlos Torre, a longtime board member whom Harp plans to replace next month after his term expires, objected to the vote by citing numerous provisions of the board’s sorely outdated policies and bylaws. In several places, the governing document suggests the board needs five members for a vote to carry, including the selection of a new superintendent.

That’s likely because, before the charter revision, the board used to have eight members, making five the minimum to get a simple majority. But while a long-overdue update is underway now, most of the provisions haven’t been changed since 1999, opening up the question of whether the board is bound by its own outdated rules.

Goldson argued that the board was simply rehashing a settled issue about what constitutes a quorum that was argued at length when the superintendent search first went off the rails. Harp agreed, adding that John Rose, the city’s corporation counsel, advised her that any language in the board’s bylaws would be trumped by the new language from the charter revision.

Torre said he wasn’t questioning what constitutes a quorum or the makeup of the board. Rather, he said, the text of the rules needs to be followed, even if it is decades old. “Some of us have been trying to change [the bylaws] for quite a while, but they have not been changed, so we are still beholden to them,” he said. “You need a vote, not quorum. V-O-T-E, of five.”

But with the numbers stacked against him, Torre’s suggestion that the board get legal advice from the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education was voted down 3-to-2, with Goldson, Harp and Cotto voting against him and Joyner.

Lawyering Up

Even if Torre won’t get an official legal opinion, lawyers will be working for the board as negotiations with Birks begin.

During an update on the year-long superintendent search, Lisa Mack, the district’s head of human resources, informed the board that Birks had hired Maree Sneed, the same attorney whom previous Superintendent Garth Harries tapped to work out his contract and negotiate his exit. That led Joyner to suggest that the board get a high-powered attorney of its own.

Joyner said that Sneed, a lawyer with the Washington, D.C., firm Hogan Lovells, who previously worked as a principal in Montgomery County, Maryland, has a reputation as an education law expert who “knows every loophole in the business.”

At a conference in San Diego for school superintendents, Sneed said that superintendent candidates need an experienced attorney to fight for clear job responsibilities. “Give yourself as much power and autonomy to move people around, to hire and fire people,” Sneed said at the conference. “You want to be able to run the school district.” She also suggested that candidates try to win the power to sit in on all the board’s executive sessions, which are normally closed to the public, as well as provisions for getting a pay raise and eventually exiting the job.

Instead of going with their normal hire, Floyd Dugas, a private attorney who works for the district on contract at $250 an hour, Joyner recommended that the board see if it can get Thomas Mooney, an attorney at the Hartford-based Shipman & Goodwin who wrote a book on Connecticut’s school law.

“I don’t think that the community wants another situation whereby we’re stuck with a contract,” Joyner argued, in reference to the buyout Harries got with eight months of salary (totaling around $134,000) and medical benefits after his departure. “In order to protect the public’s interest, we need to have someone opposite Dr. Birks’s attorney that has the savvy and know-how around contracts.”

Torre abstained, citing his objections to the vote’s legitimacy. The others voted unanimously to contact Mooney. Negotiations will be finalized once the search firm Hazard, Attea, Young & Associates wraps up a background check, Joyner added.

Harp: “A “Board Decision”

Earlier Monday, Harp fielded questions from critics of the decision, on WNHH radio’s “Mayor Monday” program.

“People have been heard,” Harp said of the critics. But she said that ultimately the superintendent’s hiring was a board decision. “I don’t think it’s a popularity contest,” she said. She said board members spent 22 or more hours interviewing the candidates for the job, far more time than the few hours that the finalists spent speaking with teachers and parents.

Asked about concerns about Birks having a pro-charter school bias, Harp noted that New Haven, like Hartford, appoints a member of its school board ot sit on the local Achievement First charter organization board, not as a signal of support, but as a form of oversight. (Birks played that role in Hartford.) She was asked specifically about two controversial proposals that came before New Haven’s board in recent years: to pay to start a new charter school organized by the Rev. Boise Kimber and to fund a joint school with Achievement First. “Those are board decisions, not superintendent decisions,” Harp responded. And she noted that New Haven’s school board ended up shooting down both proposals.

Harp called for parents, teachers and students skeptical of Birks to work with her now that the board has made its decision. “Let’s work together and education our kids,” she said. “Let’s stop fighting.”

School board members ended Monday night’s meeting by ignoring another speaker. As soon as Robin Metaj, the district’s head library specialist, began talking about the ways school librarians are prepping students for a new information era, several board members left the room.

For most of Metaj’s presentation, they talked outside among themselves. No board member asked any follow-up questions. A few minutes later, after approving five new hires and other personnel decisions, they voted to adjourn.


Click on or download the above audio file or click on the Facebook Live video below for the full episode of WNHH radio’s “Mayor Monday” program.

This episode of “Mayor Monday” was made possible with the support of Gateway Community College and Berchem Moses P.C.

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
Democracy Inaction — Or In Action

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posted by: IloveMYcity203 on November 28, 2017  9:34am

Whether or not people agree that the students are in the right or wrong to not show up to school, what everyone should take from this story is that there is power in numbers. If you want change, everyone needs to come together and stand up for a common cause.

All in all, I hope everything goes well for both (Board of Ed & Students) sides of the fence.

- I love my city!

posted by: Massimo on November 28, 2017  9:38am

Given the way the city’s “education leaders” comport themselves, it is no surprise that the city’s schools are marked by chaos, poor student behavior, and generally negligible academic achievement.

posted by: 1644 on November 28, 2017  9:50am

“I don’t think that the community wants another situation whereby we’re stuck with a contract,” Joyner argued ....
Say what?  The whole point of a contract is that the parties are stuck with it.  Birks will be obligated to work for 1-3 years at whatever what of pay and under whatever conditions her contract calls for, and the board is obligated to pay her.  No quality candidate will take this job as an at-will employee, especially given New Haven’s (and Harp’s) record for dismissing high-level employees.  As for Harries, he actually left a year’s worth of salary on the table, so Joyner shouldn’t complain about his severance deal.

posted by: Fairhavener on November 28, 2017  10:10am

Mayor Harp, yes it was a board decision. One for a school leader who focuses on testing and less on learning, and charters (i.e. quasi public non-neighborhood schools). It sounds like you are missing the point too, so It’s on you too.

posted by: Molly W on November 28, 2017  11:35am

@EducateourchildrenNH, you and Jason Bartlett should have lunch and rip into our city’s students together. It’s disappointing and embarrassing to see adults publicly bully children. Please take the time to further consider the students’ message and the insight and intelligence behind it, and try trusting them. Finally, were you even at the meeting last night? There were far more than 15 people.

posted by: Realmom21 on November 28, 2017  12:35pm

Congratulations yet again to the youth for setting and example of how to reason, negotiate and keep level headed.

posted by: RobotShlomo on November 28, 2017  1:05pm

If I were a betting man, I’d lay even money on how I think in my opinion how this is going to play out. Birks is going to become superintendent. Something is going to happen and they are going to want to get rid of him, but can’t because he has a contract, which will have (to the absolute surprise of no one except city officials) a lucrative buyout clause. And at some point we’ll see the headline “City to buyout superintendent contract…” for some ridiculous amount of money.

How many times have we’ve seen this scenario play out, where the city gets taken for a ride? What’s that about not learning from history and being doomed to repeat it?

posted by: Brian L. Jenkins on November 28, 2017  2:11pm

Unfortunately, Ed reminds me of the playground kid who decided to take his ball home because he wasn’t picked. 

It’s time to be magnanimous and show some gravitas. 

I can’t question Ed for wanting to pay close attention to the contract of Mrs. Birks.  However, the question I do have for Ed is, did you emit these same words when assisting in crafting the contract for Reggie? 

Our children are so far behind academically, and this idea that you (Ed and Torre) wish to relitigate this superintendent appointment, is unfathomable.  As parents, we are not patient; and will not be patient to sit idly by and allow this circus to continue while our children are falling further and further behind.

“Harp called for parents, teachers and students skeptical of Birks to work with her now that the board has made its decision. “Let’s work together and education our kids,” she said. “Let’s stop fighting.”  I agree with Mayor Harp 100%.  Your candidate for superintendent and my candidate for superintendent were not chosen, but Mrs. Birks was.  And I will do everything in my power to support her as she works with me in helping to educate my grandchildren.

posted by: UBHolden on November 28, 2017  5:00pm

Dr. Birks got the best lawyer money can buy because her getting the job by a 4-3 vote is certainly not a vote of confidence by any stretch of the imagination. She knows full well the BS will start in earnest before the ink is dry on her contract.

posted by: Acer on November 28, 2017  6:39pm

Support Ms. Birks 100% - but, let’s be honest - this was a rigged game all the way. New Haven should never, ever have been put into a situation where the final three candidates were Ms. Birks, Mr. Highsmith and Ms. Brown. New Haven is not Yale and Yale is not New Haven, but one thing Yale always strives for is - Excellence, Excellence, Excellence. You would think, you would hope, that after all their close interactions together, after all New Haven’s work with Dr. Comer, et al., that a little bit of that Yale Excellence would have found its way into the thinking of the small-minded politics of New Haven and the smaller-minded politics of the BOE.

posted by: UBHolden on November 29, 2017  8:33am

to Acer:  I’m with you 110%.  Unfortunately, the words “excellence” and “politics” are rarely found in the same sentence—and certainly not in New Haven!

posted by: Owlette on November 29, 2017  9:25am

This is what Toni Harp, Darnell, Cotto, Redente want for our Schools!


Here is a paragraph from the link above…

Officials also decided to replace Harding’s principal, Carol Birks, saying in the district’s grant application that there was “not enough cohesiveness in her action plans to improve student achievement.” To replace her, Global recruited Kevin Walston, a promising public school administrator in nearby Norwalk who had also worked as an assistant high school principal in the Bronx in New York City.

posted by: Owlette on November 29, 2017  9:38am


Carol Birks treats the majority of the staff like slaves. She talks to the adults in the building like they are beneath her. She constantly berates staff and faculty. If you do not kiss her fish net stockings and leather suit wearing behind, she will seek to write you up and put letters of reprimand in your files. She berates staff and faculty from her assistant principals to the secretaries to the teachers and resource staff in our building.

This is just a snip it from one of the comments from the link above!

This is what Darnell, Harp, Cotto, and Redente chose to lead a school system that is already broken and divided by the choices of the voting members of the board!

posted by: Owlette on November 29, 2017  10:16am

Interesting read…

Legislators get close-up look at Harding problems
State Rep. Jason W. Bartlett, D-Bethel, who initiated the tour under auspices of the General Assembly’s Black & Puerto Rican Caucus, said he was out to see for himself what one of the state’s 185 chronically failing schools—by virtue of Harding students’ performance on Connecticut Academic Performance Test results—looks like.
“I think it’s important to get a feel for them and talk to people before we dictate solutions,” he said.
The caucus is developing legislation that its members hope will close the state’s achievement gap between white and minority students. Part of their proposal would empower parents to band together and force change in schools through a law called a “Parent Trigger,” similar to legislation passed earlier this year in California

posted by: Brian L. Jenkins on November 29, 2017  10:23am

@ Owlette,

Yes, we understand that you’re not happy with the selection, but if it isn’t too painful, what are your plans to help provide assistance in making the educational opportunities for the students in NH better?

If look hard enough in anyone’s background, we’ll find somethings that are unsavory.  Every candidate that was in the running for superintendent fell short somewhere.  I just want to help Mrs. Birks where I can.  What about you?

posted by: Owlette on November 29, 2017  11:58am

@Brian L. Jenkins

With all do respect you go right ahead and do what you need to do to support Dr. Birks. As for what I am going to do, is to be determined… Time will tell! Sorry I do not have a better answer, you deal with politics and game playing your way…and I will deal with it my way. Thank you for your positive input, I’m just not where you are at the moment….

posted by: Owlette on November 29, 2017  12:25pm

@Brian L. Jenkins

It is not that I’m not happy, what I am is disgusted at the dysfunction of the board. When decisions are made for politics and control it affects everyone, not just the person you are trying to overpower.  Now Harp has the majority of the votes backing her wants and needs… leaving NHPS at the mercy of the four cloned votes just answers your question. What am I going to do to help the students, will probably be nothing because the decisions will all be up to the Board and the 4 voters who will ruin everything.

posted by: Brian L. Jenkins on November 29, 2017  6:36pm

@ Owlette,

Does the mayor have some influence on the board?  I believe so.  However, each board member is accountable to their own vote.  I lobbied for Mr. Highsmith, but the majority of the board didn’t.

In response to your giving the board the power to determine if you can help, that information is totally inaccurate.  You don’t need permission from the board to assist in any school.  You just need dedication and love.  And I’m sure you have a whole lot of both.

posted by: Brian L. Jenkins on November 30, 2017  9:43am

@ Owlette,

That’s fair.  God bless and be safe-