Student 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.”
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.
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