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Opinion: Board of Ed work ‘should not be about adults, but children’

From left, Manny Rivera, Susan Marks, Steven Adamowski and Sal Corda.

From left, Norwalk Superintendents of Schools Manny Rivera, Susan Marks, Steven Adamowski and Sal Corda.

Sherelle Harris

Sherelle Harris

Sherelle Harris is an at-large member of the Norwalk Board of Education.

I’m having one of the worst bouts of illness I’ve had in years.  I rarely get sick, but when I do it hits hard, I hit back, and then I’m usually good for another five to six years.

Having written that, I am reminded of a line in “The Godfather,” where Michael asked Clemenza how bad it would get when he annihilated the enemy that put a hit out on his father. Clemenza answered, “Pretty goddam bad. … That’s alright.  These things gotta happen every 5 years or so, 10 years.  Helps to get rid of the bad blood.”  He told Mike to take a long vacation and they would take the heat.

Well, I am in California – not quite a vacation – and I’m thinking about the heat around the Adamowski vote and the fact that superintendent votes have not come around every 5 to 10 years, but every year and a half to two years.

It is human nature to point fingers to blame others if you are directly involved, or to find convenient scapegoats if you are not. We listen to friends and emotions that may only give a one-sided version of accounts and most of us essentially believe what we want to believe. I’ve never understood why Rivera, our last Superintendent, had to leave us mid-year and would not stay until the end of the school year, but I have had to make it clear on several occasions that he said he left because of issues on both sides of the aisle, not one.

If you look at the election results, Heidi Keyes and Shirley Mosby, both of whom have run for the Board of Education (BOE) before, were the highest vote-getters. They ran city-wide. Theirs were decisive wins. If you look at this latest superintendent vote – the one of the three in the past few years that I have been a part of – I would say every single board member voted his and her conscience. Just like the population of Norwalk, however, board members come from different places in life. I see and understand that clearly and I understood and respected the votes.

However, since there seems to be this “us against them” mentality after things didn’t fall the way some wanted, I can’t help but to wonder how many parents have been treated similarly because they come from a different class or race than those from whom they need help or because they didn’t go along with something those in charge wanted. I can’t help but wonder how many children have gotten lost in the shuffle while in need of support because adults cannot get past themselves.

As I tossed and turned last night, after a doctor advised me not to fly again until further notice, I thought about the controversy over who voted and who didn’t vote for Adamowski. I could literally feel the medicine, stronger than the last prescription, trying to attack the problem and the problem persisting; it wasn’t going down without a fight. I’m somewhere in the middle, weakened, but with the will and determination to get better.

This somehow seems apropos to my current position due to my vote.

Those closest to me would probably not accuse me of being circumspect. Rather, they would tell you I will study things, even if it takes me a year or two or more to give a fair assessment.  I never sought politics, but I didn’t go into politics blindly. Some things you expect will happen when opportunities present themselves. So it didn’t shock me when a board member moved one seat over so as not to sit next to me after my vote, but if I now decide to go sit across the aisle, then we’d have an overt race thing (something I’ve tried to avoid) and, of course, that would be my fault.

I’m trying to curb the “meow” in my mix and thinking of how to put this nicely. While some can easily throw out the baby with the bathwater because someone didn’t agree with them, I could easily bring a pacifier and talcum powder to the next meeting and ask if we need a plebiscite to keep people who are fine with hatred and vendettas away from work with children. Sure, I was disappointed that the person I thought would be great for Norwalk didn’t get the votes, but I didn’t have a meltdown or get upset with those who didn’t vote the same as I. It comes with the territory. Are we more concerned about appearances or moving forward with educating our students?

This situation reminds me of a trait in one of my late grandmothers. We played a lot of card and board games in my family. This grandmother was a bad winner and a bad loser. If she won, she had a lot to say. If she lost, she had a lot to say. If she was on a losing streak, she would make you play until she was one game in lead – even if it took all night – and then she’d quit. If you were “milquetoast” or a “sissyfoot,” she would walk all over you to force your competitive edge. If you were major competition, she would strategically talk you off your high horse.

I wish I could talk to her again – not for advice. She taught me everything she knew about life up until her dying day. I would simply ask her why didn’t she go into politics!

Adamowski is here and, quite frankly, my vote was not about adults at all. I hadn’t even spoken with those who voted like me prior to the vote, and when questioned by the media, we, to my knowledge, were contacted separately. We did not decide as a gang to publicly oppose fellow board members in the media. We are human. We are not always going to agree, let alone like each other, but once things become too much about power/ego/vendettas, we are in big trouble.

Of course, I wonder where are the peacemakers. More importantly, I wonder what message is being sent to the new superintendent with all the bickering?  From my brief discussion with Adamowski at the last meeting and from watching how he handled himself, I see in him a quick study.

I understand that people want to defend their versions of the truth concerning the vote, but I admit, I have had to question the meaning of confidentiality during this process and I would caution the public to make sure they know whose truth is true, whether they like people or not. Remember the game they made us play in middle school where everyone lined up and the teacher told the first person something and that person told the second and so on all the way down the line. By the time it got to the last person the story had been changed.

The bottom line is that we have a new superintendent. While I don’t expect kumbayah from the board, I do expect a nascent display of respect for yet another beginning.  I think of SpaceX Falcon 9.  I think all of us are casting a wary eye on a third failure. I think all of us love our students too much to want that to happen.

I think, if we are honest and not intent on being right just to prove others wrong, the problem lies with us. People can continue to point fingers at each other, but until we learn to listen to and understand each other, we continue to drive superintendents away together and we continue to set back educating our children together.

I can hear each side saying, “If it weren’t for the others …” and then there is the word “obstructionist” that I would caution people not to use loosely. It is not because I have now been tossed into the ring after one vote. That speaks more to peoples’ fickleness. There may be deeper scars or history on the board than I am unaware of, but to be an obstructionist implies one wants to purposely stop progress. From my particular vantage, I don’t see that quality in any of the Board of Education members with whom I serve. I see people with different mindsets who care in the best way they know how.

If Adamowski is worth his weight in gold, he is smart enough to realize that one symbolic vote doesn’t mean anything.  Votes can fall either way after he arrives. I’m sure he has done his homework by reading the media and speaking to people who either live in Norwalk or are affiliated with Norwalk. I’m sure that he can see a bit of a tale of two cities (in one). I’m sure he is sharpening his navigational skills, but I’d caution him not to be anyone’s darling. Politics is too fickle and there is too much work to be done to play that game.

I’d caution him to find some unusual suspects, namely all parents and their children, and not become part of any political cliques. Instead, let the unusual suspects have their say. This should not be about adults, but children. Otherwise, it will be politics as usual.

At present, I am looking past sickness to finally closing the achievement gap, fixing the District 99 situation (something I’d been concerned about prior to becoming a BOE member), making sure students have the proper literacy and numeracy foundation before leaving elementary school, Adamowski’s new hires, and the job descriptions of middle school and high school guidance counselors.

Here’s to healing and the work at hand. Cheers!

7 comments

MarjorieM July 7, 2015 at 9:30 am

Sherelle, thank you for a thoughtful, honest letter. You are and should be a Board member. No one should criticize you for your sincere desire to do what is best for Norwalk’s children. I admire your values and your efforts. Thank you!

Olivia July 7, 2015 at 9:48 am

Thanks for the insight, Sherelle. Being a member of any Board is an absolute delicate balance of being a team player, keeping your morale intact, and flexibility. Those who do it well will usually witness some results, even if it’s miniscule. Good luck out there!

Sue Haynie July 7, 2015 at 8:41 pm

Consistency counts. Sherelle has been a consistent advocate for children and families for the 10 years I’ve known her. She is discrete, thoughtful and she’s not an obstructionist. Sherelle is in this for the kids. The final line in her editorial are welcome words–‘Here’s to healing and the work at hand’.

Joanna Cooper July 8, 2015 at 9:32 am

Sherelle, I love the Godfather analogy. Time to get rid of the bad blood and start fresh. It would not only be boring if everyone voted the same way it wouldn’t be a democracy. You noted, “every single board member voted his and her conscience.” That is what is important as we don’t all have to agree. Anyone who knows you Sherelle knows that you are intelligent, thoughtful and in it for the kids. You say “I wonder where are the peacemakers. I wonder what message is being sent to the new superintendent with all the bickering?” Dr. Adamowski may not have been have top choice for all on the BoE but he’s smart enough not to take it personally because it wasn’t. I think he will be the peacemaker many have wished for. Hang in there and feel better soon!

JMW July 8, 2015 at 4:26 pm

Thank you for publishing this piece. I agree Sherelle has always been about getting the work done and not about the nonsense. Thank you, Sherelle for exclusively being about the children! Sue thank you for taking the time to comment, but your work is also to be commended. I see and appreciate the work you do that others probably don’t see or hear about. I have attended many programs with you at the South Norwalk Library. Your heart toward special ed is unstoppable and I thank you too!

Lifelong Teacher July 10, 2015 at 9:34 am

Thank you Ms. Harris for a thoughtful and insightful letter. It is time for us to put the hurt behind us and go forward. The BOE has hired Dr. Adamowski to do a job. With sweeping out of some ‘bad blood’, I’m hoping he won’t be undermined. Our children cannot afford it, and the board shouldn’t allow it.

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