Updated, 2:39 p.m.: Comment from Doug Hempstead; Updated, 12:55 p.m.: Bob Duff is on the NHS SGC.
NORWALK, Conn. – Town Clerk Rick McQuaid and State Sen. Bob Duff would be kicked off of the Norwalk High School Governance Council, in a policy shift being developed by the Norwalk Board of Education.
“We want parents to have more of a voice. Elected official have a voice. They have a say at the table. We want to make sure that all parents that are interested in joining have that right, or have that opportunity because it’s a School Governance Council,” BoE Policy Committee Chairwoman Heidi Keyes said Tuesday, of the proposed prohibition of certain elected officials on the School Governance Councils.
Norwalkers who have been appointed to influential Boards or Commissions would also be excluded, Police Committee members said Tuesday.
The State Department of Education on Jan. 16 informed BoE Chairman Mike Barbis that it felt the proposed change to be illegal.
“The Department does not support this change in policy for either statutorily required School Governance Councils or those that are non-statutory,” Commissioner Dianna Wentzell wrote to Barbis. “Furthermore, while it does not appear that you are trying to do so, we are of the belief that you legally cannot bar elected officials from serving on statutorily required councils.”
“I am surprised that this proposal would cause the Commissioner of Education to write to us, and even more so by your objection to the proposal,” Barbis wrote back. “…The proposal to exclude elected officials from these councils is intended to create opportunities for parents who might not otherwise be able to participate in the oversight of our schools. Elected officials, of course, already have the ability and the opportunity to weigh in on the issues affecting the schools and school districts.”
“I am surprised that you expressed the view that such limitations, however well intentioned, may not be legally permissible. We did vet this proposal as we have had it under discussion, and we are not aware of any legal impediments. We would, therefore appreciate your elaborating on the basis for your statement that the Board ‘legally cannot bar elected officials from serving on statutorily required councils.’”
“I have been in a dialogue with CT’s most well known and seasoned education attorney and one of his colleagues. He has advised the Norwalk Board of Ed that we are on solid legal ground,” Barbis said in a Jan. 29 email to NancyOnNorwalk.
Barbis was not present at Tuesday’s meeting.
The section that has been revised to exclude elected officials was submitted by the Shipman & Goodwin legal firm, Chief of School Operations Frank Costanzo said to the Committee.
Teachers can only serve as a teacher member, Board Vice Chairman Erik Anderson said, leading Norwalk Federation of Teachers President Mary Yordon to comment, “The definition of parent strips teachers of the ability to be a parent. You can only be a parent if you are not a teacher.”
Board member Julie Corbett observed that the language also excluded parents who are teachers in another town.
“How are we clarifying the election officials? I fully support the intent behind this but I am struggling with how far we go,” she said.
For instance, the town constable has basically nothing to do, and doesn’t even have to work hard to run for election, she said. But a Board of Estimate and Taxation member, who has actual power, can serve under the policy as drafted.
“We had this conversation,” Anderson said. “… Really, where we want to get to the drill down is Norwalk elected officials because that is where it is.”
The Committee worked its way to deciding that Common Council members, BET members, members of the Planning and Zoning Commissions, Redevelopment Agency members, Board of Education members, the Mayor and the Town Clerk would be excluded from participation on a School Governance Council. There was also an indication that State elected officials would also be excluded.
“A politician has an advantage at election time, versus a parent that doesn’t have a political – so that’s also something to be thinking about,” Costanzo said, summing up some of the motivation for excluding politicians.
Being on the SGC is a campaign tool, Board members said.
“You can find a way to encourage folks who may not have a formal vote,” Board member Bruce Kimmel said. “Barbara (Meyer Mitchell) and I are here tonight, we have no formal votes. But there is nothing to prohibit anyone who has an interest to come and observe, participate. You have everything but a formal vote.”
Kimmel commented afterwards, “When I was president of the Cranbury School PTO in the 90s, and I think still today, the last thing that we ever wanted in a PTO is any semblance of partisan politics. We were very sensitive to that and today with partisanship running rampant sometimes we kind of want to avoid even the appearance. There is nothing to stop any elected official from coming to any meeting.”
Common Council President John Kydes (D-District C) is on the Nathan Hale Middle School, according to a document provided to NancyOnNorwalk by Norwalk Public Schools Communications Director Brenda Wilcox Williams.
“I think if you’re a parent of a student at the school, it should not matter if you’re an elected official or not,” Kydes said in an email.
“NO I do not agree with the policy change,” Council member Doug Hempstead (R-District D) said Wednesday in an email.
“As a parent and elected official myself, I think I would be a benefit to a SGC,” wrote Council member Barbara Smyth (D-At Large), who is not on the list of SGC members. “I care about my childrens’ education and their schools just like any other parent does. I don’t understand the thinking. I’m personally not looking to join an SGC at this time, but yes, I would object if I were unable to do so because of being a member of the Common Council.”