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Norwalk BoE members look to bar elected and appointed officials from School Governance Councils

Norwalk Board of Education Vice Chairman Erik Anderson and BoE Policy Committee Chairwoman Heidi Keyes consider School Governance Councils, Tuesday in the Norwalk Early Childhood Center (NECC).

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.”

He continued:

“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.”

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11 comments

Michael Foley February 7, 2018 at 6:58 am

This is one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever heard ! Town Clerk Rick McQuaid is most level headed person we have representing this city ! He stand up for what is right for everyone and his decision are based on whats best for All students.

Susan Wallerstein February 7, 2018 at 7:25 am

As I understand, the current policy allows COMMUNITY MEMBERS who are not parents to serve on governance councils. With all the back and forth about elected officials, parents, educators, etc. it is important to remember the benefits of involving those who may no longer have children in the public schools but who are invested in the system’s success and continue to pay taxes. Current composition of the BOE demonstrates this point nicely.

Skyler February 7, 2018 at 7:32 am

Nancy, was it an oversight to have failed to have mentioned that Bob Duff is on the NHS SGC and that he contacted Wentzell? Seems quite an oversight!

Rick McQuaid February 7, 2018 at 9:09 am

Just for the record I would like to point out that before I was elected Town Clerk I was employed at Naramake Elementary School for 12 years. Presently I have 4 children in Norwalk Public Schools, one teaching and three are students.
I proudly serve on the NHS Governance Council, and presently have no children attending NHS.
My position as Town Clerk or any other elected position that I have held has never been use to influence decisions I have made to make our schools and programs the best for the children of Norwalk.
I have worked with many of the present Board members on projects over the years and they know first hand my passion and determination to work for our schools. I do believe there is more to this decision than meets the eye, but I also need to add, my youngest is only four years old attending NECC. I will be involved for a long time!

EverMindful February 7, 2018 at 9:15 am

In yesterday’s article communication was sited by Mr. Anderson as a problem, and now today he seeks to exclude people from serving their school and community. I find this at best to strange and not aligning with best practices. The BOE continues to wage war against the people who wish to help. This stinks of inside political and the democratic leadership of the BOE should be ashamed. Could this be akin to class and political warfare?
How do you legal limit someones voice and ability to volunteer at their own child’s school?
Another case of the arrogance of the this BOE skirting state law and procedures. Shaking my head in disbelief, I expected better of the BOE, we would let our children exclude others but here we pass policy to.

Julie Corbett February 7, 2018 at 1:13 pm

Several of my comments at last nights SGC meeting are misquoted or were misconstrued. I’ve requested corrections to Nancy. In the meantime.

(Board member Julie Corbett observed that the language also excluded parents who are teachers in another town.) This comment is misconstrued – the intention of this exchange was to clarify that the policy is designed to remove conflicts of interest of NPS-employed teachers. We modified the language to clarify that NPS teachers may only serve on the SGC at his/her school as a teacher-member and shall not serve on an SGC in any other member-role. This change ALLOWS a parent/resident who is a teacher in another school district the ability to act as an SGC member as a parent/guardian or a community member role. This broadens the pool of residents who could serve.

(“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.) I believe this statement is misquoted (though I don’t have the recording). Nevertheless, to clarify the intention and context- The issue at hand was that as the draft was written, the policy banned all elected officials, but some offices have more clear conflicts of interest or influence over the education system than others. In addition, several appointed positions were not included, but also influence the education system (BET, for example). Therefore, the policy committee then discussed several ways of clarifying exactly which roles (elected or appointed) should be excluded from serving on an SGC. Those changes should be reflected in a forthcoming draft.

Skyler February 7, 2018 at 2:55 pm

And Nancy let’s not forget that Duff is the one who went to Hartford and complained to Wentzell … even though he can’t get Norwalk our fair share of ECS funding (we get $10 mm, we are due $23+ mm)

Lisa Brinton Thomson February 7, 2018 at 3:22 pm

Notwithstanding Rick McQuaid (love ya 🙂 – I applaud the BOE’s efforts and attempt to ‘open up’ the governance process in the schools. While tricky, and there are always exceptions to individuals with exemplary character and skill sets, Norwalk suffers from and has a reputation for (and single party rule hasn’t helped) a city with too much concentrated power (despite all the boards and commissions) -leading to cronyism, nepotism and a lack of any new ideas. Washington isn’t the only city with conflicts of interest, Norwalk’s are pretty self evident. I applaud the BOE for trying to open things up.

Donna Smirniotopoulos February 7, 2018 at 3:37 pm

The Board of Ed’s efforts to make the SGCs as inclusive as possible and to remove potential conflicts of interest is admirable. A Norwalk teacher who is also a parent should not serve on the SGC at his or her place of employment as a parent representative. That makes perfect sense. With conflicts of interest, often the most important part is acknowledging they exist. A COI is not always an impediment to service. But it is always worth noting publicly.

Tom Keegan February 8, 2018 at 11:24 am

I second the nomination of Rick McQuaid to any committee, task force, council, etc., that he chooses to be part of. You have to look long and hard to find a better man.

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