Updated, 8:15 a.m.: Copy edits, revised headline
NORWALK, Conn. – Multiple Norwalk Dems on Thursday blasted fellow Democrat and Board of Ed Chair Mike Barbis for urging board members not to attend an NAACP fundraiser. Mayor Harry Rilling called Barbis’s move “very disturbing” and State Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff (D-25) described it as part of a “less than sensitive” pattern.
Norwalk Branch NAACP President Brenda Penn-Williams said many people have reached out to her to say that Barbis should step down.
“I agree,” Penn-Williams said. “We cannot have a person like this leading the Norwalk Public Schools. He is supposed to be for all students, not a select few.”
Barbis on Oct. 5 sent an email to fellow Board members urging them not to attend the 18th annual NAACP Freedom Fund banquet, a fundraiser for school scholarships, on Oct. 19.
“Considering the leadership at the local NAACP chapter and their history of making very serious false allegations and attacks on the BOE and our staff, I would urge all board members to not attend the chapter’s dinner event this year,” Barbis wrote in the email, obtained by NancyOnNorwalk through a Freedom of Information Act request and published Wednesday.
Before obtaining the e-mail, NoN asked Barbis if it was true that board members didn’t attend January events honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. because he told them not to. He replied: “I don’t have the time or bandwidth to tell Board members what events they should or should not attend.”
“I don’t think Mike Barbis is fit to be the chair,” Penn-Williams said Thursday. “… I think Mike Barbis is a little too arrogant. A paper trail – why would he leave a paper trail? For me, that’s arrogance.”
Duff on Thursday released a statement:
“The actions of Mr. Barbis and some members of the Norwalk Board of Education are not an isolated incident, but part of a pattern of behavior that mistreats and diminishes the African-American community in Norwalk. The fact that this was only revealed through a Freedom of Information request, since it was allegedly originally denied by Mr. Barbis, is deeply troubling. Mr. Barbis is Chair of a Board of Education which is responsible for setting policy for an ethnically diverse school district. Despite this fact, Mr. Barbis continues to be less than sensitive to Norwalk’s minority students, parents, teachers, administrators and community leaders. The history of unduly singling out leaders of this community continues and needs to stop.
“At a certain point we have to say enough is enough.”
Barbis did not respond to an email from NancyOnNorwalk asking for a response to the comments.
Barbis routinely slams Duff during his public commentary. He has called the $5 million in capital budget funds reallocated to renovate Norwalk High School the “Duff bribe” and, on Tuesday, suggested a parent contact Duff about the Norwalk High bathroom shortage. Duff is a member of the NHS School Governance Council. NoN cannot recall Duff ever saying something similarly negative about Barbis.
Duff has proposed legislation that would give the chief elected official of a community that spends more than half its budget on education the right to select the Board of Education Chairman. This would apply to Norwalk; Mayor Harry Rilling said he did not request Duff propose the bill. Duff recently said nothing in Norwalk has inspired the legislation but said Mayors are held accountable for education outcomes but have no say in how a BoE is run and forms its budgets.
NoN contacted Rilling late Thursday as asked for a response to Barbis’ email to Board members, warning them away from the Freedom Fund banquet. He wrote:
“I recently became aware of this and found it very disturbing. I am an ex-officio member of the BOE but was not copied on Mr. Barbis’ e-mail.
“The Freedom Fund Banquet is a celebration of the good work of the organization and the people who make Norwalk the great city it is. The event raises scholarship money for students in our community. The NAACP is an organization that gives a voice and hope to so many.
“The Board of Education is charged with providing the best possible education for our children. The goal and mission of the two organizations are the same.
“It was inappropriate for Mr. Barbis to encourage the members of the BOE to boycott the NAACP Freedom Fund Banquet. If he opted not to attend, that was his prerogative.
“We need to move on and focus on working together.”
Penn-Williams said half the people who have contacted her are Caucasian.
“If Mike Barbis has a problem with me, that’s between Mike and me,” she said. “To order the Board not to attend an affair, an NAACP affair, where the proceeds go for scholarships within the Norwalk Public Schools…and they don’t want to help toward that, that’s pretty sad to me.”
Board of Education members were notified in an Oct. 4 email from an executive assistant that NPS was not buying a table at the event, “per” Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski. The assistant offered to purchase individual tickets. Barbara Meyer-Mitchell was the only Board member to attend. No administrators did.
“Pretty strange that none of them showed up, and in the past they have all come,” Penn-Williams said. “I don’t know, is it blatant racism? I don’t know what to call it. …These are leaders, these are role models that these kids look up to. When I see Mike Barbis … I have a conversation with him, I don’t hold any animosity toward him, but you know what, I cannot help how his heart feels.”
Penn-Williams and Barbis got into an argument at the Sept. 25 BoE meeting when she charged that the elimination of Brigg High School was already a disaster.
On Thursday, she criticized Barbis’ comment Tuesday that Norwalk High School Principal Reginald Roberts “has not been doing his job there. Period, the end.”
Barbis’ comment was inappropriate, and if NPS feels Roberts isn’t up to snuff, they should work with him, give him support, she said.
“When you become a leader, you become like a vigilante, like you can do whatever you want to do,” she said, of Barbis. She added that Board members are supposed to be policy setters and not get into the day-to-day operations of the school district.
NPS has “gone after” African American administrators, Penn-Williams charged, naming then-West Rocks Middle School Principal Lynne Moore, then-Human Relations Officer Bruce Morris and then-Norwalk Pathways Academy at Briggs Principal Marie Allen, and “I hear they are going after Reginald Roberts now,” she said.
“When I say the ‘all white board:’ they don’t know our plight. They don’t know what we go through. They make decisions based on them,” she said. “… A lot of white people, they say, ‘we are not racist,’ and we ‘always call the race card.’ I hate when people say that because, walk in our shoes. You’ve got the silver spoon in your mouth and we don’t. Then you say, ‘they called the race card.’ …. You were born, you had it all, We were brought over here from another continent, OK? We had to fight and continue to fight for what we’ve got today…. Are you kidding me?”
Board members did not respond to an email from NancyOnNorwalk asking for a response to Penn-Williams’ comments.
Town Clerk Rick McQuaid has also criticized Barbis, in a comment on NoN’s Wednesday story:
“Sadly Mr. Barbis told others not to attend the NAACP Freedom Fund Banquet this year.
“I was humbled and honored to receive their Community Service Award that evening along with Novelette Perkins and Carver Foundation receiving the Corporate Citizenship award, and Bobby and Mimi Burgess their Community Leadership Award. All of us over the years having contributed to the betterment of Norwalk Public Schools. The Keynote Speaker for the program was Marilyn J. Ward Esq. Professor of Law, Quinnipiac University. Her topic…’Defeat Hate…Vote’ I think that speaks volumes with this story.”