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Norwalk BoE, sans Barbis, takes heat over NAACP snub

Norwalk Branch NAACP President Brenda Penn-Williams speaks to the Board of Education, Tuesday in City Hall.

Board Vice Chairwoman Sarah LeMieux, Tuesday in City Hall.

Updated, 8:26 a.m.: Copy edits

NORWALK, Conn. – NAACP members had strong words for empty chairs Tuesday as they called for the resignation of Board of Education Chairman Mike Barbis, who was not present.

Barbis was attending a funeral and Board members Mike Lyons and Erik Anderson were absent due to other obligations, Board Vice Chairwoman Sarah LeMieux said. LeMieux led the meeting and delivered her own apology for hurt feelings caused by the revelation that Barbis suggested Board members skip an NAACP fundraiser, as reported two weeks ago in a NancyOnNorwalk story.  

“I want to apologize for the very deep sense of division and disconnection that has grown between the Board of Education and the members of the black community in the last few weeks,” LeMieux said. “… I want you to know that we are listening, that we are committed to improving our partnerships and our relationships to best support our students in Norwalk because I genuinely believe that we do our best work when we work together.”

Barbis on Oct. 5 emailed fellow Board members to urge them not to attend the annual Norwalk NAACP Freedom Fund banquet because NAACP leadership made what he described as “very serious false allegations and attacks” on the Board and administration.

NancyOnNorwalk obtained the email through a Freedom of Information Act request, after Norwalk Branch NAACP President Brenda Penn-Williams alleged that Barbis had told members not to attend NAACP events.

LeMieux told the more than 30 people in the audience seeking to protest the remarks that she did not skip the event because of Barbis’ request for a boycott, but because she had other obligations and, after one year on the Board, is still learning how to be an elected official, as are others.

“I have realized that part of public service is about connecting our community, and also about making sure that everyone feels represented and heard,” she said. “So, I also want to apologize for not better understanding the amount of work and energy and heart that is needed to help repair relationships between the members of the black community and the Board of Education as an institution.”

LeMieux said that Mayor Harry Rilling had spoken to Penn-Williams and Barbis and they had agreed to talk things out, and Board member Julie Corbett is working on a code of conduct for the Board.

Rilling, in a text message, said he’d spoken to Barbis, who is in California, and Barbis had said he’d think about it. He’d reached out to Penn-Williams, he said.

Penn-Williams said before the meeting that no one had contacted her. Barbis did not reply to an email inquiry.

 

Public speakers

“Mr. Barbis’ recommendation to encourage others to not attend the 2018 NAACP gala put his personal agenda ahead of the needs of the people of Norwalk, especially the ethnically diverse students that attend our schools each day,” Norwalk Federation of Teachers President Mary Yordon said, in a statement she said was unanimously approved Tuesday at a general membership NFT meeting.

You can read the entire statement here.

NAACP leaders took turns reading portions of a lengthy statement, so that it would be spoken in its entirety despite the three-minute limit for public speakers.

“Essentially, Mr. Barbis recommended a boycott against the NAACP leadership for standing up for everyone who fulfilled the NAACP mission. By nature of its existence, the NAACP is a watchdog and conscience of our community,” Penn-Williams said.

“Lack of transparency and truthfulness by Mr. Barbis is very apparent whenever he chairs a committee,” the Rev. Jeffery Ingraham said, alleging that research was done out of the public eye on a new school for South Norwalk in 2016, and meetings were held without public notice.

“The final recommendations of that plan were disputed and consensus was not achieved by those affected the most,” Ingraham said.

Barbara Sumner Harris listed the African-American administrators who have been demoted or terminated, and said that Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski “systematically eliminated African American administrators and programs.”

From left, Norwalk Branch NAACP President Brenda Penn-Williams, applauds along with some audience members (not shown), as Barbara Sumner Harris listens to Jim Clark read part of a NAACP statement, Tuesday in City Hall.

Minority Board members were recently “deliberately marginalized due to their difference in perspectives” while at the same time Barbis, Lyons and “other current BOE members denied allegations that they discriminated against or isolated female black and Latino Board members who formerly served NPS,” Jim Clark said, noting evidence revealed by Christy Fensore’s lawsuit against Lyons.

“Given that minority BOE members have been marginalized in the past, why should anyone take seriously this appeal to recruit competent Democrat or Republican minorities to serve on the Board?” Clark asked.

The entire NAACP statement is posted here.

Barbis on Sept. 25 said it wasn’t Board members’ fault that they are serving on an “all-white Board.”

“We urge the Norwalk Democratic and Republican parties to do a better job of finding diverse and competent candidates for the BOE to carry on this work,” a Feb. 12 statement signed by every Board member but Barbara Meyer-Mitchell said.

Barbis did not reply to a Tuesday evening email seeking comment on the NAACP remarks.

He recently made a public apology to Diane Lauricella, without elaborating as to why.

Lauricella told the Board on Tuesday that she’s “researching” that encounter but didn’t want to “take away from the important message” delivered by the NAACP.

The longtime Norwalk activist said she’s done much work with NAACP members.  “I found that what comes down to a good old-fashioned shunning email, which was just discovered by some of us recently, is so heartbreaking,” she said. “It’s a form of bullying. Do you know that bullying is not just people that yell at you, another form of bullying is to isolate and shun, to be intolerant.”

People who are interested in running for public office must feel welcomed, without fear of retaliation if they express differing opinions, she said.

Lisa Henderson spoke in support of the Board and the administration, thanking them for their hard work.

“We have come a long way since my children graduated five years ago and we still have a long way to go,” she said. “…It’s time for everyone in this room to continue to work together for all the children in Norwalk. I am not hearing a lot of talk about the children in Norwalk tonight and the strides that they have made in our community.”

“The administration in conjunction with some members of this board … have worked to silence any voice of criticism or differing viewpoints. For example, limiting the parental input for high school start times,” NFT First Vice President Joe Giandurco said.

“In recent days we have seen the desire to silence the voices taken to a whole new level,” Giandurco continued. “Rude and disrespectful behavior continue to be the norm for some members of this elected board. If this is to continue, the positive strides that we have made will be overshadowed by this horrible stain of negative behavior. History will record the legacy of this administration and the BoE as one that has worked to diminish the voices of teachers and the voices of the minority community. Don’t allow this to happen.”

LeMieux and the other four Board members present listened attentively to the barrage of criticism without offering any comment.

 

Thoughts afterwards

The public speaking part of the meeting over, NAACP members and their supporters left the meeting. Many said they needed to come back in two weeks, in hopes that Barbis would be present.

Former NAACP President Darnell Crosland, now current NAACP Third Vice President, conveyed his opinion later to NancyOnNorwalk through an email:

“I’m disheartened that the board and some folks who spoke tonight don’t share the outrage of the black and larger community, instead, they simply exhibit a tone of ‘can’t we all just get along’.  You might remember that was the same question Rodney King asked after getting beat almost to death by white police officers in L.A.  Today over a decade later, we have Eric Garner and others still suffering abuse.  So it’s clearly not enough to ask, ‘can’t we all just get along’.  We must, this Board of Education must ask more than ‘can’t we just get along’.  This Board must address the issues that we face as a community.  The Board of Ed in many communities is the largest budget of all of its local government.

“As such, we must put our money where our mouth is, and while I appreciate tonight’s acting chair telling us that she is just learning how to be a public servant, that’s not enough.  I needed to hear her say that the chair’s behavior was unacceptable.  I would also like the chair to say to us, ‘hey, I’m not racist, and perhaps I was just in my feelings, and I apologize.’  Then and only then will the question ‘can’t we all just get along’ be honestly answered.”

21 comments

Where was Dr. A!? February 20, 2019 at 6:59 am

Correct me if I am wrong but Dr. Adamowski didn’t utter a Word of apology for this board. It was almost as if it never happened in his eyes! He is the leader of this group and makes well over $250,000 thanks to the Norwalk taxpayers. Being the supposed leader of this group you have to accept the kudos for his “so called” accomplishments, and also his failures ( does he still get his bonus this year?). For him to not even mention anything is mind blowing, as HE should also be held accountable as well.

Lisa February 20, 2019 at 7:32 am

Conversely, I can think of three Building Administrators, who happen to be African American, that have been successful and celebrated by CO and BOE. They work hard, expect results from their staff and school community. So I ask, what is this really about, NAACP? What has NAACP done to support ANY administrator or school that serves the African American population effectively?

DrewT February 20, 2019 at 8:21 am

What’s funny about alll this hot air from BPW is a very simple question that is not being asked. Where were all the other board members?! Why didn’t they go to the event?! Mr Barbis did say you can’t go he suggested it because of her and her groups repeated attacks and improper actions against the City and BOE. But where was Sarah? She’s apologizing for what exactly? Where was Julie? Code of Conduct?! From Audience Members Maybe. Are there instances that require a new code? What is the Chairman not supposed to cut people off when they are over 3 minutes?! And where was Bruce, Erik, Heidi?!! I’m sorry what was the answer? OH they didn’t go either. But somehow because the chairman made a suggestion then all
Of a sudden the rest of the board now follows?! Maybe they agreed with the suggestion he made. Once again the rest are all adults and could have attended with the BOE member that did.

Barbara Meyer-Mitchell February 20, 2019 at 9:22 am

Drew, Sarah Lemieux specifically stated at the meeting that she had a performance the evening of the NAACP fundraiser.

EnoPride February 20, 2019 at 9:28 am

Still can’t figure out how not going to a NAACP gala marks the BoE as racist. One BoE member did go to the gala. Please provide actual, concrete evidence of racism to back your very serious allegations, NAACP. Has the NAACP ever been accused of being racist if they couldn’t make it to a particular event or gala?

Where was Senator Duff, who seemed so passionately concerned and vocal about this situation, last night? Senator Duff, who helped manufacture this debacle by posting some sensational B.S. to The Hour and to Facebook stating that racism is happening in our own backyard just as it is happening in Virginia or some such nonsense. Senator Duff has drawn a bizarre parallel between Governor Northam’s actions of wearing blackface, which clearly displayed racism, and the BoE not attending one of several events, which clearly did not display racism. Wow. False allegations. Senator Duff ran with the false allegations nonetheless. A CT Senator stooping to new lows on Facebook and slandering his city’s very competent BoE who works hard for all, not some, children.

If Mrs. Penn-Williams and Senator Duff can show proof of racist actions to back their serious, racially charged allegations, then I will pay attention. Otherwise, let’s get back to our number one priority – our children, all of them.

Anderson, M.D. February 20, 2019 at 10:04 am

This concerns me, especially some of these comments.

Some people don’t even try to understand; furthermore, some people cannot understand because they’ve never had to stand in those shoes. Don’t respond–I’m not interested in reading your backwards thoughts/criticisms that further perpetrate the issues that were brought up in this article.

These actions by the Board are disappointing.

Sincerely,

A concerned, Black, Norwalk physician

Lisa H February 20, 2019 at 10:59 am

As I said when I spoke at the BOE meeting last night, we have come a long way and we still have a long way to go.

We attended and stayed for the entire meeting. What a shame that the room emptied out quickly after public comment and many of the attendees didn’t make the effort to hear Dr. Brenda Myers (Chief Academic Officer) presentation on the many new offerings in the Norwalk Public Schools that have been developed for the students in our city.

I was impressed with the programs and class offerings that have been added since my children graduated high school. Marine Science, Latin American Studies, Design, Sports, Exercise and Health, Public Health, IT and Computer Repair, the Alternative Education and Online Learning Programs with credit recovery, Digital Media and Communications, African American History, the Healthcare Academy, and the many other new initiatives now offered or soon to be available to students in all grade levels.

The Norwalk Public School system has grown to be a school system to be proud of, thanks to the hard work, endless hours of time spent, dedication, and the development of the Strategic Operating Plan, of the Board of Ed, the NPS Administration, of course the many teachers, paras, support staff, the Mayor, BET, and Common Council. We’ve had a clear direction and so much has been implemented over the past 5+ years.

Is it perfect? No. Is there more to do? Always.

The thing that hasn’t changed is the underlying animosity and anger of a few in our community. It’s just that the names and faces have changed over the years. The real truth is that it is the same issues no matter who is the superintendent or BOE Chair. Maybe it is time to stop blaming them?

I was disappointed that the eight or so speakers never mentioned the students of Norwalk and their current and future needs. There were also no suggestions or commitments last night from the speakers condemning the BOE Chair and superintendent on how to help and better improve these relationships in our city, just more cries for resignations.

You are asking for the resignations of the same people who have given us the best and greatest changes in our school system. They have done a excellent job of managing the money, developing a plan, and many new initiatives and policies. This is a direct benefit to all the children of Norwalk. Go figure.

MarjorieM February 20, 2019 at 11:06 am

Adamowski owes a verbal and written apology to the Black community. We are in need of a cooperative community held together by leaders who are not emotionally and spiritually lacking. Our society is corroding because of behavior that is perpetuated by certain people who refuse to reach across to ALL people. It is time to listen, to be open and to be more accepting of others feelings and needs.

Lisa February 20, 2019 at 11:43 am

Why does Adamowski have to apologize? Barbis has been “accused”, Adamowski works for the BOE. Why does he need to apologize for his employer? The local chapter of NAACP should do some soul searching itself and begin a plan on working with the community. There are a a lot of people who want to work for the improvement of all citizens, especially those in underserved areas of Norwalk. Frankly, if the local NAACP chapter wasn’t so difficult to work with, they may get more people attending their gala each year – and they may not even notice that Barbis wasn’t there!

Curious February 20, 2019 at 12:18 pm

Can you imagine volunteering your time for a group like the BOE, only to year in and out get abused/bullied/sued by a group like the NAACP. Then on the other hand be expected to support that same group at the same time!!!??

Makes me wonder, how much does this annual banquet cost, and historically who paid? Does the BOE (taxpayers) fund this? Or do they attend on their own dime?

I for one would be very against and upset if public funding, our tax dollars went toward scholarships for anyone. In this case purchasing of dinner tickets.

Anyone know these answers?

Rick McQuaid February 20, 2019 at 2:08 pm

Sadly in 2019 some still can’t play together in the sandbox and the whole school suffers.I attend the NAACP Dinner that evening with my family. The Keynote Speaker was Marilyn Ward, Esq. Professor of Law from Quinnipiac University. Her topic…”Defeat Hate…Vote” enough said.

MarjorieM February 20, 2019 at 2:20 pm

Lisa, since the three veteran Board members were not present, they were unable to voice their apologies (I highly doubt they would have apologized).Strange coincidence that the same three who clearly wanted the three Black Board members removed from the Board were absent together??? Strange that the three Board members who gave Adamowski marching orders to go after minority administrators were not present when the NAACP presented to the Board? Adamowski’s hands are just as dirty as theirs. Adamowski has chosen to follow their lead. He acted as if he were not present at this meeting.
Lisa H., your glowing thoughts regarding this Board does not excuse the seemingly racist actions of this Board. Your comments remind me of the arguments of Trump’s base. When the stock market was up, Trump was the messiah. Who cares what he has said or done? Trump is good for the economy! Well, test scores can go up or down as well.
A wall is being built right in Norwalk. Minorities on one side and the Board and it’s base on the other. Will Norwalk survive this polarization of communities?

John ONeill February 20, 2019 at 2:40 pm

I agree with what Lisa H. commented. At least half the attendees left right after comment section. It seems to me that if you’re seriously interested in knowing what goes on at BOE meetings you may want to observe the entire meeting. I’m disappointed that these less than satisfied constituents had better things to do. Your children’s future is a marathon, not a sprint!

John ONeill February 20, 2019 at 2:53 pm

Another incredibly disappointing note on last night’s meeting — Where were our elected representatives? I’m from West Norwalk — Where was Duff? Where was Simms? Where was Tom Livingston? Maybe someone could’ve given directions from New Canaan to city hall so Lucy Dathan could’ve represented West Norwalk? Was Mayor Rilling busy having dinner in Sono? I guess they all had more important things to do. I guess if this happened before election they all would’ve at least come in for a cameo shot..

Nancy Chapman February 20, 2019 at 3:39 pm

As a point of clarification: Tom Livingston was in the room adjacent to the Council chambers, participating in a public hearing on the ordinance to create real estate tax incentives in the area formerly referred to as a potential “Innovation District.”
Mayor Rilling had a meeting Tuesday in NYC, he said.

Andrew February 20, 2019 at 6:42 pm

The reality here is that Mr. Barbis is gone. It will be either voluntary, by a board vote of no confidence or once the Senator’s legislation passes (which it will he wouldn’t have submitted it if there was a chance of failure).

This entire episode will be used as a reason why the Board President should be a political appointee. So, in the best interest of the students, the board needs to move on and vote in a President that the mayor doesn’t object to in order to minimize the disruption.

Find out what changes the Mayor, and his supporters who are orchestrating this whole movement, wants and start making those changes to the strategic plans. My guess is a few contracts to the right companies/individuals in regard to all the building upgrades, etc would suffice.

Victor Cavallo February 20, 2019 at 9:14 pm

As has been said before, the only difference between Norwalk and Bridgeport is …time! And it seems we’re running out of it.

Diane Lauricella February 21, 2019 at 1:07 am

@Lisa H. While I agree that our schools have improved in many ways in the last 5 years and that many on the BOE spend many hours dedicating their life to improve our children’s future…it seems your glasses may be tinted a tad rosey…

One thing that has NOT changed is certain members on the BOE and their inability to behave with civility when presented with adversity. The staff should know how to assist, given their high salaries as well.

That is why last night I requested an immediate creation of training series about civility and diversity required of all present and future BOE members and select staff.

MarjorieM February 21, 2019 at 11:45 am

For your consideration: Test scores do not improve overnight. It takes approximately four years of new initiatives to see the results. Any research will tell you that. IMHO, too much credit is being given to this Board.

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