NORWALK, Conn. — The Norwalk NAACP is again rallying supporters to attend a Board of Education meeting, in protest of remarks made by Board Chairman Mike Barbis.
Barbis said Thursday that they’re mistaken, he “never lied.”
Norwalk NAACP President Brenda Penn-Williams and Barbis have agreed to a meeting, as Mayor Harry Rilling said they had two weeks ago, but it won’t happen before Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting, she said.
NAACP members on Feb. 19 spoke to the Board and demanded Barbis’ resignation. Barbis was out of town; Board Vice Chairwoman Sarah LeMieux offered her own apology for hurt feelings.
The anger stems from an email Barbis sent fellow Board members on Oct.5, obtained by NancyOnNorwalk through a Freedom of Information Act request, urging them not to attend the NAACP Freedom Fund banquet that week because of what he said were “very serious false allegations and attacks” on the Board and administration, made by NAACP leadership.
Penn-Williams had on Sept. 25 accused the Board of failing teenagers who previously attended the now-shuttered Pathways Academy at Briggs, talking past the time limit, and the pair argued in a manner unusual for a public meeting. (Video posted below.)
It has since come to light that some of the Briggs students have been “lost,” because they have stopped coming to school. BoE Curriculum Committee Chairman Bruce Kimmel has said that data on the Briggs issues will be reviewed at an unspecified future Board meeting.
Penn-Williams is circulating fliers to get protestors to Tuesday’s meeting, although it’s a “workshop” meeting for the Board, meaning that public speakers must stick with the topic that has been discussed rather than opine on anything that is on their minds.
Barbis’ email “amounts to a boycott where he opposes the current NAACP leadership and the NAACP’s position it has taken to address Norwalk Public Schools’ practices that are inconsistent with protecting the civil rights of all children, parents, employed staff or BOE members who are of color,” Penn-Williams’ flier states, repeating comments made two weeks ago.
The flier states that Barbis “undeniably lied.”
Barbis said in a Thursday email that he “never lied,” and said NancyOnNorwalk should tell people that.
“You asked me about events on MLK Day. I never told Board members whether or not to attend those MLK events. That’s the truth,” Barbis he wrote.
It is true that NancyOnNorwalk asked Barbis on Jan. 21 if he had given Board members a directive to not to attend Martin Luther King Day events.
His reply was printed in full in the Feb. 6 story:
“Let’s consider the following:
“Why would I ever say anything or issue any ‘directive’ like that?
“Please contact each Board member so that they can confirm I never issued such a ‘directive’
“The Board is swamped working on our operating and capital budgets – which is a full time job — as well as the Healthy Start Time task force, a wide range of Policy, CURRICULUM and Facilities initiatives…. all communication between Board members from me regards these matters. I don’t have the time or bandwidth to tell Board members what events they should or should not attend.
“In addition, all invites to the Board for any event are loaded up into an events calendar. I can check later tonight but I am pretty sure no official invite came to the Board for the MLK event today… so with no invite, how am I telling Board members not to attend?”
Four Board members in January denied that Barbis had told them to not attend MLK events. The other four did not respond to the question.
The subsequent FOI request revealed that Barbis had on Oct. 5 emailed the Board to “urge all board members to not attend the chapter’s dinner event” on Oct. 19.
Critics of Barbis have pointed to the two sentences “Why would I ever say anything or issue any ‘directive’ like that (to not attend the Martin Luther King Day events)” and “I don’t have the time or bandwidth to tell Board members what events they should or should not attend” as evidence that Barbis lied.
It is obvious to anyone watching the Board of Education that Barbis treats his volunteer participation as a full-time job, working many hours as the Facilities Committee Chairman in an effort to get new schools built.
The NAACP charges that much of the new school effort in 2016 was kept out of the public eye.
In the wake of reporting about the Oct. 5 e-mail by Barbis, some have spoken in favor of his work on behalf of schools. In a Feb. 8 comment on this web site, Nora King wrote: “Mike Barbis has fought hard for new schools for the lower income communities, English learning programs and he has worked hard to focus on young African American men that were falling through the cracks and not being educated in the Norwalk School System. He has been active for years for the Carver Center and raising money for all sorts of inner-city projects. … I also am thankful as a parent for all that Mike Barbis, Heidi Keyes and Mike Lyons have done through the past 8 to 10 years to really turn Norwalk Schools around.”
More than 30 people attended the Feb. 19 BoE meeting to support the NAACP’s demand that Barbis resign; also absent were Board member Mike Lyons and Erik Anderson, and Rilling, who said he was at a conference in New York City that day.
Rilling will “hopefully” be at Tuesday’s meeting, he said.
LeMieux announced on Feb. 19 that Rilling had spoken to Penn-Williams and Barbis, and they had agreed to talk things out.
Penn-Williams was overheard saying that wasn’t true.
On Thursday, she said Rilling had called her “last week” and she had agreed to meet with Barbis, and she intended to bring two people with her.
“I am not doing a one-on-one with Mike Barbis,” she said.
Barbis and Rilling confirmed that they will meet.
NancyOnNorwalk asked Penn-Williams if bringing protestors to the meeting was an act of good faith, given the agreement to talk things over with Barbis.
“Mike Barbis has not made statements or whatever. I have not spoken to him. He didn’t do that in good faith,” she said. “I am just waiting for a resignation… I just think that as the chairman, you have to lead by example. You just can’t go out and do what you think you should do.”
Penn-Williams said she doesn’t take the term “racist” lightly, and brought up the recent controversy about a Westport restaurant naming a drink after the Tuskegee Experiment, in which rural uneducated African American men were allowed to suffer of syphilis for years while being falsely told that they were being treated for the disease.
“We settled that,” Penn-Williams said. “We talked to them.”
Asked if she thought Barbis is racist, she said, “No comment.”
“I am going to continue to fight for what’s right for minorities,” Penn-Williams said. “Some folks think that ‘she’s calling the race card.’ You never walked in our shoes, you don’t know. So easy to say, ‘that’s the race card.’ It’s not an even playing field. It’s not.”
Her flier for Tuesday’s meeting points out that Barbis and Lyons denied allegations that they discriminated against minority then-Board members, but documents revealed by a lawsuit showed they had indeed kept those Board members out of email communications.
It accuses Barbis of demonstrating animus toward people of color and institutions that promote people of color.
“I have no demonstrated animus toward any group – this is yet another unfounded allegation by Ms. Penn-Williams. My record with students of color and with the Carver Center speaks for itself,” Barbis wrote Thursday, citing nearly 20 years “of fundraising and involvement.”
“My issue has been with Brenda Penn-Williams and her numerous disproven allegations – not the NAACP,” he wrote. “I have no plans to resign.”