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Penn-Williams vows continued NAACP protests

Norwalk Branch NAACP President Brenda Penn-Williams, center right, stands to applaud during the Nov. 19 Board of Education meeting in City Hall.

NORWALK, Conn. — The NAACP plans to keep up the pressure on BoE member Mike Barbis but Tuesday’s protest will be more muted, with signs in the room but not the massive crowd Norwalk saw on Nov. 19.

In two weeks, the effort will again rachet up, Norwalk Branch NAACP President Brenda Penn-Williams said. The Norwalk Federation of Teachers is pleased with the pressure the NAACP is exerting, NFT President Mary Yordon said.

“We’re going to keep it up” until Barbis resigns, Penn-Williams said, although Barbis is refusing and she acknowledged that he’s unlikely to go. Instead, newly elected Board Chairman Bruce Kimmel resigned.

The City Hall community room was packed on Nov. 19 for a raucous BoE meeting that saw Barbis supporters jeered and protestors chanting as new Board members were sworn in.  School buses had delivered NAACP members from out of town and Waterbury youth were among those joining the locals in steady rebukes on Barbis.

The NAACP is busy Tuesday evening, protesting the death of a Stamford man in police custody, Penn-Williams said Monday. In addition, the Board’s meeting is set up to allow comments at the end instead of at the beginning.

So NAACP members plan to attend the meeting in the City Hall Council chambers and sit quietly with signs, she said. On the 17th, “I expect to have a whole bunch of people there.”

She has the support of Scot Esdaile, President of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) Connecticut State Conference and a member of the National Board of Directors.

“If you do not resign from the ‘Board of Ed’ we will not leave one stone unturned, we will keep organizing against you,” Esdaile said to Barbis on Nov. 19. “… We will call on every U.S. Senator for the state of Connecticut, every U.S. Congressman, the heads of state Democratic Party. Yes, and also State Senator Bob Duff, the majority leader of the state of Connecticut, who also represents the Democratic Party. We will call all the Democrats on the national level. We will get rid of you whether you like it or not.”

Barbis is being assailed due to an email he wrote in June, which was anonymously released three days before the election. The email, inspired by pushback on the Board’s plan to demolish Columbus Magnet School, ended with the line, “Blacks f— Latinos.”

He has apologized, said it was a frustrated outburst and promised to work on anger issues. Barbis told the Hour this would involve exercising more, running full marathons instead of half marathons and maybe doing yoga.

Before Kimmel resigned, Penn-Williams said that she was planning to send him a formal letter to thank him for not putting Barbis on any Board Committees.

“That’s the best thing that could have ever happened,” she said on Nov. 23, vowing to continue the protests nevertheless.

Board of Education member Mike Barbis, left, looks a speaker in the eye on Nov. 19. next to him are Diana Carpio, center, and Sherelle Harris.

“People from my community were very happy with the outcome,” the raucous BoE meeting, she said. “They are very happy that we as minorities are finally getting together on the injustice that is going on.” People called her and said Barbis, who took copious notes during the meeting and looked speakers in the eye more than he usually does, behaved disrespectfully, and “folks are now energized and they want to know what is the next step.” People who hadn’t been there planned to attend the next big meeting, she continued.

She alleged that Norwalk Public Schools teachers and administrators watched the meeting being livestreamed on YouTube and “a whole lot of those administrators and teachers were very happy.”

They are tired of being micro-managed and intimidated, she said, calling the Central Office administrators “bullies.”

Yordon in an email said:

“The Norwalk Federation of Teachers is engaged in difficult work with students and families every day, and we need an effective and focused Board of Education to do this work successfully. We were pleased with a strong turnout in this rally that showed, among other things, that we are not the only ones to have serious concerns about the impact of Mr. Barbis’ continued presence on the board. The purpose of a Board of Education is to plan education of our children. This work cannot be done if community members do not trust the motivations of Board members. As soon as Mr. Barbis steps down, we will all be able to move beyond protests and start to rebuild damaged trust and relationships.

“It is difficult to make a statement that characterizes the work experience of over 1000 people in so many buildings, but there is in many places sagging morale and fatigue from the overload of initiatives, increased class size, hasty or poor implementation of several important programs, and frequent turnover of Central Office staff.”

“Mike Barbis being a racist is wrong,” Penn-Williams said. “All of this was about Mike Barbis. The teachers see that.”

Norwalk Public Schools is touting increased test scores and a closing achievement gap. Mayor Harry Rilling expressed pride in the school system during his recent reelection campaign.

Many minority community members have left Norwalk, and, “When there are less people I guess you can say the scores have gone up,” Penn-Williams opined.

It’s not that she doesn’t like Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski but, “but I will be glad when he’s gone,” she said. “I just don’t like, under their leadership, what has happened to Norwalk Public Schools. Don’t believe the hype…. They are not doing more than anybody else. Trust me.”

13 comments

Sue Haynie December 3, 2019 at 7:42 am

Mary Yorden, the head of the NFT, advocates for adults, not children. Parents, please remember that! Mike Barbis was BOE Chair of Negotiations, Ms. Yordan wants a pushover. That’s her job, protect her dues-paying members.

The NFT teacher’s union works in tangent w/the Mayor’s office. Ms. Yordan’s husband was Rilling’s Treasurer during the last election.

And, hypocritically, Yordan through the NFT is asking for a democratically elected BOE member’s resignation even though, in 45+ years, has only seen one of its own tenured teachers fired (& was furious when that happened).

What is happening here is an array of personal agendas, messy local politics, lack of leadership, and lots of people in glass houses throwing stones.

STAY STRONG MIKE BARBIS!

John ONeill December 3, 2019 at 9:28 am

@Mary Yordon — If it’s difficult to “characterize the work experience of 1000 people in so many buildings”, let them speak for themselves. Release the gag order your union places on these teachers. Let’s hear from them individually. Specifically, we’re interested in lack of support of ELL students from State, and the crisis it’s creating in our schools. Why is your union afraid to speak out on this injustice?

Missy Conrad December 3, 2019 at 12:18 pm

I have been called a racist in a public meeting. The open space at Colonial Village was to be taken away from the residents, & their “neighborhood park” was to be at Jefferson School, far away down Connecticut Ave, US Rte 1, then past the hospital from different streets. It is to be noted that the replacement open space at Nathaniel Ely, the neighborhood park, will be far away across Connecticut Avenue. Already the WHEELS headquarters on Wilson Avenue has taken away the open space where Roodner Court residents used to go sleigh riding (told by Grace Lichenstein, former community activist). The community center at Colonial Village was razed to make an entrance to the proposed new housing; it has not been replaced. A few years ago, during the Dec-New Year vacation from school, while driving on West Cedar Street near Colonial Village, I noticed a group of teenage boys walking in the dark in the street. I did read that email from Mike Barber. No one has noted that in it, Mike said that a close friend had just died. Mike Barber may be a prickly person, but our democratic republic includes all sorts of people. My grandson exploded at me over Thanksgiving, accusing me of having been brainwashed- “Why can’t we all just get along?”

Brenda Wilcox Williams December 3, 2019 at 4:51 pm

I want to clarify some facts, as there are several erroneous statements made throughout this article about our school district.

Over the past five years, what has happened at Norwalk Public School is that student achievement has risen significantly. Norwalk has become the highest performing urban school district in the State of Connecticut. That’s not hype, it’s a fact based on an objective standard, as measured by the Connecticut State Accountability Index.

Ms. Penn-Williams claims that many minority residents have left Norwalk, but that is in direct contrast to the demographic data. Based on the numbers submitted to the state as of October 1, Norwalk Public Schools has a record number of minority students, at roughly 70%. At 68%, our high needs population is also at its highest level. Norwalk is one of the few districts in the state where enrollment is increasing, so it is simply not the case that people leaving the city caused scores to rise.

The credit for the rise in student achievement belongs with Norwalk students, teachers, administrators and staff. It does a disservice to the hard work of our students and staff to imply that rising achievement is nothing more than hype. They deserve respect and recognition for this significant accomplishment, not criticism. The gains made by our schools should be a point of pride for all members of the Norwalk community.

Residente December 3, 2019 at 6:32 pm

In today’s age, the recipients on the email should have quickly condemned those inappropriate words. The distance between elected city Democrats and the less affluent communities in Norwalk is growing alongside the wealth gap. Dumas and Simms pulled endorsements from Rilling because of diminishing support for existing residents in the South Norwalk communities. It’s not hard to see what’s happening.

Barbis apologized, admitted to an anger problem, said he may exercise and do yoga. The NAACP can chase him all they want, but shouldn’t overlook the bigger issue of sleepy politicians who chose to accept and ignore the racial sentiments long ago.

Susan December 4, 2019 at 7:22 am

@BrendaWilcoxWilliams Important to include families/parents who read aloud to their children, send them to school ready to learn, oversee homework, etc. among those who share responsibility and thus credit for student achievement, right?

Mike Lyons December 4, 2019 at 7:53 am

Andrew, who’s ethically worse? A frustrated Board member who loses his cool in a private email that was never intended to go public? Or the people who sat on that email for five months, and then cynically released it 3 days before the election with the conscious intent of stoking racial conflict in their City solely to drive a few votes to the Mayor? Where are the demands for THEM to resign?

David Muccigrosso December 4, 2019 at 9:58 am

All I want to know is, where was the NAACP when TOD proposed two weeks ago to tear down big chunks of a neighborhood full of PoC? Where were they years ago when other neighborhoods in SoNo were being torn down, or even recently with the Water St. developments? Where were the protests? The demands for social justice?

These may be Democrats, but they are not good progressives.

Debora Goldstein December 4, 2019 at 5:35 pm

Once again, someone has trotted out the “Norwalk has become the highest performing urban school district in the State of Connecticut” propaganda. We are first in our DRG, which has nine districts in it–but we receive funds as an alliance school district, which means we are one of the 33 BOTTOM performers of 169 in the state. All due respect to the accomplishment on its own value, this is a bit like your six year old announcing he is the tallest child in the house otherwise occupied by adults and infants.

And this is the SECOND year that we are top in our DRG, basically touting the fact that we didn’t fall in the rankings when there was nowhere to go but down (which in fact, we did, going from 76.9 in 2018 to 76.8 in 2019).

Talk to us when you actually ARE in one of the top spots in the STATE, because that would mean we could opt out of the onerous requirement preventing us from decreasing a school budget year over year, locking us into higher allocations, even when they are meant to deal with one-off situations in the budget.

In addition, the following “considerations” called out by the state dept of education may be salient:

•A student must be enrolled in the same school on October 1 and at the time of testing to be included in the school’s performance index.

•“Recently arrived” English learners are not part of a school’s performance index for two years.

•Former English learners and former students with disabilities are included in the High Needs group for an additional two years following exit.

Let us keep this in perspective, lest we forget that we still have our work cut out for us, and no clear way to pay for it as we go forward.

Babar S December 4, 2019 at 6:39 pm

Public comments should be at the end, it makes sense. Anyone who actually cares will sit through the meeting where important things are discussed. It was a pretty long meeting last Tuesday, some people, parents & presenters, were there to learn, they shouldn’t have to sit through public comments first and then get to the important stuff. The drama can wait until then end and those who are interested in the drama can stay, others can go home.

Debora Goldstein December 5, 2019 at 10:50 am

@Babar S,

The problem with putting comment at the end is that it could potentially put public comment AFTER a vote is taken.

Brenda Wilcox Williams December 6, 2019 at 7:48 am

@Susan— Absolutely! Learning doesn’t end at the finish to the school day if students are to be successful.

On the discussion of public comments: They come at the end only during Board of Ed Workshop Meetings, which take place at the first meeting of the month. Those meetings are designed to go in-depth on one or two strategic topics, and don’t have items on the agenda for votes. The public comments are at the end during workshops, because the intention is to get feedback on the topic that has just been presented. The second meeting of the month is the business meeting, where items are voted on. Public comments come at the beginning of the agenda for business meetings.

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