Barbis rejects discussion of Norwalk BoE/NAACP standoff, blames Curtis

The Rev. Lindsay Curtis, center, at a March 11 event at Norwalk Community Health.

NORWALK, Conn. – Norwalk Board of Education Chairman Mike Barbis has reversed course and refused to meet with Norwalk Branch NAACP President Brenda Penn-Williams to discuss their differences.

“An unfortunate series of events created more of a problem in trying to arrange a meeting,” Mayor Harry Rilling said Thursday. “I am hoping that with a little bit of a cooling off period that I would be able to, once again, encourage Brenda and Mike to sit down at the table and have a conversation about working together and moving forward in a cohesive manner.”

Penn-Williams and NAACP leaders have called for Barbis to resign, after NancyOnNorwalk revealed an email, obtained via the Freedom of Information Act, in which Barbis urged fellow BoE members not to attend the NAACP Freedom Fund banquet in October, because NAACP “leadership continuously slanders our school system, the Board and its employees,” Barbis wrote.  NAACP leaders expressed outrage, and Barbis and Penn-Williams subsequently agreed to meet, at Rilling’s request.

Emails obtained from a more recent FOI request reveal Barbis’ change of heart regarding a meeting with Penn-Williams.

NoN received these emails on April 4:


From: Mike Barbis [mailto:[email protected]]
Sent: Friday, February 22, 2019 5:51 PM
To: Rilling, Harry <[email protected]>
Subject: BPW meeting

Hi Harry

I’m back from this funeral in California‎ … I’ve thought things over… and I would really like for you to host a meeting with {Brenda Penn-Williams}. I think it would be very productive.

We could get all of the facts out in the open and correct the misinformation. I really don’t want the public to start believing that there is any truth to  these allegations — and I am ready to correct all of them with facts (as has previously been done with High Roads and Briggs for example).

Would you still be able to arrange and host such a meeting?



From: Rilling, Harry
Sent: Monday, March 4, 2019 2:27 PM
To: Barbis, Mike {and Penn-Williams}

Subject: Meeting

Thank you both for agreeing to meet for a discussion on how to move forward in a cohesive manner and in the best interest of our student body.

Please send me some dates and times when you, and those you are bringing, are available to meet.


From: {Mike Barbis}
Sent: Tuesday, March 19, 2019 8:42 AM
To: Rilling, Harry <[email protected]>
Subject: Follow up


Does BPW and the rest of her team really think I would go to a meeting after their comments on NON this morning?

And Lindsay Curtis?  I will not show up at a meeting with someone who made those comments.  And you can tell him that.

The comments he made show his bias, his anger and his prejudice.



The day that Barbis rejected the meeting, NancyOnNorwalk published a story in which the Rev. Lindsay Curtis is quoted as saying, “It’s just a travesty where our Board is right now.”

In that story, Curtis said he was upset that Barbis and BoE member Mike Lyons hadn’t looked Penn-Williams or NAACP Board member Eric Fischman in the eye when the two criticized the board during the public comment portion of the March 5 Board meeting.  Eye contact is a “basic element of respect,” Curtis said. “They are so disrespectful, they are so arrogant, that it’s hurtful and I don’t think it’s good for our city.”

The report also quoted former BoE member Sherelle Harris calling for unnamed board members to “grow up and get rid of the ego-grabbing, gang mentality.”

Curtis expressed surprise last week when told by NancyOnNorwalk that his comments had inspired Barbis to drop his willingness to meet with Penn-Williams.

“If that’s how he feels, then how are {we} ever going to find common ground?” Curtis asked. “I was speaking to his unwillingness to sit down and meet. Because of his unwillingness, how does one categorize it other than arrogance?”

NancyOnNorwalk also received a copy of a text from Penn-Williams to Rilling, announcing that she would meet with him and Barbis “anytime during the week of March 25.”

Penn-Williams had requested that Curtis attend her sit-down with Barbis.

“I am not really interested in going back and forth with Mike, but I am interested in being able to have an adult conversation,” Curtis said. “ … I have always tried to be objective in my approach in anything I put my hand on and my voice to in our fair city and it is extremely discouraging that someone who has not only access but has the authority and governance over all children has an attitude like this. If he finds my comments bad, he should go back and look at some of his own previous emails which have already been made public.”

The solution is to get different people on the Board of Education, he said.

“What we are doing is trying to find candidates that have an interest, and go that route, the route of the ballot box,” Curtis said. “… When you have the attitude that we have seen of late, by members of the Board of Education, the concern is, do they have even the slightest of concerns that we have? If you are going to be in charge of policy, then the policy should be reflective of all people. When you have that kind of attitude in the background, with emails that have to be unearthed, that speaks to character, that speaks to integrity, that speaks to modeling good behavior, so that the very children we are trying to educate can see what character and integrity looks like.”

The behavior is like that displayed by President Donald Trump, he said.

“We have never seen to the degree that we are seeing the lack of character, the lack of integrity, lie like a waterfall, I hate to say it, but this is some of that same type of character,” Curtis said. “Everybody talks about how diverse Norwalk is and we should be civil with each other. When you don’t even want to sit down and talk, how are you supposed to reach a resolution of civility?”

“Rev. Curtis is not biased, prejudiced,” Penn-Williams said last week. “I don’t think he has it in his DNA.”

Barbis is “cocky and he has no respect,” Penn-Williams said. “He doesn’t care what he says in emails. He is a very cocky.”

She wasn’t at the April 2 BoE meeting because she was sick, she said.

NoN contacted Barbis on Thursday and asked why he would change his mind about a meeting he had said would be “very productive,” due to comments made by Curtis.

He did not respond to that question.

NoN asked other Board members for comment; none responded.

Curtis on Thursday said, “I have always lived with the simple edict: that the right people having the right conversation about the right subjects can always find a resolution. If there’s no meeting, then I guess there’s no resolution and that’s unfortunate…. We have opportunity to model what resolution is and what it can do for the community but if he doesn’t want to meet, he doesn’t want to meet. I wake up in the morning and I embrace the day.”


17 responses to “Barbis rejects discussion of Norwalk BoE/NAACP standoff, blames Curtis”

  1. John ONeill

    I’m amused that Mr. Curtis broadens the issue by subtly broadening bringing Trump into the conversation. Right out of the old Democratic playbook. What is a disgrace on all parts of this issue is the delay in setting these meetings up. Barbis sent his first email to Rilling on Feb. 22nd..If the Mayor wanted to diffuse the situation, why did it take until March 4th to reach back out, and NOT have a date to meet. They still had not met as of March 19th, when Barbis pulled out. The last I checked, Norwalk is not that large a town. How on God’s Earth could these egomaniacs (ALL of THEM) not have had a cup of coffee and gotten together in February? I volunteer my house for everyone to meet. Hell, I’ll even throw in Bacon and Eggs. Again, I fault EVERYONE in this travesty. Doesn’t anyone give a damn about the kids?…On a slightly different topic — It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand a structured/disciplined classroom would enable our students to reach their potential. There’s an old saying when things start to falter — “Back to Basics” — It’s time we got back to basics..Again, to Rilling/Penn-Williams/Barbis and whoever else, let me know when I should put the bacon on the griddle.

  2. Kevin Kane

    Amen John Oneill. #planetnorwalk where no one picks up the phone and has a meeting face to face to hash it out. Smells like this is a non issue if in fact the lack of talks and resolution have been dragged out this far. Next.

  3. Piberman

    The Hour carried this ‘story” w/o much community interest for about a month. Time to let it go. Most would agree its not one of the many major issues facing residents in our challenged City.

  4. Matt

    Harry- Set up a date, time and location with two weeks in advance. Invite all parties.. Who shows up is willing to work this out. Who doesn’t show up will be remembered in November.

  5. EnoPride

    This ongoing theme of BoE members being attacked with false allegations has run its course. Different iterations of this storyline with some of the same individuals, some different, have made headlines with this Rilling Administration for years. Researching back articles uncovers a pattern of false allegations and bullying tactics attached to Ms. Penn-Williams.

    The missing component of everyone’s coverage of this topic, which is being downplayed I do not know why, is that the one individual who misused social media to add fuel to the Barbis witch hunt is our very own Senator Bob Duff. Senator Duff, let us not forget, used his influence to broadcast and sensationalize Ms. Penn-Williams’s false allegations to his gullible Facebookland audience by holding Mr. Barbis up as the poster child for racism, declaring that we have racism in our own backyard, the likes of what went on in Virginia with Governor Northam. Some pretty serious false accusations. Senator Duff has also recently introduced a bill which proposes to give our mayor the power to choose our BoE Chair. Hhhmmm, Mike Barbis is our BoE Chair, and a fine one at that who has the respect of many. Coincidence, or a politician’s personal political agenda? Whatever the motive, it is disappointing and distrustful behavior coming from our Majority Leader Senator Duff.

    Meanwhile, NOBODY, not even Bob Duff himself, is able to present evidence to back his or Ms. Penn-Williams’s very serious allegations of racism by Mr. Barbis. Doesn’t Senator Duff have much larger Hartford… Uh, Norwalk issues to work on? Shouldn’t Bob Duff be turning his attention to the red flags and full out alarm bells being set off by his colleagues at Norwalk City Hall, aka, his backyard? Red Alert! POKO secretive closed session meetings conducted by Mario Coppola! Red Alert! 511 million dollar Rilling Boondoggle Bridge set to destroy Norwalk! Red Alert! Norwalk’s CFO abruptly resigns! We could go on and on…

  6. Ron Morris

    Actually the story in The Hour got much community interest . Everyone that I talked with said how the challenged BOE is the stain on Norwalk and that they should do the right thing and resign.

  7. Andrew

    @Ron Morris – the whole board?

  8. John ONeill

    Frankly, I think most of these opinions are skewed and full of crap. I understand there’s probably frustrations on both sides. That gets us nowhere. Lets have a transparent discussion and keep our schools on the right path. Respect AND accountability for not just the Board of Ed, but PARENTS and STUDENTS. Let’s challenge each other. Discipline today, Sunshine tomorrow.

  9. Ron Morris

    The fact is that people at every level of government feel they can say and act inappropriate these days. The reason is simple as all one needs to do is hear the filth and racism comes out of the Republican President Trumps mouth.

  10. Bill Dunne

    One can only imagine how such a momentous meeting would go.
    BPW: You are a racist.
    MB: No I’m not.
    BPW: At a long-ago meeting you didn’t make eye contact with me. Therefore, you are a racist.
    MB: I’m looking you in the eye now. I am not a racist.
    Harry Rilling: Great meeting. Let’s do this again sometime.

  11. Alexis

    Ron, I agree with you – the lack of respect and civility, and thoughtful debate is missing, which I believe, is driven by the current leadership in the WH. To M. Lyons and M. Barbis:

    You serve as elected leaders to represent the entire city. Therefore, you should comport yourselves as ‘leaders’ and demonstrate leadership. For instance, you should refrain from making individuals feel marginalized, you need to actively listen to constituents, and you should make public assertions that are conciliatory and collaborative. Again, given you are elected representatives who serve the citizens of the City of Norwalk, it is my sense that you are held to a high standard and you should conduct yourselves in a manner that is beyond reproach. If you can’t, perhaps you shouldn’t be on the board.

  12. Bill Dunne

    The points made by “Alexis” raise questions in my mind. For instance, what does it mean to be “marginalized”? How does one know if one has caused a feeling of marginalization in someone? Feelings are subjective, aren’t they? So, to avoid inflicting on someone a feeling of marginalization (whatever that means), is perfect agreement in all things necessary? How does that work in a policy-making body like the school board where multiple policy proposals differ from each other and can’t all be accepted?

  13. John ONeill

    It is time to stop blaming Trump for local weaknesses. Many policies coming out of Hartford are screwing Norwalk and our school funding. I am sick of funding policies that don’t work. Where’s the Beef?

  14. Alexis


    Thanks for the response. You’re correct – feelings are subjective. However, marginalization refers to the concept of attempting to make others feel insignificant, unimportant, powerless, and/or peripheral.

    In a governing body like the school board, it’s been my experience that good leadership embraces the entire group. He/she demonstrates that everyone matters and that all of their voices are heard. Furthermore, a good leader seeks out different voices and perspectives, encourages participation, and demonstrates respect and tolerance for all regardless of whether they agree or not. For example, an effective leader can recognize an idea, and at the same time, respectfully disagree, while welcoming the comments.

    Effective leaders are thoughtful, think critically, practice open and transparent communication, and he/she encourages a breadth and scope of ideas.

  15. Bill Dunne

    I don’t know, Alexis. Maybe board members who find themselves in disagreement with the views of other board members should make better arguments instead of whining about their supposedly hurt feelings.

  16. Alexis


    Perhaps I’m not making myself clear – but the concept of marginalization is not just about disagreement.

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