NORWALK, Conn. – As the NAACP keeps the pressure on, demanding that Norwalk Board of Education Chairman Mike Barbis resign, Barbis has promised to “do the work… to ensure that my anger and frustration is handled in a more professional and reasonable way.”
Barbis released a statement Saturday reiterating both his apology for his June email, widely perceived as offensive, and his refusal to resign, emphasizing the many hours of work he has put into improving Norwalk Public Schools.
Barbis, who ran unopposed, was re-elected to a four-year term on Nov. 5, three days after his profanity-riddled email was released by an anonymous source.
In Saturday’s statement, Barbis blamed allies of Mayor Harry Rilling, one of four recipients of the email, for launching “an absolute smear campaign” against him for supporting unsuccessful mayoral candidate Lisa Brinton.
Rilling, who has said Barbis has neither “the temperament or sensitivity” to be on the Board, called the accusation “ridiculous.”
Barbis’s statement comes as the Norwalk branch of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) gears up for a showdown at Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting. The agenda includes the swearing in of new Board members and the election of a new chairman. The NAACP has offered transportation for those who support their call for Barbis’s resignation.
“The Board should act to censure as well as remove Barbis,” Norwalk NAACP President Brenda Penn-Williams and Connecticut NAACP President Scot Esdaile wrote in a letter released Wednesday, although there is no state law that would allow Board of Education members to remove Barbis.
This isn’t the first time the embattled BOE chairman has clashed with the city’s black leadership. In fact, at a meeting on Nov. 8, Rilling told NAACP members he declined to make the email public in June because of the effect it would have on his efforts to arrange a conciliatory meeting between Barbis and Penn-Williams. The hoped-for meeting never took place.
In the email, which Esdaile and Penn-Williams called “dastardly and alarming,” Barbis called South Norwalk Democrats “a*****” and “SCUM” and suggested a news headline of “Blacks f*** Latinos.”
Esdaile and Penn-Williams characterized the email as a BoE chairman “perpetuating racist thoughts” 65 years after the NAACP won a Supreme Court victory that declared a separate and unequal education was unconstitutional.
“The Barbis actions suggest that it is okay and acceptable to denigrate people of color,” they wrote. “It is inconceivable to think that Barbis can effectively serve as part an institution that benefits youth, especially those who are minorities, and employees who are not part of the dominant community. Barbis has to go now!”
Barbis apologized for the email when it became public on Nov. 3 and on Saturday said he stands by that apology.
“Let me make this very clear, I am absolutely not racist,” he said. “What I was, on June 5, was frustrated and angry over what I believed to be unjust roadblocks set up for a new school in South Norwalk – something I have fought for and felt strongly would improve that neighborhood. Everything about my long record proves that I have been a relentless advocate for all of our town’s children. The root of the issue being discussed in that June email was my work trying to get a school built in an area where children are being bused around the city – when they deserve a school for their neighborhood like everyone else.”
State Rep. Travis Simms (D-140) and former State Rep. Bruce Morris, among others, have resisted the Board of Education’s effort to build a new South Norwalk school. Morris has sought more input from the community and Simms decries the loss of local parkland. Fears of gentrification are also in the mix.
Barbis is a Rowayton real estate agent. The planned new school is near the expensive waterfront properties in Wilson Point, adjacent to Rowayton. The site was chosen because city land could be used and a minimal investment put into acquiring property, consultants said in 2015.
Barbis on Saturday said he knows his email was wrong.
“I deeply apologize to anyone I offended with my words,” he said. “Because I am human, I am not perfect and made a mistake. None of that warrants the absolute smear campaign that has been launched against me – all being launched by allies of Mayor Rilling after I supported my friend, Lisa Brinton, for mayor.”
Barbis states that the email he sent went only to Rilling, Norwalk Chief of Staff Laoise King, Democratic Town Committee Chairman Ed Camacho and DTC Vice Chairwoman Eloisa Melendez.
“The email was forwarded to other people at the time it was received. I have no idea who those people forwarded it to or who those people might have forwarded it to,” King said on Nov. 3.
‘Democrats failing minorities’
Penn-Williams and Esdaile also criticize Camacho for saying nothing about the email. They call Rilling’s explanations “feeble.”
“The local Democratic leadership, Mayor and Town Committee Chairperson, is failing the Black and Latino communities in acquiescing by allowing or permitting Barbis to serve in any capacity in the City of Norwalk. Barbis has to go now!” they wrote.
Camacho and Rilling did not respond to the comments.
‘Committed to serving Norwalk’s children’
It “strains credulity” that Barbis must be told to resign, Esdaile and Penn-Williams wrote. “However, such is the time that has come with racism eking out of the nation’s capital that bigots, nationalists, and white supremacists and people like Betsy DeVos and locally Mike Barbis feel that it is okay to berate and marginalize people of color regardless of ethnicity.”
“I can promise two things,” Barbis said Saturday. “One, I will not resign from the Board of Education and will continue to represent those who elected me. Two, I will seek help and do the work I need to do to ensure that my anger and frustration is handled in a more professional and reasonable way going forward so that this doesn’t happen again.”
“In the 8 years I have been a volunteer and elected member of the Board of Education, I have fought tirelessly for all students to have a better education in Norwalk Public Schools – often at the expense of my own personal life and livelihood. I have done this because I feel so passionate about and committed to our town’s children and their rights to have the best education, in the safest and most up-to-date facilities we can provide them, and with the most advanced tools we can arm their teachers and administrators with.
“While on the Board of Education, I was Chairman of the Board for the last two years and Chair of the Facilities Committee for the last four years. I have served as Chairman of the Finance and Negotiations Committees, sat on the Curriculum Committee and currently sit on the Finance, Negotiations, Policy and Facilities Committees. I have helped hire two previous Superintendents, including Dr Steven Adamowski, whom many consider the most successful superintendent in Norwalk’s history. Everything from our accountability index to graduation rates to facilities has improved remarkably because of the work my BOE colleagues and I have done together – including the creation and implementation of our Strategic Operating Plan. I am extremely proud of this work.”