NORWALK, Conn. – An after-school program for South Norwalk youth was approved Tuesday by the Norwalk Board of Education, despite complaints about a lack of communication with the public from board members whose comments were then shut down by Board Chairman Mike Lyons.
Superintendent Manny Rivera answered questions from board member Shirley Mosby about Title I funding and security in regard to the program proposed to take place at the South Norwalk Community Center, and about the process by which his recommendation had been made. Mosby wanted to speak again on the topic, but Lyons called for a vote as she was speaking. The proposal passed, 8 to 1, with Mosby as the only dissenting vote.
“You’re trying to suppress my voice?” Mosby asked, as Lyons proceeded with the vote.
“I am following Robert’s Rules,” he said.
“You are trying to silence me and that’s not right,” she said.
The debate on the topic began immediately after the public speaking session.
Mosby said the memorandum of understanding between SoNoCC and the BOE was not in the board packet posted online. “There isn’t anything about this out there for the public to see,” Mosby said.
NancyOnNorwalk had a story on March 5 about the apparent plan to use the center in response to comments made by Rivera as he presented his literacy plan. NoN published another story April 7 and attached a copy on the memorandum of understanding after requesting a copy from Lyons.
“What I worry about is the fact that this is a no-brainer,” Rivera said. “This is about increasing access for kids to quality educational programs. That is what this is all about. And anyone who has an issue with that, I don’t know what to say.”
He later said that the memorandum is non-binding. He was looking for authorization to finalize the agreement and draw up a contract with the assistance of city attorneys.
He said he is in the process of preparing another letter of intent for another site for after-school learning, mentioning visits to Washington Village and Colonial Village, and talks with a pastor regarding a church.
“This is not a one-site recommendation,” he said. “I would love to see three or four, potentially five satellite sites, to the extent that we can afford them, operating quality programs, where teachers are trained, where the Norwalk Public Schools is part of that program oversight and the training that has to take place for teachers as well as the quality of the instructional program.”
Mosby said that people in South Norwalk had not been given the opportunity to comment on the plan. “I want to find out how that happened,” she said.
Several board members are from South Norwalk and could have contributed helpful information, but everyone was kept in the dark, she said.
Rivera said that his intentions to open a South Norwalk satellite center were announced as part of the comprehensive literacy plan, which was unanimously authorized by the board.
“I took that as a green light,” he said. With so much to do he had gotten to work right away, he said.
Rivera stressed that the recommendation is part of the board’s strategic plan to reduce the achievement gap by 2020.
Migdalia Rivas said that the program looked like a “great thing.”
“I guess everybody wants to be a part of that. They wouldn’t have commented that they wanted to be excluded,” she said, in reference to comments made by public speakers.
Bobby Burgess was one of two speakers who expressed disdain.
“I wonder what happened to community input and community participation,” Burgess said. “We are not saying we are for or against, it’s the lack of knowledge to clearly understand what we are doing and how we are doing it. … I think it is a sin that you plan a community program like this and we don’t know about it.”
Board member Rosa Murray also complained about “the style of communication.” But Sherelle Harris said she was “very happy” about the program, which she said had been needed for a long time. She had helped to organize an after-school program a few years ago and had the “hardest time” arranging transportation.
“I think this is a big plus for all the children, whether they be black, white or Hispanic,” she said. “… I am just very glad this is being addressed.”
Lyons said it is common for governmental bodies to authorize a chief executive officer to negotiate a contract, so there is no legal grounds for objection. The literacy plan had been approved with the intention for a satellite center spelled out, he said.
“The reality is that this board sets policy,” he said. “We adopt policies — we adopt budgets, we adopt spending programs for $165 million — all the time and we do not put those things to a vote of people at public hearings. Obviously we want to hear from the community and get their input, but at the end of the day the board was elected by the population to make these kinds of decisions. We make all sorts of decisions that we don’t subject to pre-review and approval by people who show up at a public hearing. We want to hear what they have to say but they don’t get a veto.”
Mosby tried to speak again in reponse. He did not allow it, telling her she was out of order.
Lyons said he sent an email to the board after the March 18 board meeting. The email included lengthy comments from Rivas before the vote on the literacy plan. Lyons said he would try to streamline meetings by enforcing Robert’s Rules (rule 43) in fairness to the public.
“Dilatory motions and other actions that only serve to slow down our meetings are discouraged by the rules,” Lyons wrote. “Excessively repetitive statements in debates add little of substance, but delay the meeting. At our last meeting, many members of the public hoping to see the vote on the literacy plan gave up and left as the debate dragged on.”