NORWALK, Conn. – Two moments stood out from Monday’s League of Women Voters of Norwalk Board of Education candidates forum – a “he said, she said,” in that order, of charges stemming from last year’s budget battle, and a startling juxtaposition of a fiery speech from a lawyer followed by a speech from a librarian not accustomed to the limelight of public office.
Ten — count ’em, 10 — candidates lined up in front of a relatively sparse audience in the City Hall community room to make their cases to be voted in as one of four BOE members in the election just two weeks from now. Attorney Steve Colarossi, an incumbent Republican now running on an independent ticket, and incumbent Republican Sue Haynie dominated the event, going at each other tooth and nail with accusations resulting from their four years of tension together on the board and blame to be had over the departure of Superintendent Susan Marks. Colarossi said political decisions had been made in the 2012-2013 budget, at the expense of children, while Haynie replied that Colarossi had voted according to Norwalk Federation of Teachers President Bruce Mellion’s wishes.
Everyone got two minutes to speak, then another two minutes for rebuttal. Colarossi’s first passionate speech was followed by political newbie Sherelle Harris, who works to engage and educate children at the South Norwalk Library, who mildly said she likes to collect data and study it. Her calm demeanor mirrored other candidates, but after Colarossi’s trial lawyer-like delivery it was striking.
While Colarossi first spoke of “two teachers involved in illicit relationships with students,” which led him to develop a child abuse reporting policy, his second historical look-back referred to last year’s extreme budget battle.
“When I was first chairman of the finance committee I undertook that line by line analysis, trying to root out that waste, the mismanagement, the misallocation, the misappropriations,” he said. “The system worked. The in 2012 we were overcoming some horrific bookkeeping mistakes, some poor transition from accounting professionals, and there was a deficit in the insurance account.”
The $4 million deficit came on top of a $5.8 million difference between then-Superintendent Susan Mark’s requested budget and the amount of money granted to the BOE with the budget cap set by the Common Council.
“As chairman of the finance committee at that time, I didn’t care what the political consequences were. I wanted to have an immediate review of what happened and find out why it happened,” Colarossi said. “Unfortunately, political influences got in the way of that process. In much the same way that political influences got in the way of the 2012 budget. A lot of tough cuts had to be made. Unfortunately, the wrong cuts were made. We crowded kids into classrooms, we eliminated intervention aides and our youngest and most vulnerable kids took the hit. It was a hit given to them for a political reason. I thought it was wrong, I fought against it and I came up with a revenue-neutral, neutral to the taxpayers, kids-first alternative plan.”
His plan got one vote – his.
“If we can get the politics out of our Board of Education, we can get a school system that our kids, our families and our taxpayers deserve,” Colarossi said.
That would be the reason to “vote Row D for the Board of E,” the Norwalk Community Values party that Colarossi and running mate Andres Roman formed.
Haynie, who, unlike Colarossi, stayed in the Republican party, fired back.
“Mr. Colarossi’s (proposed) budget, with all due respect, could also be called the Mellion-Ditrio budget,” she said, referring to Norwalk Federation of Teachers President Bruce Mellion and Norwalk Assistants and Supervisors Association leader Tony Ditrio. “It was so built on a foundation of sand and it was fuzzy math. It took $300,000 out of Medicaid and $2.5 million out of our insurance reserve account to balance it. These $2.8 million in savings that went against the recommendations of Elio Longo, who was by the way our great chief financial officer.”
Then came a common assault on Mellion, followed by damning assertions and a reference to the NFT newsletter, the Vanguard.
“(Mellion) doesn’t vote here. He doesn’t pay taxes here. He has no kids in the schools,” she said. “Mr. Colarossi was instrumental in working with Bruce Mellion to bully Superintendent Marks to quit. Make no mistake, a vote for Mr. Colarossi and his Community Values Party is a vote for Bruce Mellion. Don’t take my word for it though – Mr. Mellion’s monthly Vanguard newspaper was a manifesto and marching orders. Compare the last three years of the Vanguard with the last three years of the Board of Ed minutes and see the votes in common with Mr. Colarossi; the juxtaposition is not pure coincidence.”
Colarossi, meanwhile, wrote a rebuttal, which he shared with NancyOnNorwalk.
“Distortions and playing the blame game are not the hallmarks of a Board of Education candidate looking to forge a non-partisan Board of Education, but rather the sign of a struggling campaign,” he wrote. “First, let’s evaluate the charges – once again, that an honors graduate of Howard who has worked as a guardian ad litem, juvenile public defender, education advocate and high school teacher is incapable of advancing a pro-education budget that is mindful of our community’s needs. Second, the savings I proposed obviously were correct – how else could we have seen a better than $1 million surplus from 2012-2013?”