NORWALK, Conn. — Board of Education member Mike Barbis has died.
The regularly scheduled Board of Education meeting began just after 7 p.m. Tuesday, as planned, but BoE Chairman Colin Hosten instantly announced that it was being cancelled “due to some very unfortunate circumstances.” He didn’t elaborate. An earlier BoE Committee meeting had been held as expected.
NancyOnNorwalk learned that Barbis, 59, had died suddenly. There are no further details.
“Mike was a colleague and a friend. He died too young. I will truly miss him,” former Board of Education Chairman Mike Lyons said in an email.
“Mike dedicated a lot of his life to the City of Norwalk, into the students of Norwalk, and did everything he could to try to make the public school system the best in the state,” Mayor Harry Rilling said. “We have made great strides under his tenure.”
Barbis, a Rowayton real estate agent, was also a Sixth Taxing District Commissioner, holding the post for nearly 16 years. He was active with the Rowayton Hose Company, Rowayton’s volunteer fire department, and was former Commodore of Rowayton Yacht Club.
Barbis once spoke to NancyOnNorwalk about spending part of his childhood in France. His mother, Patricia Barbis, was in the foreign service. An ad promoting Barbis as a real estate salesperson said he spoke French, Spanish and English.
Barbis called himself “one of the top agents in my home market of Rowayton,” in the ad. “As a builder and developer myself, I have extensive knowledge of not only the real estate market, but am very familiar with local construction and zoning codes, costs and regulations,” he said. “My clients and customers remain loyal to me for my high level of service, my depth of knowledge, my extensive connections, my seasoned experience and my extra attention to detail.”
His renovation of a home he owned on Pine Point Road was once featured on the television series, This Old House. That home was eventually foreclosed on.
In 2019, the Rowayton Condo Association said he owed more than $1 million in property taxes. Barbis disputed that and said if he weren’t spending so much time working for free on the Board of Education, he’d have time to clean it up. The case is no longer listed on the State judicial website.
Barbis began his education involvement as a room parent and worked his way to PTA president. He was first elected to the Board of Education in 2011 and was in his third 4-year term. Barbis was elected BoE Chairman in 2017 and held the post for two years. He had previously served as vice chairman.
Controversy marked his time on the Board of Education as he invested many volunteer hours in the hard work of city government. Barbis lead the Facilities Committee that formed a plan to build two new schools and renovate two existing school buildings within five years; only one of those new schools has been built and only one renovation is underway, with delays stemming from his disagreements with South Norwalk leaders.
He also led the Finance Committee for a time, sometimes issuing public insults to Board members he disagreed with, and appearing to be tight with former Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski.
Just last week, with his power greatly diminished, Barbis made a motion to reverse the schools’ bell time schedule to what it had been in 2019-20. Board members who had said they were glad they didn’t have to vote on the issue that evening then went ahead and voted to approve the change.
Barbis’ later years on the Board sparked passionate protests due to emails he had written becoming public, including one in which he urged Board members not to attend an annual Norwalk NAACP fundraising banquet. Norwalk NAACP members, who do not live in his district, fought his reelection in 2019 and repeatedly called for him to resign, to no avail. The animosity reached a crescendo late that year in what may have been the most raucous City Hall meeting ever, prompted by an email in which Barbis ranted in frustration over the difficulty to get a South Norwalk school built, in the most explicit words available, calling South Norwalk leaders “scum.”
In that email, he also said, “I lost another friend in his 50s yesterday” “Life is too short.”
Lyons said Tuesday that he was stunned to learn Barbis had passed away.
“He was full of energy, skiing in the mountains, traveling to Europe, just this past year,” Lyons said. “He was a real force of nature in Norwalk. He loved the city, loved the school system, fought hard for what he believed in. Mike wore his emotions on his sleeve, he was passionate, and as former superintendent Steven Adamowski said to me as few minutes ago, ‘while not always politically correct, he was always righteous’. Norwalk’s new schools, built or planned, are a testament to Mike’s often unacknowledged energy. Other people will show up at the ribbon cuttings, but Mike did more than anyone in Norwalk to actually get those projects done – to the benefit of thousands of Norwalk’s children, now and in the future. When the artificial kerfuffles of email controversies are long forgotten, those schools will stand as a monument to Mike’s love for his city.”
Norwalk Public Schools Communications Director Brenda Wilcox Williams released this statement, early Wednesday:
“The Norwalk Board of Education and Norwalk Public Schools are deeply saddened by the unexpected passing of Mike Barbis. A member of the Board of Education since 2011, Mike was a passionate and knowledgeable advocate for Norwalk students and schools. During his tenure on the Board, he served as chair of the Finance Committee, Negotiations and Personnel Committee, and Facilities Committee, where he helped develop and oversee a new construction and renovation plan for the school district. He served as chairman of the Board from 2017-2019. Mike was also an active parent volunteer at Brien McMahon High School, as well as a tireless community volunteer in Rowayton and beyond.
“Our hearts go out to all of Mike’s family and friends. Arrangements are pending. We will keep our school community informed of any plans and memorial details that the family would like to share.”
An earlier version of this story was posted at 7:22 p.m. and then removed to give authorities time to attempt reaching Mr. Barbis’ family.
Story updated at 3 p.m. to include statement from Norwalk Public Schools.