Updated, 9:44 a.m.: Clarification about proposed meeting between Mike Barbis and Brenda Penn-Williams; 8:09 a.m.: Copy edits
NORWALK, Conn. – Round two of acrimony inspired by Norwalk Board of Education emails on Tuesday featured “Mike and Mike” looking away as two Norwalk NAACP leaders made sharp criticisms, and one called the Board “a stain” on the community.
“Two weeks have passed since the NAACP in partnership with the Interdenominational Ministers Fellowship of Norwalk and Vicinity requested the resignation of Chairman (Mike) Barbis,” Norwalk Branch NAACP President Brenda Penn-Williams said, alleging “poor ethics and racially insensitive behavior” and promising to continue the pressure on the Board.
Barbis on Oct. 5 sent an email to the entire Board urging them not to attend the annual NAACP Freedom Fund banquet on Oct. 19, citing “very serious false allegations and attacks on the BOE and our staff.” The email was obtained by NancyOnNorwalk through a Freedom of Information Act request, and publicized in a Feb. 5 NoN story, which led to calls that Barbis resign.
The controversy has since intensified, thanks to two stories in The Hour, one about a letter sent by the Norwalk High School School Governance Council, explaining the school’s bathroom shortage and objecting to comments Barbis made, and one on Monday, revealing that Board member Mike Lyons slammed a number of African American leaders in a Feb. 13 email.
The email as described in the Hour story “further highlight the general disregard that some members of this Board of Education have for leaders of the Norwalk African American community,” Penn-Williams said Tuesday evening.
NancyOnNorwalk on Tuesday obtained the emails which were the subject of Monday’s Norwalk Hour story.
Lyons referred to former BoE members Sherelle Harris, Rosa Murray and Shirley Mosby, Common Council members Darlene Young (D-District B) and Ernie Dumas (D-District B), Norwalk Federation of Teachers (NFT) First Vice President Joe Giandurco, former Norwalk Deputy Superintendent Tony Daddona and Norwalk High School Assistant Principal Lynne Moore.
Board member Bruce Kimmel on Feb. 13 wrote that he found some of the commentary on NancyOnNorwalk “depressing.”
“The quality of debate in Norwalk has taken a nosedive in recent years,” Kimmel wrote.
“I’m only surprised when the comments on Nancy DON’T reflect a ‘nosedive in debate quality’, not when they DO. This degradation is practically universal in social media these days. As the nastiness ratchets up (particularly when people can hide behind fake names), most of the reasonable, well-meaning people withdraw, and thus the chats usually get taken over by the nastiest participants. Quite a mix of comments. Sherelle speaking up for Shirley et al, a group of BoE members who probably did more to hold back minority student achievement than any other three BoE members in its history. Then we have the ‘blame the immigrants’ comments. Then the ‘you’re killing the taxpayers’ folks (who’d seemingly be happier if we shut down NPS entirely). Then we have Joe Giandurco (who posts under a variety of fake names) extolling the good old days when ‘the middle schools worked and students enjoyed coming to school’ (even though middle schools showed consistent nosedives in student achievement, all for $2,000 per year per student more than we spent at the high schools). Then Marj (hard to tell if this is Lynne Moore or Tony Daddona), with the usual attacks on evil Lyons and evil Barbis. Then Darlene Young (speaking for the reliably anti-education District B Democratic Committee), with a meandering condemnation of the only people who have actually tried to help the kids of South Norwalk she purports to care about. [How much did the gap close while Rosa Murray, Shirley Mosby et al ran the BoE? Zero. How much did any District B Dem complain about that state of affairs then? Zero.] Then the rambling comment from Ernie Dumas, whose view of the Board is so nuts that he once publicly accused the Board of lighting a brush fire that happened in the woods around Ely School in an effort to convince people that the new school should be built there (no lie – there was press coverage of this statement, which he meant seriously).
“The good news – take away District B Dems, disgruntled NPS union reps, and a few other naysayers, and what do you have? Nothing. These comments are not representative of Norwalk at large (which is why I only made one comment and haven’t dignified any of the other comments with a response.”
Giandurco said Tuesday that he spoke about the NAACP controversy to the Board.
“My name is on that,” Giandurco said. “Have I commented in the past? Yes. But I don’t engage in trolling on the Internet. I have made no comment about the NAACP, except for my public comment to the Board.”
“Mr Giandurco and I presented comments on this topic in person at the Board meeting, not anonymously,” Norwalk Federation of Teachers President Mary Yordon wrote.
Young and Mosby declined comment. Dumas did not reply to an email.
Harris on Feb. 12 left a comment on NancyOnNorwalk, in reply to an opinion signed by eight of nine BoE members:
“I usually try to stay out of nonsense, but to this letter I say grow up and get rid of the ego-grabbing, gang mentality. Thumbs down https://www.thehour.com/opinion/article/See-who-gets-a-Thumbs-Down-this-week-13608210.php and please see https://www.nancyonnorwalk.com/2015/07/opinion-board-of-ed-work-should-not-be-about-adults-but-children/No amount of verbiage can cover up for the arrogance and power hungry nonsense that is displayed, not to mention the lies that came forward with the FOI request. Barbara Meyer Mitchell–whose name is not signed to this letter–spoke candidly and is probably being cut off as were board members who had their own minds, but tried to stay above the fray. Where are the peacemakers to make the peace before things escalate?
“I can give a pat on the back, whether or not I like someone, if a job is well done; however, these types of actions give me pause to wonder what is really going on. Numbers can lie too depending on whose behind them. Folk get caught in a lie, Nancy publishes an article about apologizing, and here we are.
“So your point is….? What’s your real message?”
Penn-Williams circulated a flier last week, encouraging people to attend Tuesday’s Board meeting; more than 40 people, most of them African American, attended the meeting in support of the NAACP leadership. They included Mosby, former State Rep. Bruce Morris and the Rev. Lindsay Curtis.
The Board held a “workshop” meeting, with Testing and Evaluation Specialist Diane Filardo explaining Norwalk Public Schools’ achievements in the latest Next Generation Accountability report.
Ordinarily, public speakers at a BoE workshop meeting are constrained to address only the topic that’s been presented to the Board.
“Where is it written?” Penn-Williams said before the meeting, explaining that NAACP members had been unable to find a Board policy that kept public speakers from wandering off topic.
She spoke to Mayor Harry Rilling before the meeting began, and came back to tell supporters that they could speak if they wanted to.
In remarks to the Board, Penn-Williams said Lyons’ commentary shows his continued disdain for perspectives he does not agree with.
“Again, we ask this Board to take an active step to show disapproval of Mr. Lyons’ statement,” Penn-Williams said. “It would be reassuring to many of us if there would emails that showed Board members who received copies of these type of emails from Mr. Lyons and Mr. Barbis would immediately rebuff them. Silence breeds consent. So, I am saying, ‘you are agreeing with him.’”
She continued, “It is for that reason the NAACP will continue to speak loud and consistently against action by elected officials who are supposed to represent the goodwill of our entire city. I pray members of this BoE will stand with us. We will continue to request the resignation of chairman Barbis, who has yet failed to acknowledge any wrong doing.”
Barbis said last week that he will not resign.
NAACP Board member Eric Fischman also spoke Tuesday. Fischman said he spent 33 years as an NPS psychologist and Special Education teacher who now teaches math at Winston Preparatory School.
He counseled more than 1,000 children while he was a school psychologist and he would tell them, “there is no such thing as a secret,” and, “We are here to help you to figure out what you are going to do when people find out, because they will find out,” he said.
“Along with these false accusations made by (Barbis and Lyons) and the underlying racism that was within that context, there is responsibility for the fact that as wonderful as we have seen that you are as a Board, you do not represent all of Norwalk,” Fischman said. “… I think it’s a shame. I read today’s email belittling people who I hold very high and dear, because I know what they have done for this community.”
“I worked with John Mosby for 10 years and saw all the good that he did for a lot of people. Perhaps you saw one small part of him but as a professional, it was your job to keep your mouth shut,” Fischman said.
Some people applauded; Rilling smiled.
“We keep secrets because we know that what we did was wrong,” Fischman said. “That is why we lie. That is why we fail to present the information, even when it is requested by the press. That is why you have torn apart this community. … I think you are a stain on the fabric of this community.”
Lyons and Barbis looked away as Fischman and Penn-Williams spoke.
After the meeting, Penn-Williams said the Norwalk NAACP would be back on March 19 for the next BoE meeting.
Rilling said that although Barbis and Penn-Williams had agreed to meet and talk things out, it would be difficult to have a civil meeting if “this keeps up.” He called the behavior disappointing.
“We need to respect each other, we need to be civil. Nothing else is acceptable,” Rilling said. “Our children are the focus. Tonight should have been a celebration of the achievements that are being made in our school system by our teachers, our administrators, our counselors, the people that work hard every single day on behalf of our children. Not name calling, not nonsense. The nonsense has to stop.”