NORWALK, Conn. – The controversy started right away for the new Norwalk Board of Education Tuesday night when new member Shirley Mosby expressed dissatisfaction with then-outgoing Chairman Mike Lyons and stalked out of the room to retrieve Mayor Harry Rilling.
Minutes later there was a surprise – Lyons, a Republican, was re-elected chairman by the Democrat-dominated board. Republican Vice Chairman Artie Kassimis was also re-elected into his current role, as was Democrat Heidi Keyes as secretary — same slate as before the Nov. 5 election, but with a board now composed of six Democrats and three Republicans.
“That’s not what I expected at 5 o’clock in the afternoon,” Lyons said, of becoming chairman again.
There had been a lot of drama on the Democratic side and he had gotten a phone call asking him if he wanted to chair again, he said. “I wouldn’t have predicted this outcome in a million years,” he said, of the same three officers being re-elected by a Democratic-leaning board.
“It’s a surprise for everyone in a sense,” said Democratic BOE member Shirley Mosby. Never in Norwalk history has a Democratic Board of Ed elected a Republican chairman, she said.
This all led to Mosby walking up to Jack Chiaramonte after the meeting and saying, “I’m going to pull every white hair out of his head,” a reference to Lyon’s white hair. That account by Lyons was confirmed by Mosby.
Members were surprised by Mosby’s behavior, Lyons said. “They didn’t view that as characteristic of Shirley,” he said. “So I’m very sort of counting that off as when you are angry you say things that you regret later.”
Rilling made a speech to begin the meeting, welcoming the board members and thanking them for being willing to work so hard “for absolutely no money” to make the city better by looking out for children.
The mayor then headed over to the council chambers for the council meeting, only to have Migdalia Rivas protest that the swearing in ceremony needed to be done by the mayor.
Lyons read her “the actual policy,” from a sheet of paper in his hand.
“’In the absence of the mayor,’ who I know is now over in the Common Council meeting, ‘the meeting shall be called to order by the chairman pro temp of the preceding year,’ which is me, ‘and we will then proceed to the business of the meeting.’ Do you want to see this? This is the policy.”
Numerous members said Rilling had been there.
“He was actually physically in the room,” Mosby said. “He should be the one to tell us that.”
“I asked the mayor if he wanted to run the meeting,” Lyons said, referring to a conversation that took place before the meeting was called to order.
They agreed that Mosby would go over and ask him.
As Mosby stalked out of the room, Lyons said, “What are you shaking your head for? We had the conversation, that’s what he told me.”
Comments overheard while she was out of the room included, “This is ridiculous” and “He was in the room.”
Rilling’s return was met with a smattering of applause. One person commented, “They going to start a riot over here.”
“You want me to do it, I’ll do it,” Rilling said.
The mayor swore in Sherelle Harris, Mosby, Kassimis and Keyes, and stayed to run what was a very brief but dramatic meeting.
Republican Jack Chiaramonte nominated Lyons to be chairman, saying that, over the past year, as the board hired Manny Rivera to be the new superintendent, he had guided the ship well.
“I watched him close, I watched him work,” he said. “In these times especially, reach across the aisle and work with both parties in shared responsibilities. I think that this city more than ever needs his leadership again.”
Rivas nominated Murray.
“Clearly, Rosa Murray is the most experienced person to lead the board,” she said. “Rosa is serving her fifth term on the Board of Education. In addition, she was elected three times as chair and was also vice chair and secretary. Rosa has chaired the finance and negotiating committees of the board. She was a member of the joint services committee for Norwalk Public Schools and the Common Council. Rosa serves on the executive committee of the Norwalk chapter of the NAACP. She has been a member of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education on the board of directors. Rosa was co-founder and adviser for Norwalk High president parent outreach and for the Lewis E. Dunlap scholarship.”
Democrats Mike Barbis and Heidi Keyes, and Republicans Chiaramonte, Kassimis and Lyons voted for Lyons. Mosby, Harris, Rivas and Murray voted for Murray.
Murray then nominated Kassimis for vice chairman. Barbis nominated Keyes.
The vote was Kassimis, Chiaramonte, Mosby, Rivas and Murray for Kassimis, and Keyes, Lyons, Barbis and Harris for Keyes.
Barbis nominated Keyes for secretary. Mosby nominated Rivas.
The vote was Chiaramonte, Harris, Lyons, Keyes and Barbis for Keyes and Mosby, Rivas, Kassimis and Murray for Rivas.
Lyons said he hoped Mosby’s hair-pulling comment was just an emotional reaction to the moment.
“I think she was as shocked at what happened at the election of chairman as I was,” he said.
“If Mike Lyons sitting there and crying about that then he needs to give up the chairmanship right away,” Mosby said. “He was very nasty in a sense because what he was trying to take over, in a sense, where he was going to swear us in. I did not want him to swear us in and he got attitude, and he wanted to be the one to swear us in. That is the mayor’s job to sign us in.”
Lyons said he had worked with Mosby in 2009, when he was the Board of Estimate and Taxation representative during the last teachers’ contract negotiations, and she was on the board negotiations committee. It was cordial, he said.
“I hope we can reestablish that relationship,” he said. “In all honesty I think that things may not be as contentious as you might think. Basically everybody who ran said we’ve got to support Manny Rivera, get behind the superintendent. Rilling was very adamant about this – we can’t keep cycling through superintendents. You need to get some continuity here.”