Updated, 8:26 a.m.: Copy edits
NORWALK, Conn. – NAACP members had strong words for empty chairs Tuesday as they called for the resignation of Board of Education Chairman Mike Barbis, who was not present.
Barbis was attending a funeral and Board members Mike Lyons and Erik Anderson were absent due to other obligations, Board Vice Chairwoman Sarah LeMieux said. LeMieux led the meeting and delivered her own apology for hurt feelings caused by the revelation that Barbis suggested Board members skip an NAACP fundraiser, as reported two weeks ago in a NancyOnNorwalk story.
“I want to apologize for the very deep sense of division and disconnection that has grown between the Board of Education and the members of the black community in the last few weeks,” LeMieux said. “… I want you to know that we are listening, that we are committed to improving our partnerships and our relationships to best support our students in Norwalk because I genuinely believe that we do our best work when we work together.”
Barbis on Oct. 5 emailed fellow Board members to urge them not to attend the annual Norwalk NAACP Freedom Fund banquet because NAACP leadership made what he described as “very serious false allegations and attacks” on the Board and administration.
NancyOnNorwalk obtained the email through a Freedom of Information Act request, after Norwalk Branch NAACP President Brenda Penn-Williams alleged that Barbis had told members not to attend NAACP events.
LeMieux told the more than 30 people in the audience seeking to protest the remarks that she did not skip the event because of Barbis’ request for a boycott, but because she had other obligations and, after one year on the Board, is still learning how to be an elected official, as are others.
“I have realized that part of public service is about connecting our community, and also about making sure that everyone feels represented and heard,” she said. “So, I also want to apologize for not better understanding the amount of work and energy and heart that is needed to help repair relationships between the members of the black community and the Board of Education as an institution.”
LeMieux said that Mayor Harry Rilling had spoken to Penn-Williams and Barbis and they had agreed to talk things out, and Board member Julie Corbett is working on a code of conduct for the Board.
Rilling, in a text message, said he’d spoken to Barbis, who is in California, and Barbis had said he’d think about it. He’d reached out to Penn-Williams, he said.
Penn-Williams said before the meeting that no one had contacted her. Barbis did not reply to an email inquiry.
“Mr. Barbis’ recommendation to encourage others to not attend the 2018 NAACP gala put his personal agenda ahead of the needs of the people of Norwalk, especially the ethnically diverse students that attend our schools each day,” Norwalk Federation of Teachers President Mary Yordon said, in a statement she said was unanimously approved Tuesday at a general membership NFT meeting.
You can read the entire statement here.
NAACP leaders took turns reading portions of a lengthy statement, so that it would be spoken in its entirety despite the three-minute limit for public speakers.
“Essentially, Mr. Barbis recommended a boycott against the NAACP leadership for standing up for everyone who fulfilled the NAACP mission. By nature of its existence, the NAACP is a watchdog and conscience of our community,” Penn-Williams said.
“Lack of transparency and truthfulness by Mr. Barbis is very apparent whenever he chairs a committee,” the Rev. Jeffery Ingraham said, alleging that research was done out of the public eye on a new school for South Norwalk in 2016, and meetings were held without public notice.
“The final recommendations of that plan were disputed and consensus was not achieved by those affected the most,” Ingraham said.
Barbara Sumner Harris listed the African-American administrators who have been demoted or terminated, and said that Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski “systematically eliminated African American administrators and programs.”
Minority Board members were recently “deliberately marginalized due to their difference in perspectives” while at the same time Barbis, Lyons and “other current BOE members denied allegations that they discriminated against or isolated female black and Latino Board members who formerly served NPS,” Jim Clark said, noting evidence revealed by Christy Fensore’s lawsuit against Lyons.
“Given that minority BOE members have been marginalized in the past, why should anyone take seriously this appeal to recruit competent Democrat or Republican minorities to serve on the Board?” Clark asked.
The entire NAACP statement is posted here.
Barbis on Sept. 25 said it wasn’t Board members’ fault that they are serving on an “all-white Board.”
“We urge the Norwalk Democratic and Republican parties to do a better job of finding diverse and competent candidates for the BOE to carry on this work,” a Feb. 12 statement signed by every Board member but Barbara Meyer-Mitchell said.
Barbis did not reply to a Tuesday evening email seeking comment on the NAACP remarks.
He recently made a public apology to Diane Lauricella, without elaborating as to why.
Lauricella told the Board on Tuesday that she’s “researching” that encounter but didn’t want to “take away from the important message” delivered by the NAACP.
The longtime Norwalk activist said she’s done much work with NAACP members. “I found that what comes down to a good old-fashioned shunning email, which was just discovered by some of us recently, is so heartbreaking,” she said. “It’s a form of bullying. Do you know that bullying is not just people that yell at you, another form of bullying is to isolate and shun, to be intolerant.”
People who are interested in running for public office must feel welcomed, without fear of retaliation if they express differing opinions, she said.
Lisa Henderson spoke in support of the Board and the administration, thanking them for their hard work.
“We have come a long way since my children graduated five years ago and we still have a long way to go,” she said. “…It’s time for everyone in this room to continue to work together for all the children in Norwalk. I am not hearing a lot of talk about the children in Norwalk tonight and the strides that they have made in our community.”
“The administration in conjunction with some members of this board … have worked to silence any voice of criticism or differing viewpoints. For example, limiting the parental input for high school start times,” NFT First Vice President Joe Giandurco said.
“In recent days we have seen the desire to silence the voices taken to a whole new level,” Giandurco continued. “Rude and disrespectful behavior continue to be the norm for some members of this elected board. If this is to continue, the positive strides that we have made will be overshadowed by this horrible stain of negative behavior. History will record the legacy of this administration and the BoE as one that has worked to diminish the voices of teachers and the voices of the minority community. Don’t allow this to happen.”
LeMieux and the other four Board members present listened attentively to the barrage of criticism without offering any comment.
The public speaking part of the meeting over, NAACP members and their supporters left the meeting. Many said they needed to come back in two weeks, in hopes that Barbis would be present.
Former NAACP President Darnell Crosland, now current NAACP Third Vice President, conveyed his opinion later to NancyOnNorwalk through an email:
“I’m disheartened that the board and some folks who spoke tonight don’t share the outrage of the black and larger community, instead, they simply exhibit a tone of ‘can’t we all just get along’. You might remember that was the same question Rodney King asked after getting beat almost to death by white police officers in L.A. Today over a decade later, we have Eric Garner and others still suffering abuse. So it’s clearly not enough to ask, ‘can’t we all just get along’. We must, this Board of Education must ask more than ‘can’t we just get along’. This Board must address the issues that we face as a community. The Board of Ed in many communities is the largest budget of all of its local government.
“As such, we must put our money where our mouth is, and while I appreciate tonight’s acting chair telling us that she is just learning how to be a public servant, that’s not enough. I needed to hear her say that the chair’s behavior was unacceptable. I would also like the chair to say to us, ‘hey, I’m not racist, and perhaps I was just in my feelings, and I apologize.’ Then and only then will the question ‘can’t we all just get along’ be honestly answered.”