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Norwalk ‘party bosses’ trying to dictate who will be BOE chairman, member says

Republican Norwalk Board of Education member Steven Colarossi, at a May BOE meeting.

 

By Nancy Guenther Chapman

NORWALK, Conn. – A behind-the-scenes battle affecting the future of Norwalk’s children will culminate Tuesday evening at a key Board of Education meeting.

The vote for the next BoE chairman, a “normally unanimous decision … now subjected to intense political maneuverings,” according to BoE member Steven Colarossi, is the first item on the agenda at the meeting.

Colarossi says Republican “party bosses” are pushing to keep Jack Chiaramonte as board chairman for the third year in a row. Colarossi, also a Republican, is pushing for fellow GOPer Artie Kassimis to lead the Republican-dominated board for the next year, but others expect Republican Mike Lyons to get the position.

“The public needs to know who is really picking their board chairman,” Colarossi said. “Is it the board members who the public elected to make that choice, among others? Or is it non-elected political leaders who feel they can exert some influence?”

Colarossi would not say which party leader he is referring to. “Let the public decide who it is,” he said.

Observers who are close to the situation give Colarossi’s claim some validity.

“We need a BOE chair who can respectfully work with the community, staff, and parents,” said West Rocks Middle School Principal Lynne Moore in an email. “We need someone who will listen and not use the position as a bully pulpit.

“The new technology is bringing consensus and (people should) not (be) strong-armed into supporting a candidate when you know the person is not the most appropriate one to do the job; this is not the 1920’s when party bosses ruled,” Moore said.

Neither Chiaramonte nor Republican Town Committee Chairman Art Scialabba responded to a request for comment.

“I don’t like that party bosses put all kind of untoward pressure on people,” said Colarossi, who added he had expected to be the next chairman.

Colarossi said that, a year ago, he was promised the post this year in exchange for supporting a second straight one-year term for Chiaramonte because, “Jack felt that he could make a lot of progress on Norwalk teachers’ contract.”

Traditionally, the chairman’s post changes each year, according to another board member who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

In October, board members received an email from a party leader instructing them to keep Chiaramonte chairman, Colarossi said. “Then I start to hear more rumblings that, under no circumstances, would these party back-room folks want me as chairman. … I think, in any organization, having one leader for three years is not a good thing,” he said.

Colarossi says he can be thought of as divisive, but thinks Kassimis is a great compromise candidate and would do a “spectacular job.” He jokingly cites his friendship with Kassimis as proof, as the pair frequently disagree about board issues but have not grown apart.

“The fact that he has the patience to still be my friend after a year of torturing on the Board of Ed is a testament to the man’s patience,” he said. “He has shown the ability to work with everyone on the board.”

Lisa Brinton Thomson, a founder of the non-partisan education group Red Apples, is skeptical of Colarossi’s statements. “I supported both Artie and Steve when they ran as ‘Parent’s Not Politicians,’ she said in an email. “Steve won, Artie didn’t. I think Artie ran (for state senator) and lost against Bob Duff. Isn’t it kind of disingenuous of Steve to be talking about un-elected party officials since Artie ‘lost twice’ and is only on the BoE due to party appointment?”

Kassimis was appointed to the board in May 2011 as a replacement for Erin Halsey, who resigned. Halsey later was named city clerk.

Board member Sue Haynie, also a Republican, said the vote for a new chairman isn’t a partisan issue.

“Make no mistake, this vote is not about Republican or Democrat, this vote is about reform or status quo,” she said in an email. “(Tuesday) there will be some board members who will vote for Artie, both Democrat and Republican; there will be some board members who vote for Mike Lyons, both Democrat and Republican. This is NOT about politics, this is a philosophical divide. The vote tomorrow will reflect that divide.”

She’s not supporting Chiaramonte or Kassimis. “I will be voting for Mike Lyons. He is, without a doubt, the best person for the job,” she said.

Colarossi said his experiences over the past year make him “very skeptical” about letting Republican bosses decide things.

“On the one hand I’m told ‘you need to unify behind the party,’” he said. “On the other hand I’m looking at Art Scialabba attacking me in the paper for daring to propose an alternative budget, which I felt was part of my job as finance committee chairman … then Corporation Counsel (Bob Maslan) came up with a completely concocted phoney-baloney allegation — it would be a conflict if I voted on the budget because my wife is a preschool teacher. My wife is unaffected by the budget.

“Seeing that level of not-quite-above-board play makes me very skeptical of allowing unelected party officials dictate,” Colarossi said. “At a minimum, sit us down in a room and let us debate it. Issuing edicts is wrong.”

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Comments

3 responses to “Norwalk ‘party bosses’ trying to dictate who will be BOE chairman, member says”

  1. LWitherspoon

    Party bosses have always been a part of the political landscape, they’re great when the Party is doing something you like and they’re outdated, corrupt relics when they’re doing something you don’t like. Obviously Principal Moore doesn’t like the fact that BoE Chairman Chiaramonte dared to tell her to call in students from recess because it was raining, after he received complaints from parents.

    My question is which of the candidates is most committed to getting costs under control. Each year the BoE receives more money than the prior year from the City of Norwalk, and in spite of that they STILL have had to make painful cuts because nobody has succeeded in getting costs under control.

  2. oldtimer

    “My question is which of the candidates is most committed to getting costs under control.” ?
    Some of us believe the quality of education is the most important question. Limiting the cost of anything we pay for is a concern for all of us, but making it the primary consideration can have a terrible effect on the quality of education the system delivers, just as buying anything based on price alone is never a good idea. A lot of people wonder how Chiaramonte convinced anybody he would be a good choice for BOE, much less chairman. Is a pledge to support anything the mayor wants part of the process ?.
    Chairing the BOE requires good listening skills, and not just to party bosses. It would be good to see another, better qualified, chair selected, but I am not betting on it. The mayor’s thirst for power and control is insatiable.

    1. LWitherspoon

      Everyone wants good public schools, but abandoning cost controls as you seem to advocate would put Norwalk on a path where taxes are so high that nobody with the list bit of choice will choose to live here. Teachers Unions would have us believe that any refusal to increase education spending (i.e. their salaries) every year is tantamount to not caring about education. They have perpetuated this ideology so effectively that Norwalk teachers are among the best paid in the state, according to the Norwalk Teachers Union president himself.

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