NORWALK, Conn. — Norwalk School Governance Councils, instituted five years ago as a way to guide individual school development, may be scaled back under the current administration.
“The policy really gives a lot of authority to the School Governance Council that’s not provided for in the law,” Attorney Dori Page Antonetti of Shipman & Goodwin said at Tuesday’s Board of Education Policy Committee meeting.
“On the surface, this appears to be a way to minimize parent involvement in our schools,” said Kelly Turner, one of seven parents who submitted public comment for the meeting, all of them objecting to the proposed changes.
When Norwalk Public Schools moved to have School Governance Councils at every school in 2016, Policy Committee Chairwoman Heidi Keyes said they were “a way of giving autonomy to parents and staff in a clear and unwavering voice as a cohesive decision-making body. There will be shared responsibilities within their own schools.” Then-Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski and then-Board of Education Chairman Mike Lyons said that the policy would likely be tweaked.
Tuesday’s discussion was a first peak for the Board of Education, with Keyes emphasizing that the Committee was “strictly just kind of looking at some of the legal advice,” the statutes and the recommendations Shipman & Goodwin had made.
A Freedom of Information Act complaint had been filed, prompting concerns and a desire to make sure Norwalk’s policy was in alignment with State statute, Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Alexandra Estrella said.
Antonetti explained that some schools have mandated SGCs, while at other schools it’s optional, and the 2016 decision had expanded SGCs to all schools. BoE member Mike Barbis, who is not on the Policy Committee, said the State created the statute under No Child Left Behind, “which is gone now, but there was no provision to end” the SGCs that had been mandated at lesser performing schools.
The State Department of Education has indicated that there’s “no mechanism for them to be disbanded,” Antonetti said.
“Hartford tried to politicize this,” Barbis said, arguing that Norwalk should be able to set up school governing bodies, and “set them up as we see fit.”
It’s his goal to see that the SGCs that aren’t mandated aren’t “politicized” by aligning them with State statutes, he said.
“On the whole, our recommendation is that School Governance Councils be given recommendation (power) and authority to advise and consult instead of to become the decision makers,” Antonetti said.
It’s possible Norwalk could call the mandated bodies, at eight of the 20 schools, SGCs but give them a different title at the other schools, she said. Nevertheless, they should all be governed under the same policy for the sake of consistency.
State Statutes and the State Department of Education view the SGCs role as “one of participation, consultation, advice giving in a wide variety of areas, but not ultimate decisions,” Antonetti said. NPS could change its language to reflect that the SGCs are “not the decision maker in the various types of matters,” but “that it is devoted to helping the school achieve its mission and vision,” to clarify that they “advise or recommend opinions to the school administration regarding various issues.”
Another issue is the way SGCs make decisions. Currently it’s by consensus or a two-thirds majority, but “we’re recommending that it either be by majority vote, or two thirds majority vote,” she said. It can’t be a consensus because a School Governance Council is a public agency and under FOIA, there needs to be a record of a vote.
Term limits were also a topic. The current policy limits members to two terms, but State statute says four, so the recommendation is Norwalk change it to four two-year terms, Antonetti said.
“The premise also by the School Governance Council is to get lots of voices, for parents to be able to be active participants in their schools, and to be advocates for all,” Keyes said. “I just worried with those longer terms, some of other parents that really want to be active and join will have to wait that longer amount of time.”
“The Council can still appoint committees … those types of things in various areas. Because no matter what, you’re limited in your number of how many people can serve on a School Governance Council at one time,” Antonetti said.
The parents who wrote in spoke of a sense of being sandbagged.
“We were unaware of this meeting until just a couple of days prior,” Jason Penta said. “At no point was this communicated to the SGC or were we invited to be part of the discussion. The lack of collaboration and transparency is extremely disappointing.”
Another parent spoke of “doing (this) quietly in the background and breeding mistrust between the community and the district.”
“What is outlined in the proposed changes seeks to allow the termination of any SGC that is not legally mandated. Why would we cut parents and teachers out? The principals should have decision making authority. However, an important function of that role is communicating with parents and the community,” Jennifer Fritz Romano of the Nathan Hale Middle School SGC said.
“Time and time again, parents have stated that they feel unheard and left out of the process and SGCs helped with this. I feel the Board is in error to change any of the current wording because overall this system is working,” Nicol Ayers said.
Board members thanked the parents for their feedback.
“This is just something that we need to do as a policy, to review everything to make sure that we’re within statutes. It’s not something that we’re just deciding on our own. And that’s why we have a legal expert here to help us with those changes,” Diana Carpio said. “… It’s not that we’re not being transparent. It’s just a beginning of a conversation and changes that we need to do. And hopefully moving forward. You know, everyone will understand why we had to do this. And that’s true of any policy. We had policies that are really haven’t been changed since 1995. So it’s part of the process of just updating everything.”
Story edited, 2:14 p.m.