By Lisa Thomson
Co-founder REd APPLES of Norwalk
NORWALK, Conn. – “Washington may be broken, but Norwalk doesn’t have to be. There’s no Democratic or Republican way to run the Board of Education. It’s about driving achievement for ALL students with the most productive use of our taxpayer dollars.”
Those three sentences on meet-and-greet flyers and advocacy campaign posters caused a stir in traditional party circles, as a grassroots, bi-partisan organization supported two Republicans and two Democrats for the Board of Education (BOE) this year. All four candidates were advocates for students, but only two of the four, Democrats Heidi Keyes and newcomer Sherelle Harris (who edged out fellow advocate and incumbent, Republican Sue Haynie), garnered spots in an election that saw a record ten individuals, from three parties, vying for four at-large seats.
On the other side of the aisle, the impact of endorsements from union leaders for third party Norwalk Community Values candidates Steve Colarossi and Andres Roman, Democrat Shirley Mosby and Republican Artie Kassimis also demonstrated that party affiliation isn’t what it used to be. Two of their candidates also won: a Democratic former BOE member and daughter of a retired custodial union president and the other, a Republican who, by all accounts, seems more aligned with far left BOE Dems than members of his own party.
Another aspect of this election was the “winning blank.” The BOE ballot had 9,923 of them! There was also a large voting gap between those who voted for mayor and those who skipped the BOE candidates altogether. Records indicate that 16,520 residents cast a vote for either Moccia or Rilling. Yet the highest number of votes cast for an at-large BOE candidate was only 7,517. Out of all of those who voted for mayor, 9,003 skipped the BOE ballot altogether! Sadder still, is that out of 52,000 registered voters only 32 percent voted in this election!
As the saying goes, voters get the government they deserve.
I don’t understand why so many voters who actually took the time to show up at the polls passed on voting for those responsible for overseeing nearly 60 percent of the city budget and ultimately the value of their homes and neighborhoods? Could it be as simple as forgetting to turn the ballot over?
Increasingly, the BOE elections are becoming less about Republican versus Democratic slates, as evidenced by the creative clusters of lawn signs in the neighborhoods. New political battle lines are being drawn between those candidates who are perceived as more favorable toward employees versus those candidates advocating for students and taxpayers. How BOE members will vote on critical topics such as curriculum, employee contracts and the use of new technology is what’s at stake. This year’s campaign revealed how political party leaders are losing control of what’s really going on in education, as both union leaders and grassroots residents, like this author, have their own ideas about the candidates and have not been shy about backing candidates in both political parties.
This year’s BOE election was a draw, despite power shifting from the Republicans to the Democrats, 6-3. Norwalk still finds itself caught in the national trend of a political stalemate when it comes to reform. Will this BOE deliver a narrow 5-4 vote to support nationally recognized Superintendent Rivera in implementing his Strategic Plan for Norwalk’s schools? Will those BOE members aligned with the status quo attempt to run another superintendent out of town?
Enter new mayor-elect Harry Rilling. Harry campaigned on the concept that ‘Norwalk can do better.’ What role will the new mayor play with regard to balancing public education funding, governance and student achievement – the Achilles heel for many cities, including Norwalk? Was the voting gap for mayor versus the BOE due to a confusing ballot or something else? Do Norwalk residents want their mayor to have more authority in education matters? Having made support for the new superintendent a corner stone of his campaign, the mayor-elect will have his work cut out for him, as he navigates a divided board; with the divisions NOT conveniently based on party lines. How will the new mayor help the new superintendent move the school district and city forward?
In closing, Norwalk’s charter revision was a constant topic in the candidate forums and debates. Most comments focused on longer terms for both the mayor and common council. More time governing, less time campaigning and term limits to avoid the cronyism complaint that plagues both political parties and our educational establishment. However, no mention was ever made about a growing trend in the U.S. – increasing the mayor’s role in reconciling local education and city governance issues. Given the apathetic trends in voter turn-out, perhaps the highest elected post, with the highest voter participation, SHOULD have a more visible role in what has become the largest and most important investment of our city.