Opinion: No substitute for competence

Bruce Kimmel

Bruce Kimmel, a Democrat, is an at-large member Common Council member and former Board of Education member. He is seeking a Democratic Town Committee endorsement as a BoE candidate.

With another municipal election on the horizon, Norwalk’s political parties are in the midst of the challenging process of selecting candidates for Mayor, the Common Council and the Board of Education. Would-be candidates are busy rounding up support, party leaders are trying to devise slates that are not only electable, but are comprised of residents who have a level of competence commensurate with the requirements of whatever office they are seeking.

(Full disclosure: I am a Democratic candidate for an at large seat on the BOE. Whether I have the qualities discussed below is a question for members of the Norwalk Democratic Party to answer at our nominating convention on July 20.)

I recently found myself in a discussion about the competence of candidates for the BOE, but with an interesting twist: Should individuals be deemed competent simply because they have a track record of negativity and little else, such as an expressed desire to get rid of the Superintendent or opposition to the construction of new schools? Or should individuals be nominated because they have the potential to make all types of difficult decisions that have an impact on residents, especially the children in our schools?

Towns and cities live and die by the decisions of their elected officials. Nominating and then electing folks whose claim to fame is the ability to constantly say no, to resist every kind of progressive change, to repeatedly gum up the works, can destroy a city. Anything can happen in an election; thus, both the local Democratic and Republican parties need to come up with candidates ready and able to serve all residents.

The level of competence of our elected bodies has long been a topic of discussion. While we’ve come a long way in recent years, as we move deeper into this election season it’s important to note that the people we elect to the BOE will have to craft and implement operating and capital budgets that, combined, approach a quarter billion dollars every year; budgets that have a direct effect on the quality of what goes on in our classrooms, whether those classrooms are equipped with state of the art equipment, and whether our students learn in comfortable, modern facilities.

Another aspect of competence with respect to serving on the BOE is the ability to work constructively with parents, the Superintendent of Schools and other members of the Board, whether they are Democrats or Republicans. But that’s only the beginning. Education issues often transcend the BOE; they are also addressed by the Common Council, Board of Estimate and Taxation, and the Mayor, who has an ex officio seat on the BOE. It is of paramount importance to ensure that BOE members are willing to put political turf aside and work constructively with everyone with a stake in our school system.

Nominating folks for the BOE simply because they are incumbents, or because they have been active members of a party organization for years, or merely (and unfortunately) as an effort to maintain temporary party peace during an election, is not a good idea, and does a severe disservice to the families with children in our schools. Nominating individuals with a history of nasty provocations or controversial accusations – for any type of elected or appointed body – is an insult to every resident in the city.

Schools are special places. And school boards are special organizations: they must reflect the values and behaviors we expect in our schools. Thus, both of the city’s major political parties need to ensure that those nominated as candidates for the BOE have the knowledge, the demeanor, and the interpersonal skills that would command the respect of both our youngest and oldest students.

Unfortunately, in recent years there have been members of the BOE, as well as the Common Council, who would definitely not command the respect of our students and the majority of residents in the city. Fortunately, both political parties have addressed these problems, but the job is not yet done. We need candidates who will raise the level of discourse on our elected bodies; candidates who will remain civil even when they lose critical votes; candidates who will continue the transformation of our city, especially our school system, until we are second to none in the state.

Our residents, especially families with children in our schools, deserve to have the very best candidates running for our BOE. Nothing else counts, nothing else is more important.


5 responses to “Opinion: No substitute for competence”

  1. Josh Ornstein

    This seems to me to be a thinly veiled racist attack and doesn’t deserve to be posted. Shame. Mr. Kimmel’s opposition to people of color representing their community is well documented.

  2. Patrick Cooper

    @Bruce Kimmel, I also detect your struggle to deliver the precise message, the essence of the challenge, but tippy-toeing around all our local political claymores (more on that term) is probably wise, especially given your desire to remain active.

    Agreed – competence is the primary criterion. But equally vital are the personal character traits, the ability to listen, the ability to cooperate and compromise, the real need for civility in the face of increasingly aggressive and abrasive rhetoric.

    This is about the ballot. And the Norwalk “general-public” isn’t involved, nor typically engaged. We – the politically aware but not politically active tax payers – blindly accept that the process of choosing who we get to vote for is done properly. What I think I hear – which is only news to the unengaged, is Mr. Kimmel’s concern that the critical decisions about the very slate of individuals is about political gang affiliation than those aforementioned competencies & qualities. Do you doubt him? Who has a better view inside the process?

    This also seems tied to the absurd comment by Brenda Penn-Williams that the BOE chair position is political. Dis-B Dems vote dem, regardless, otherwise your branded a traitor. In this magical place, the only distinction that matters is your party loyalty. At the local level. When it comes to schools. I can only envision a future Norwalk under Penn-Williams, where the schools are defined not by district but by political party – and students attend accordingly. Start each morning not with a pledge of allegiance, but an oath of alliance. Taking that to the extreme, Norwalk Hospital no longer lists sex, rather now at birth the child must be labeled an R or D.

    As for your comment @Josh – what on earth are you talking about? Bruce may not say it here, but let me be very clear on MY position: there is no scenario I could possible imagine that would lead me to vote for Shirley Mosby or Bruce Morris for ANY position in our local government. It’s about their selfish, self-serving actions, period. That makes me a realist, not a racist. Using your phrase – “people of color” – there are many capable individuals with the competencies and characteristics that would make excellent public officials. But I believe Bruce is speaking to the problem of Party Leaders being pressured to select the most fervent loyalists, the Penn-Williams Rorschach test on one-side, the Trumpeters on the other. Giving in to those pressures is a Grasso paved road to ruin.

  3. Susan Wallerstein

    Baseline standard for me is that elected officials show up for meetings they agreed to attend when they ran for office and that they have read the advance materials about items on the agenda. Beyond that I expect people I vote for to ask good questions (showing they’ve done their homework) and speak, tweet, email or post with civility and respect.

  4. Mike Barbis

    Thanks to everyone for their thoughts.
    The Board of Education has made huge strides in recent years — there is no Democratic or Republican way to run a school system, no black or white way to run a school system … the majority of the current Board of Ed has made this very clear.
    Board members are elected to do their homework and make decisions that are best for our students, our stakeholders including property owners and taxpayers. As part of these decisions, we vote on all key matters including on the Strategic Operating Plan. These decisions are not always easy — elected members of the BOE have to take stands and these are not necessarily popular with everyone. Taking those positions is at times difficult but they are critical.
    In order for all of this to take place, board members need to do their homework, engage with stakeholders and be prepared.
    As candidates are chosen and votes are made, all of this needs to be taken into consideration.

  5. Dawn

    Black,white, purple or green. All I want are people give a damn about the schools and my kids. And people who actually do the work and get it right.

    It is a thankless job. And I thank those willing to do it.

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