Updated, 2:30 a.m. Tuesday: Brenda Penn-Williams said she is not expecting a huge crowd Tuesday.
NORWALK, Conn. — Get ready for a repeat of the Nov. 19 Norwalk Board of Education meeting.
“We’re going to keep it up” until BoE member Mike Barbis resigns, Norwalk Branch NAACP President Brenda Penn-Williams said on Dec. 2, although Barbis is refusing and she acknowledged that he’s unlikely to go.
With only three NAACP members at the Dec. 2 BoE meeting, it appeared to one observer that the outrage against Barbis had fizzled. But Penn-Williams had predicted that the protest would take a lull as NAACP members had a protest to attend in Stamford that evening. They’d be back in force for Dec. 17, she said two weeks ago.
On Friday, Penn-Williams circulated an email encouraging people to come but on Monday, she explained that she doesn’t want to take folks out of their cities this close to Christmas. Weather depending, she’ll seek a big crowd in January or February, she said. ]
The calls to oust Barbis are inspired by his profanity-laced June 5 email, ending with the phrase “Blacks f— Latinos,” sent to Penn-Williams three days before the election. Calls for Barbis to resign from the Board of Education quickly ensued and escalated into the unruliest BoE meeting in years. It began with out-of-town youth circling the City Hall community room and chanting as new Board members were sworn in; that was followed by more than two hours of public speakers, most of them condemning Barbis. Some people present thought it might become violent. While that didn’t happen, Norwalk Police did enter the room to deal with a citizen who refused to give up the microphone.
The speaker, Donna Smirniotopoulos, began by asking protestors to get their boos out of the way, leading then-Board Chairman Bruce Kimmel to agree with those jeering her that she had started it. After four minutes, Kimmel told her she’d exceeded her time only to have her repeatedly assert that she had prepared remarks for three minutes.
Kimmel kept most speakers to three minutes. Bruce Morris was allowed to speak for nearly four. Scot Esdaile got six. John Mosby, who routinely presents a problem for elected or appointed officials as he refuses to adhere to a time limit, spoke for seven minutes, only getting up to leave under prodding by Ernie Dumas and Bruce Morris. Lisa Henderson spoke for seven minutes, first reading a letter from former Board member Sue Haynie, then speaking for herself.
She was booed a few times but did not inspire the level of vitriol encountered by Smirniotopoulos.
That became the only meeting presided over by Kimmel, who cited health reasons when he resigned from the Board six days later. The Board has elected Sarah LeMieux as temporary Chairwoman, until March 3. She immediately sought to calm the public by assuring them that Norwalk Public Schools is doing fine, in spite of the Board meeting turmoil.
“We are a mechanism for setting policy and providing oversight,” she said. “I don’t want to diminish the work that we do. But fundamentally, we’re a backstop and the real work of Norwalk Public Schools is done by our wonderful teachers and our peer educators in the classroom, our personnel, our administrators and our schools and our staff and our leaders in Central Office, and all that work is supported by volunteers and our PTAs, PTOs, School Governance Councils and all of that work has been humming along undisturbed. Children are learning to read and make music and do algebra and world history and they’re excelling and they’re doing great.”
Penn-Williams on Dec. 2 said she might have more people at Tuesday’s meeting. She’d been getting phone calls from community members who weren’t there, were pleased by what happened, and planned to go to the next meeting. “They are very happy that we as minorities are finally getting together on the injustice that is going on.”