NORWALK, Conn. — Norwalk Democrats have selected a retired teacher to fill out the Board of Education term left open by Mike Barbis’ sudden death in September. Mary Ellen Flaherty-Ludwig was unanimously chosen Monday over Jody Sattler, the choice preferred by an unusual upwelling of citizens, to represent District E through November 2023.
A petition posted last week in support of Sattler drew 453 signatures. Some attempted to vote for Sattler at last week’s Democratic District E Committee meeting but found that under Democratic Town Committee rules, district residents do not get voting rights until they attend three District E Committee meetings.
“I can’t explain how incredibly frustrating this meeting was for many of us who were registered democrats in District E who wanted to vote for who we thought would be best to represent our children on the BOE,” Alyson Wetter Smith said in a Facebook post.
The Republican Town Committee operates under similar rules.
No one nominated Sattler at Monday’s Democratic Town Committee meeting. Flaherty-Ludwig found enthusiastic support.
“She is an individual who has been all through all three portions of education,” Kevin Tepas said. “She has been taught, having Baccalaureates in more than one discipline and a master’s degree in education. She has taught for I don’t want to say anything that would be ungentlemanly, but almost a half a century. And when she did retire, she taught other teachers how to teach, she mentored other teachers. I don’t know how you could get a more fitting candidate for the Board of Education.”
Flaherty-Ludwig, in a letter to DTC members, said she worked 44 years in public education in middle school, high school and at the university level. The mentoring she did after retiring as a math/science teacher was for four years in a Manhattan public school, where she “guided them in implementing the K-8 national science standards (NGSS) focusing on teaching engineering practices.”
“My intent is to bring my experience as a teacher and teacher mentor to the Norwalk Board of Education,” she wrote. “Norwalk in my hometown. I was born at the Norwalk Hospital and I attended primary and secondary schools here. I had my first middle school assignment at Ponus Ridge Middle School with Dr. Larry Cafero, the principal. Not the Larry Cafero you know, but his father. I love the Norwalk coastline where I row most mornings, its closeness to NYC where my daughters live, and especially I love its people.”
Nora Niedzielski-Eichner, speaking to the DTC Monday as a surrogate for District E member Esther Murillo, seconded the nomination of Flaherty-Ludwig.
“Mary Ellen is a tremendous advocate for teachers, for families, and most importantly for children,” Niedzielski-Eichner said. “She speaks with tremendous passion about teaching, about the literally decades she spent in the classroom and the lives that she was able to change, the ways that she engaged with her students and the futures that she saw for them.”
Board of Education Chairman Colin Hosten spoke in his role as a DTC member who lives in District E. It’s hard to find someone more qualified than Flaherty-Ludwig and her perspective as a “very seasoned educator” will be “really additive to our discussions on the Board,” he said.
Flaherty-Ludwig said she’s “very eager” to help Norwalk’s school children, “especially, I’m going to focus on the children who attend school in my district in District E, from Ponus Ridge to Fox Run to Brookside, Brien McMahon, Roton Middle School, and Rowayton Elementary.”
‘Barbis would pick Sattler’
Sattler ran for the Board of Education this fall on the Independents for Norwalk line. In her pre-election materials, she said she was a Norwalk resident since 2001 and a 15-year public school advocate who helped develop robust before-school and after-school enrichment programs at Rowayton and Roton Elementary. She holds a B.S. in education from the University of Nebraska, and a master gardener degree from University of Connecticut.
The petition posted three weeks ago states, “Jody received the 5th most votes among all candidates at 4,212 votes and she is the People’s Choice for the 5th open seat in Norwalk.”
That contest was for At Large seats; this one was for an in-district seat. The fourth-place Democratic candidate in the fall election was Janine Randolph, who got 7,024 votes in her successful bid to become an at large BoE member.
“Jody has years of experience in the corporate world (Client Rep and Global Sales Operations Manager at IBM), leading and participating in local volunteer and community organizations, and most importantly, as an involved parent within the Norwalk Public Schools system for 13 years and counting,” the petition posted by Aimee Ableman states. “…She has spent countless volunteer hours in the schools and has been a valued member of several district-wide initiatives including Middle School Redesign, Enrichment and School Governance Councils at every school level.”
“If Mike Barbis had to pick a replacement, it would be Jody!!” one signer said.
“Jody Sattler earned all 4,212 from voters in Fox Run, Brookside and Rowayton,” another erroneously stated.
Sattler added information to the petition Wednesday, writing, “I have been told by the voting members of the DTC that I am not an option because I ran with the Independent Party.” Flaherty-Ludwig “taught at Darien Public Schools for many years,” she said, and, “You can do the math to figure out that she does not have any kids currently in the schools and has not for awhile.”
She urged signers to attend the Democratic District E Committee meeting that evening.
“If they appoint, Mary Ellen, there will no BOE members whose kids attend or attended a school in District E schools (BMHS, Roton, Ponus, Jefferson, Fox Run, Kendall, Brookside, Rowayton),” Sattler wrote. “All of the other board members have (or had) kids on the Norwalk High side or they don’t have kids in the schools.”
Wetter Smith’s account of the Democratic Committee meeting states that Mayor Harry Rilling and his wife, Lucia Rilling, and Hosten were among the 11 people present who could cast a vote. She called Flaherty-Ludwig “a retired school teacher from another district without any children in NPS,” who was recommended for the seat by “a group of predominantly retired Democrats from Norwalk who also do not have any children in NPS, joining a BOE with few children in NPS.”
- District E is comprised of the Brookside, West Norwalk, Harbor Shores, Harbor View, Rowayton, and Village Creek areas of Norwalk.
- Flaherty-Ludwig is a District E resident, who lives in Brookside. Sattler is a District E resident who lives in Rowayton.
- Barbis lived in Rowayton. The District E Board of Education seat has reportedly been held by a Rowayton resident for 26 years.
- Sattler’s support in Rowayton shows in November’s vote count: she handily won in District E2, which is predominantly Rowayton. She came in fifth in Districts E1 and E3, well behind Randolph.
Wetter Smith’s post on the Norwalk Parents for Education page drew robust conversation.
“This is a colossal disappointment. Jody Sattler deserved this opportunity. The fact that the BOE is tied to political parties is the root of the problem,” one person wrote.
Lisa Brinton said Barbis is “rolling over in his grave.”
“The only Dems allowed to run in Norwalk are those that take loyalty oaths to the mayor and party. The city & kids come second,” she wrote.
“Could you imagine if when voting for the president of the US you had to show up for 3 meetings of your local democratic/republican chapter? How many people would be eligible to vote then?” another person said.
“The meeting was anything but democratic-the ancient by laws allowed for this total abuse of power,” another said.
“I am very sad to see the use of the words fraud or corruption, as these are the rules and have been for ages,” a Democrat replied to the thread.
NancyOnNorwalk has regularly written about Democratic committee votes and rules. They’ve also been advertised on the parents Facebook page.
“This just shows how important it is for us to attend our district meetings. Parents should be making decisions about their children’s education,” came another comment.
“I could not agree more with your invitation for people to join their district meetings,” came a reply. “Unfortunately people tend to complain when their voices are not heard, but they’re not willing to put in the time to become part of the system that represents them. I spent all last year attending meetings from my district in order to be able to have a vote. Yes, it’s time consuming, yes you have to invest on it But that is the way to have a voice and have a Vote.”
Dems say they welcome newcomers; Sattler says she’ll run again
By City Charter, the Democratic Town Committee votes on replacement Board of Education or Common Council members. In more than a decade, NancyOnNorwalk has not seen non-DTC members take an interest in such an appointment. Monday’s DTC meeting on Zoom was attended by at least 86 people; the DTC has 55 members.
“We’re delighted that people are taking a passionate interest in local politics,” Hosten said. “And I want to stress that, despite what people have been saying, I think it’s so important for us not to politicize the Board of Ed in particular.”
DTC Chairwoman Eloisa Melendez mentioned that new DTC members will be voted on in January.
After the meeting, Democratic District E Chairwoman Galen Wells told NancyOnNorwalk that Democrats would be delighted if more folks came to District E meetings. There aren’t actually many votes, she said, calling the main benefit the ability to question Rilling, Board of Education members or Common Council members about what’s going on in the City.
She pointed out that Sattler ran against Democrats this year.
“We met with her in 2020 and had a nice conversation,” but then “we never heard another peep” until Sattler appeared on Brinton’s Independents for Norwalk line, Wells said, suggesting that perhaps Sattler could seek an endorsement for an open seat in the 2023 election.
Asked about that Sattler issued the following statement:
“This year, I poured my heart and soul into the candidacy for the Board of Education position. With the help of my constituents and outpouring of support from my community and friends throughout the city of Norwalk, I campaigned over the fall season. A huge supporter and dear friend was Mike Barbis, who also held a Seat on the Board of Ed and sadly passed away in September, leaving the District E seat open. I came in fifth in the election and won 1478 votes in District E. While it’s unfortunate that I have not been chosen for the now empty seat – which seems the most fair and ethical choice, I will happily and whole heartedly run again in two years. I care deeply about the Board of Education as I have three children in the school system and there is much work to be done for the future of our schools. Being a parent of students who are currently attending Brien McMahon High School, the District E High School, helps me to empathize and provide guidance to parents who have questions and concerns about the daily activities at school. If I am given the opportunity to become a member of the Board of Education, I will dutifully represent the students, staff and parents.”
Editor’s note: The comment made by Diane Keefe at the end of this video refers to former Democratic Town Committee member Nora King calling a DTC member a “liar.”