The New Haven Board of Education moved one step closer to a major structural reform last night, as the Joint Aldermanic Affairs/Education Committee voted on ordinances about the selection of elected members and student representatives on the Board of Ed.
The Board of Ed is currently composed of seven mayoral appointees and Mayor Toni Harp herself. But under the reforms, approved by voters in November 2013 as an amendment to the Town Charter, the Board will consist of five mayoral appointees, two elected members and two non-voting student representatives from New Haven Public Schools. City law dictates that the Board of Alders specify the details of this structural revision by Jan. 1 of next year.
The ordinance that passed unanimously last night said that students seeking to run for the position will face no requirements regarding grade point average or school attendance record. The selection process for the two student representatives has proved contentious in recent weeks. While some alders believe that the representatives should face no requirements, others think that the city should enforce a grade point average qualification.
Ward 18 Alder Salvatore DeCola has been vocal on the issue of student representatives, coming out strongly against the imposition of grade qualifications. DeCola questioned the notion that the city should restrict the pool of candidates eligible to run.
“It’s the voter who decides, not we, the government, who should make the decision,” he said.
He added that grade requirements might disqualify students who have trouble in school but are good candidates nonetheless.
Ward 10 Alder Anna Festa expressed similar sentiments.
“Do we, at this point, have any requirements for presidential candidates besides their age?” she asked in an interview after the meeting.
DeCola and Festa both said that students should be left to decide amongst themselves who best represents them — all high school students who attend New Haven Public Schools are eligible to vote.
“It’s the voter that decides,” DeCola said. “I win by showing I’m able to do the job.”
Students have so far sided with DeCola, according to Susan Weisselberg, the chief of wraparound services for New Haven Public Schools. During a meeting of the City-Wide High School Student Cabinet with Superintendent Garth Harries ’95 last week, the students voted that a GPA requirement should not exist.
Festa, DeCola and Weisselberg all expressed hope that including student representatives on the board will increase student involvement.
“We talk about student engagement as being at the core of our agenda,” Weisselberg said, adding that the student representatives will be a valuable component of the Board of Education’s collaborative, discussion-based decision-making process.
Festa also said that the student representatives would ensure that the entire student body’s voices are heard. She said the ideal representative would be capable of representing all students and be able to influence the voting members on the Board.
The remainder of last night’s meeting focused on how the city will elect the two new voting members to the Board. For electoral purposes, the city will be broken into two districts, each consisting of 15 wards. The alders discussed how to divide the city optimally while considering demographics.
Some alders expressed concern that dividing the city into northern and southern districts, as the ordinance proposed, unfairly breaks up otherwise unified neighborhoods. Ward 27 Alder Richard Furlow said he feared that the suggested electoral map fractures Westville, with Wards 24 and 25 placed in District 1 and Ward 27 placed in District 2.
Ward 16 Alder Michelle Perez echoed Furlow’s concerns. She opposed the decision to move Ward 16 into District 2, saying that it makes little sense to separate central Fair Haven from its eastern and western counterparts.
Though Perez was not alone in disagreeing with the district divisions, she was the only one to ultimately vote against the districting ordinance.
The representatives from Districts 1 and 2 will serve four-year staggered terms, so that one representative is elected every two years. Both will have elections in 2015: one for a two-year term and one for a four-year term. Ward 13 Alder Rosa Santana flipped a coin to decide that District 2 will have the first four-year term.
With nearly 20,000 students, New Haven has one of the largest public school systems in the state of Connecticut.