Deniz Saip

When voters approved a set of revisions to the New Haven City Charter in November 2013, they thought it would lead to a Board of Education with the standard seven voting members beginning this year. Instead, it resulted in eight.

The accidental increase comes as result of a counting blunder in which the city failed to account fully for the addition of two elected members to the board. As a result, the board currently contains one more appointed member than allowed for by the city charter. Because none of the five appointed board members’ terms end until the end of 2016, the board voted in on Dec. 14 to allow an eight-member body — consisting of two elected members, five appointed members and Mayor Toni Harp — to sit throughout 2016.

But the Board of Alders had other ideas. Claiming that an eight-person board was illegal under the revised charter, the alders voted on Dec. 21 to end appointed member Daisy Gonzalez’s term on Dec. 31, 2015, three years before her term was due to expire. The board targeted Gonzalez because she was the most recent member confirmed by the Board of Alders. The eight-member board is intended to last until the end of 2016, when Harp will appoint only one new member to replace two members whose terms are due to expire. But due to a disagreement with the Board of Alders, the decision to allow an eight-member board might not last. While the BOE claims that it has the final say in deciding the number of sitting members, the alders maintain that their body retains the power to remove members from the BOE.

Former West Hills Alder Darnell Goldson, one of the two newly elected BOE members, said Harp could either ignore the alders’ ordinance, thereby allowing it to become law, or veto the decision. When Harp attempted to veto the ordinance on Jan. 12, Edward Joyner — the second elected BOE member who took office on Jan. 1 — said Harp’s submission of a scanned signature to the City Clerk’s Office came two days late. As a result, the alders’ ordinance was upheld.

“We are a nation of rules, and we have to follow our rules,” Goldson said. “The people have spoken by passing a charter allowing for seven members, not eight.”

In defiance of the alders’ vote, Gonzalez — whom former Mayor John DeStefano Jr. charged with representing city parents — attended the BOE meeting earlier this month and has vowed not to leave her seat until her term ends. Both the BOE and Board of Alders have hired lawyers in anticipation of legal action.

According to city spokesman Laurence Grotheer, Harp has sided with the BOE.

“It is the mayor’s strong sense, based on legal opinions that she has received, that the Board of Alders has no standing in this matter,” Grotheer said. “[The Board of Education] is empowered by the state government, and so … the Board of Education has acted to adjust its membership for the duration of this temporary anomaly.”

Grotheer said that any legal action would likely come from the alders rather than the city administration.

Upper Westville Alder Richard Furlow — who said the alders have been instructed to “keep quiet” given the tensions surrounding the controversy — was the sole alder to attend a meeting of the Citywide Parent Team last week at Wilbur Cross High School. He said parents are seeking a negotiated solution.

“What was said in that meeting was that parents are looking for both parties to look towards a mediator rather than going to court,” Furlow said.

The Citywide Parent Team submitted a letter to the BOE and Board of Alders arguing that Gonzalez not be removed from her appointment, and that families whose children attend public schools should be given an opportunity to voice their opinions on the controversy. The letter also called on both parties to avoid a “costly and lengthy lawsuit” that might disrupt the normal functioning of the board.

Though Harp has stood by the eight-member board, Goldson — who wrote an opinion piece in the New Haven Independent arguing in favor of the seven-member board last November — said the matter will be rectified in court. He said he thinks litigation will compel the BOE to adhere to the city charter, which calls for a seven-member board.

Alicia Caraballo, one of five appointed BOE members and a former New Haven Public Schools administrator, said while the future of the BOE is uncertain, she hopes the city will resolve the issue quickly. She added that BOE business will proceed as usual in the meantime.

Harp was re-elected BOE president in a 5–3 vote on Jan. 11. On the same night, the board tied 4–4 on the vote for vice president, leaving the position temporarily vacant.