Isabel Bysiewicz

New Haven’s Board of Education voted to make Carol Birks its next superintendent at a meeting on Monday night that mirrored the drama of the city’s yearlong search.

Four of the seven voting board members — Mayor Toni Harp, Darnell Goldson, Jamell Cotto and Frank Redente — voted to hire Birks as New Haven Public Schools’ first female superintendent. The Nov. 20 vote followed a two-hour meeting, in which roughly two dozen parents, students and community members spent hours criticizing Birks as an advocate for testing data and charter schools.

“Tonight this was a turning point in New Haven Public Schools,” said school board member Carlos Torre, who voted against Birks. “The future of our students’ education is now in the hands not of those who dedicated their lives and careers to education, but in the hands of those who dedicated their lives and career to power and politics.”

Raised in Bridgeport and a graduate of Hampton University and Columbia University Teacher’s College, Birks currently serves as Hartford Public Schools’ chief of staff. She was the assistant superintendent in Hartford from 2013 to the July of this year. Birks did not attend the meeting or respond to a request for comment from the News. But she addressed her victory and the challenges she now faces in a statement on Nov. 22.

“Since this moment in New Haven’s story is wrought with disagreement and distrust, building a strong foundation in transition will require honesty, transparency and cultivating relationships,” Birks said. “So I invite all families, students, educators and community members to work with me, learn more about my beliefs and help inform my leadership vision and theory of action for New Haven.”

New Haven Public Schools has not had a permanent superintendent since last fall, when Garth Harries ’95 left the position in a mutual agreement with the school board. Former superintendent Reginald Mayo has held the position in an interim capacity since October 2016. Harp endorsed Birks for the job in an open letter on Monday, praising her grasp of complex budgeting systems and her commitment to restorative disciplinary practices.

But during the roll call before the vote, some attendees, including non-voting student representatives Makayla Dawkins and Jacob Spell left the room. Others yelled “Shame on you! Shame on you!”

Before Birks’ approval, the superintendent search committee had interviewed seven finalists for the position. Following those interviews, the committee selected three candidates who eventually received final interviews and participated in a community forum last Tuesday.

Birks was chosen over two other finalists, Pamela Brown and Gary Highsmith. Brown, a graduate of Stanford and Harvard, is fluent in Spanish and serves as the chief of elementary schools in Fontana, Calif. Highsmith, a graduate of Southern Connecticut State University, directs human resources for the Hamden Board of Education and previously served as principal of Beecher School in New Haven.

After student and public community forums on Nov. 14, the school board met privately the following night for a final interview of the candidates. According to the New Haven Independent, after the final interviews, the board cast a preliminary, non-binding vote that removed Highsmith from the running and then backed Birks against Brown by a four-to-three margin.

Last Monday, Highsmith wrote in an op-ed in the Independent that he was effectively removing himself from consideration for the position, citing a lack of necessary support from the school board. In the op-ed, he rebuked Birks’ candidacy and called on the board to give Brown the position.

“By hiring Dr. Birks, the board will choose to empower charter school advocates, enrich education privateers and embolden some of the worst elements of the community,” Highsmith said. “There is only one clear choice — Dr. Brown should be named superintendent of New Haven Public Schools.”

Hours before the Nov. 15 preliminary vote, 60 people — 44 parents, 10 teachers and six community organizers — penned a letter to the school board, outlining their disapproval of Birks. Opponents pointed to Birks’ support for student-based budgeting, focus on testing data and support of charter schools as problematic policy positions.

That opposition grew as the school board vote approached.

On Nov. 19, 60 community members gathered outside City Hall, attending the New Haven Educators’ Collective press conference in opposition to Birks’ candidacy. Several leaders of the community, including Dawkins, Spell and Ward 26 Alder Darryl Brackeen, spoke against the proposed selection of Birks. Dawkins and Spell cited the qualifications of the other two finalists, specifically Brown’s ability to speak Spanish and Highsmith’s personal understanding of the district, as reasons to choose a candidate other than Birks.

“The proposed selection for the next superintendent is not what is best for the students,” Spell said at the press conference. “And I refuse to let our futures be compromised for things that have nothing to do with education.”

In a “True Vote” poll surveyed by and published in the Independent, 67.5 percent of the more than 1,200 respondents preferred Brown or Highsmith. Only 13.7 percent of respondents favored Birks.

At the Monday night school board meeting, only three of the more than 20 speakers voiced support for Birks. Most of the speakers acknowledged Highsmith’s self-removal from the process and came out in support of Brown, noting that she was the only candidate with previous experience as a superintendent and who could speak Spanish.

Sarah Miller, a lifelong resident of New Haven and one of those who spoke out at Monday’s meeting, told the board she was disappointed by the preliminary vote.

“Before last week’s community forum, I had not met any of the candidates … and I walked out with the feeling that Dr. Brown represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have a leader with the skills and experience needed to truly transform the school district,” Miller said. “At the same time, numerous concerns immediately popped up concerning Dr. Birks.”

After other residents invoked nepotism and criticized Birks for belonging to the same sorority as Harp — Delta Sigma Theta — fellow sorority member Robin Miller Godwin defended Birks during the meeting.

“I know her resume, I know her commitment to education and I know her as a person who cares about children,” Godwin said.

After Goldson, the co-chair of the search committee, made a motion to appoint Birks to the position, he defended the committee’s search process and his support for Birks while criticizing opponents and noting that at the beginning of the process, he had supported Highsmith for the position.

“We reviewed and interviewed those candidates for over 30 hours, as a board,” Goldson said. “We went through a weekend of people calling me and publicly lynching this lady. It was shameful what people did, it was shameful what people said up there today, this lady is a well-respected educator.”

Birks started her career as a seventh-grade language arts teacher in Bridgeport.

Isabel Bysiewicz | isabel.bysiewicz@yale.edu