As newly elected superintendent of New Haven Public Schools Carol Birks emerges from a selection process so divisive that it nearly resulted in a duel between two members of the board of education, one thing is clear: Her first challenge in her new role will be to rally support from a bitterly divided community.
On Nov. 20, a divided board voted by a 4–3 margin to appoint Birks as the superintendent. Though her appointment ends a yearlong search for a district superintendent — a position that had been vacant since Garth Harries ’95 resigned last year — many residents still need convincing that she is the right candidate for the job. A week after her appointment, Birks has committed to moving forward with transparency, even as community members have expressed concerns and demanded answers from the board.
“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 in a statement released on Nov. 22. “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.”
In a preliminary vote held on Nov. 15, four board members supported Birks, according to the New Haven Independent. Since then, Elm City community members have actively demonstrated their opposition to the newly selected superintendent.
Responding to the nonbinding vote cast in Birks’ favor, 60 community members rallied on Nov. 19 to voice their opposition her appointment a day before the scheduled final vote. The 60 activists criticized Birks for her support for charter schools, her limited teaching experience, her test- and data-driven approach and her connections to Mayor Toni Harp — both Harp and Birks are members of the sorority Delta Sigma Theta, Inc.
Birks was chosen over Dr. Pamela Brown, chief of elementary schools in Fontana, Calif., and Gary Highsmith, human resource director of Hamden Public Schools Gary Highsmith.
Jacob Spell, a student representative on the board, said that before the preliminary strawpoll, he thought that the board would appoint a candidate well-suited to the job. Now, he said, he thinks the board of education is controlled by a “corrupt oligarchy.”
“Either certain board members are ignoring what is plain to see, or they must have been involved in a different interview process than I was,” Spell said. “Because I firmly believe that Dr. Pamela Brown and Gary Highsmith are the best candidates for this position.”
The morning of the vote, Highsmith effectively removed himself from the vote, urging the board to select Brown in a Nov. 20 op-ed published in the New Haven Independent.
At the Nov. 20 meeting, where most of the time was set aside for public comment, a majority of speakers expressed opposition to Birks’ appointment, decrying her support for charter schools and student-based budgeting.
Still, two speakers threw their support behind Birks. Robin Miller Godwin, another member of Delta Sigma Theta Inc., reminded the audience of all the philanthropic work the sorority has done for the community, such as promoting scholarship and hosting mentorship programs. Godwin said she was upset at how the sorority was characterized, as an organization that is willing to “buy” the position of superintendent.
Neither Highsmith’s voluntary withdrawal nor parent lobbying shifted the votes of board members Harp, Darnell Goldson, Jamell Cotto and Frank Redente, who all backed Birks, thus making official the outcome of the preliminary vote.
Citywide Parent Team President Nijija-Ife Waters and Miller, along with other New Haven Public Schools Parent and Community members, expressed disappointment over the the school board’s vote in the Nov. 21 statement.
The statement said that an unnamed mayoral appointee on the board told a parent before the vote, “I hope you changed the Mayor’s mind” and “it feels like they have a gun to my head.” The statement also questioned the legality of the final vote, in which school board member Frank Redente cast his vote over the phone.
During the public comment portion of the meeting, the two non-voting student representatives, Makayla Dawkins and Spell, said that they supported Brown and urged the board to rethink the preliminary vote. If student representatives had been able to vote, Brown would have had the majority of the board’s support.
In addition, NHPS parents sent a statement urging the board to address questions about conflicts of interest and whether Birks will be offered a one-year or three-year contract.
“She will have to come ready to provide transparency,” Maritza Baez, another co-writer of the statements and a parent of two students at Creed High School, told the News. “She is going to have to prove to us how she is so great with budgeting … and that she’s not test- and data-driven, that she’s willing to transform the culture of our schools.”
Still, members of the board of education who supported Birks stand by their decision.
Darnell Goldson, co-chair of the search committee and a member of the Board of Education, said that the community members who showed up to the meeting were not representative of the community’s wishes; they were just the “loudest.”
Goldson said that the Nov. 20 meeting was not the first time the community has shown up en mass to oppose a board decision, and he added that more people attended at a meeting last fall to support Harries.
When asked what Birks can do to unite the community, Goldson said, “I’m sure she is already working on a plan. She has deep ties to New Haven, especially through her philanthropic activities, and she is a true professional.”
In a statement, Mayor Toni Harp said she decided to support Birks only after hours of interviews with each of the candidates. Harp said she was impressed by Birk’s familiarity with the district — Birks mentored principals in the district and supports across-the-board achievement at all grade levels, according to the statement — and her understanding of public education budgeting.
On Nov. 22, Joyner and Goldson issued statements apologizing for their behavior at the Nov. 20 meeting, where they hurled insults at each other after the vote, bringing up alleged lawsuits and bankruptcies. The meeting concluded when Joyner was escorted out of the room by security officers present after he challenged Golson to a duel at Bowen Field.
“I accept full responsibility and regret for my actions and do not deserve to be on the board if I repeat them,” Joyner said in the statement. “The community has the duty to hold me and ALL public servants accountable.”
But Goldson said that he would not apologize for being the victim of physical and verbal attacks, nor for the way he voted. He said that he was concerned about how Birks was characterized at the meeting. Goldson did apologize for returning shouts of “Shame on You!” by community members present. He said that he lost his temper, and, for that, “truly” apologizes.
Isabel Bysiewicz | firstname.lastname@example.org