Jon Greenberg

A week after Carol Birks was appointed to the vacant superintendent position, tensions on New Haven’s Board of Education remain high.

At Monday night’s board meeting, debate centered on the legality of the 4-to-3 vote that resulted in Birks’ hiring on Nov. 20, even as the board conducts a background check on Birks and begins negotiating her contract. At the Nov. 27 meeting, board and community members aired concerns about the new superintendent and questioned the lawfulness of the voting process, invoking a board policy that requires five members to vote to hire a new superintendent.

“Lack of access to and unclarity around the rules by which the district operates leave us all in the dark. This is an especially dangerous place to be when making significant decisions such as the hiring of a new superintendent,” said Sarah Miller, a parent of two children at Columbus School and a former student of New Haven Public Schools.

Miller requested a stay on any further proceedings around Birks’ hiring until a legal opinion from an independent third party proves the legality of the Nov. 20 voting process.

Board member Carlos Torre, who voted against hiring Birks, cited a board policy that states that hiring a superintendent requires votes by five members of the board. He acknowledged that the policy had not been updated since 1999 but argued that the board should follow its own “guiding principles.”

Mayor Toni Harp said she asked the board’s corporation counsel to look into the legal framework before the meeting. She said the counsel found that the five-vote policy conflicts with the city charter that was enacted in 2013, which overrides any policies antithetical to it. Darnell Goldson, the co-chair of the superintendent search committee and a board member, cited Connecticut State Statute 10–57, which states that a mere majority of the board’s votes is needed to hire a superintendent. Goldson said the state statutes overrule bylaws.

The board ultimately voted against an official review of the law, rejecting Torre’s proposal to form a subcommittee, citing concerns about delaying the already-prolonged superintendent hiring process.

“It would be ridiculous for us to put together a committee to review this,” Goldson said. “I would be absolutely opposed to stopping or slowing down the process. We’ve been without a superintendent for a year … we should be moving forward.”

Joyner, president of the board, said the national headhunting firm — Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates, which was hired by the board in the spring to aid the search — is conducting a background check on Birks.

After board members brushed off concerns about the legality of the vote, residents rose yet again to question the rules guiding the board.

Miller drew attention to the lack of conflict-of-interest laws governing the board. She said the school boards in both Bridgeport and Hartford have such policies in their bylaws. Further, Miller raised concerns that board bylaws and policies are not readily available to the public via the Internet.

Makayla Dawkins, one of the nonvoting student representatives on the board, requested that members, along with Birks, attend the Dec. 12 student-led meeting of the New Haven Public Schools Student Cabinet to improve their understanding of student issues.

“During this crucial transition period, one that has been ripe with controversy and misinformation, it is imperative for all board members and the newly instated superintendent Carol Birks to be informed of the views of the students,” Dawkins said.

Although student walkouts throughout the district were scheduled for Monday to protest Birks’ appointment, Birks noted at the meeting that the action was cancelled. Addressing the audience, she said the students decided it would be more effective to meet over the Thanksgiving break to brainstorm other strategies.

Dawkins said that if board members do not show up to student-led meetings or show a vested interest in the transitional process, students may come to believe that a walkout is the only way to express their opinions.

“No student should ever feel like a breach of safety and security is more powerful than their voices,” Dawkins said.

Birks currently serves as the chief of staff for Hartford Public Schools.

Isabel Bysiewicz | isabel.bysiewicz@yale.edu