“Shame on you! Shame on you!” attendees screamed at the New Haven Board of Education members when they elected Carol Birks as the new superintendent of schools.
After a yearlong search full of tension and setbacks, New Haven community members hoped for a superintendent who reflected the wishes of parents, students and organizers. But Birks, who was named to the position following a 4–3 vote by the Board of Education on Nov. 20, will start her term without much community support. The Bridgeport native will leave her position as Hartford Public Schools’ chief of staff to serve New Haven.
Through an agreement with the Board of Education, Garth Harries ’95 stepped down as superintendent last year. Since October 2016, former Superintendent Reginald Mayo has held the position in an interim capacity. The New Haven Board of Education, with help from Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates, a national headhunting firm, reviewed applicants from all over the country.
For Letisha Harris, the vice president of the Citywide Parent Team, a volunteer organization of parents in the school district, the process has been a year of disappointment. She and her children used the three minutes allotted to speakers at the Nov. 20 meeting to stand in front of the board’s members, duct tape covering their mouths. Harris said nothing. It was a symbolic demonstration meant to show that the board’s inclusive rhetoric of wanting “parent engagement” and to “put students first” was merely performative.
Nijija-Ife Walker, president of the Citywide Parent Team, and Harris carry a copy of the New Haven city charter and of the Connecticut Education bylaws and have access to emails showcasing the Board of Education’s internal disputes. For many parents and community members like them, this has been a year of learning: learning the challenges a district faces without an effective superintendent and learning that community organizing is sometimes not enough to sway a decision that falls on a mostly appointed city board.
Walker and Harris got involved in the Board of Education after they became concerned about their children’s safety in New Haven Public Schools. Walker, whose son has a life-threatening allergy, would come home with a swollen face after the school’s nurse gave him the wrong medicine, and the school would call her instead of 911 when her son had an allergic reaction, she said. When she realized that hundreds of other children in the district have similar conditions to her son, she knew that she needed to make her voice heard. Harris’ daughter was subject to extreme bullying that she felt was not being addressed adequately by anyone in the district: her child’s teachers, the principal or the superintendent.
After seeking input from community members through interviews, focus groups and an online survey, Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates gathered input to assist the board in determining desirable characteristics in the new superintendent — someone who understands the struggles facing urban youth, establishes meaningful relationships with all segments of the education community and ensures effective daily operations of the district, among others.
On Nov. 10, after two days and 12 hours of interviews, the New Haven superintendent search committee narrowed a list of seven finalists to three — Pamela Brown, Carol Birks and Gary Highsmith.
These three would have final interviews with the search committee and the opportunity to engage in community forums held on Tuesday, Nov. 14.
Search committee co-chair Darnell Goldson hoped these forums would push the candidates to “sell themselves” to the community. Goldson added that the votes from the forums wouldn’t determine the committee and the board’s final decision, because he thought the metric was “unscientific” and because the community would not be able to sit in during interviews of the candidates.
Brown, a graduate of Stanford and Harvard universities, is the chief of elementary schools in Fontana, California. Brown served as superintendent in Buffalo, New York, and as the assistant superintendent and chief academic officer of the School District of Philadelphia.
Birks is currently the chief of staff of Hartford Public Schools but served as the school system’s assistant superintendent from 2013 to July 2017. A graduate of Hampton University and Columbia University’s Teachers College, Birks was born in a low-income household in Bridgeport and attributed her success to education and perseverance.
Highsmith, who emerged as the community favorite, was born and raised in New Haven and graduated from Southern Connecticut State University. He was added to the list of candidates after members of the public and the board expressed concern that there were no locals considered. Highsmith currently directs human resources for the Hamden Board of Education. He is the former principal of L.W. Beecher Elementary School in New Haven and of Hamden High School.
In a poll published in the New Haven Independent, 67.5 percent of the over 1,200 respondents preferred Brown or Highsmith over Birks.
After a year of board members neglecting to attend meetings and inadequate advertising of community forums for public input, New Haven parents would not be placated. On the evening of Wednesday, Nov. 15, the Board of Education met privately for a final interview of the candidates. Afterward, during an informal vote, four out of the seven members backed Birks. Hours before this vote, 44 parents, 10 teachers and six community organizers wrote a letter to the Board of Education, outlining their disapproval of Birks and describing Brown’s and Highsmith’s qualifications for the job.
Opposition to Birks mounted closer to the final vote, as parents saw their hard work fall to the wayside. On Nov. 19, 60 community members attended the New Haven Educators’ Collective press conference outside City Hall, hoping that a final push would compel a change of opinion. A flyer distributed at the event explained why the group saw Birks as the least qualified of the three candidates: She has just three years of teaching experience; many of her policies, such as support for charter schools, which they believe harm the public school mission, mirror those of the former superintendent, Harries; there are ethical questions about her past employer SUPES, an educational consulting firm that was involved in a kickback scandal. Sarah Miller, a parent of two children in the district, read aloud a statement from Maria Pereira, a member of the Bridgeport Board of Education and former classmate of Birks.
Pereira shared a story about visiting Warren High School while Birks was the principal. Pereira witnessed 187 children skipping class and Birks ignoring a student who swore at her.
“If Carol Birks couldn’t manage an urban high school with 1,100 students, how can she manage a district of 21,000 students,” Pereira wrote. “If she was a candidate for superintendent of the Bridgeport Public Schools, I would be extremely concerned for the well-being of our students, staff and the district as a whole.”
Over 1,000 individuals signed an online petition to “Give NHPS Students a Superintendent Who Puts Them First: Birks is Not the Right Choice.” Hundreds signed school-based petitions, organized over the few days between the preliminary vote and the Board of Education vote, though none were in the rooms when candidates were interviewed.
Posters at the rally insinuated that politics played a role in the choosing of the superintendent. Birks and Mayor Harp, one of the four board members to back Birks in the preliminary vote, were both part of Delta Sigma Theta, a nonprofit sorority of women dedicated to public service.
Both Goldson and Harp have emphasized that, in their judgment, Birks emerged as the most qualified individual for the job after the long and careful process.
“My endorsement of Dr. Birks is the result of lengthy, in-depth interviews with the finalists, during which I got to know each of them,” Harp wrote in a statement on her Facebook Page. “My choice was determined with the best interests of New Haven Public Schools in mind.”
Goldson said in a public statement, “The public lynching of this extremely accomplished professional African American woman, and the attempted harm to the philanthropic organizations to which she was a member, was shameful and immoral.”
This process has shed light on the fighting, animosity and alliances within the Board of Education that divided the group. Once allies, over the past year, the two elected Board of Education members — board President Edward Joyner and Goldson — have become adversaries, as shown in emails available to the public and action at Board of Education meetings fit for reality television shows.
Most recently, on Nov. 13, the Board of Education meeting ended with a gasp from attendees as Goldson revealed that Joyner had sent out the candidates’ resumes and personal information such as addresses, past salaries and phone numbers to members of the community, including to the News.
On the Nov. 20 board meeting, in which four police officers were present, physical fighting seemed imminent. Joyner, who did not vote for Birks, announced to attendees that the vote was “a done deal,” insinuating that no amount of public organizing would compel supporters of Birks to change their positions. He then proceeded to tell the audience that a person on the board had two bankruptcies, pointing at Goldson. When Goldson fired back that Joyner was “about to get sued,” the president told Goldson the two could “have a duel” at Bowen Field and then asked, “Are you scared? Are you scared?” as Goldson extended his hands in front of his face.
In an opinion article posted in the New Haven Independent on Nov. 17, Jacob Spell, a senior at Creed High School and one of the two nonvoting student representatives, summarized his criticisms of Birks and called on the Board of Education to reconsider its preliminary vote. He further noted the “travesty” of having two students on the board who sit through all deliberations and interview processes yet have no final say in choosing the superintendent, a choice that will most directly affect their education and the climate of their schools.
“We cannot vote on the matter, and the unofficial vote casted by the board did not reflect the candidate that we would have supported,” Spell wrote.
Kimberly Sullivan, who served on the board as a student representative two years ago, yielded her speaking time during the public comment portion of the Nov. 20 meeting, sharing with attendees that she herself never felt heard as a student representative.
With Spell and Makayla Dawkins — a junior at Hillhouse High School and the other student representative — the board has nine members. If the students had been able to vote, Birks likely would not have been elected.
Since the Nov. 20 meeting, Joyner has begun to ask the students how they would have voted on a decision after the motion is resolved. In the Nov. 27 meeting, the Board of Education rejected a motion to look into wording of a policy that states that it takes five affirmative votes to appoint a new superintendent. If the students had voted, the motion would have carried.
Carlos Torre, who voted against Birks, said at the Nov. 20 meeting, “Tonight, this was a turning point in the New Haven Public Schools. The future of our students’ education is now in the hands not of those who dedicate their lives and their careers to education but … of those who dedicate their lives and their career to power and politics.”
Some question why Harp, who was until recently the board president, even sits on the board. Joyner has repeatedly pointed at the potential conflict of interest that arises when a mayor sits on the Board of Education. Joyner, who voted against Birks, backed Marcus Paca, Harp’s challenger in the most recent mayoral elections, and has criticized the control Harp exercises over the board through appointments. Except for two elected members, Goldson and Joyner, the rest of the board is appointed by the mayor. Jamell Cotto and Frank Redente, board members who voted for Birks, were appointed by Harp herself. Harp recently announced she would nominate Dr. Tamiko Jackson-McArthur, a pediatrician and fellow member of Delta Sigma Theta sorority, to the board.
However, Harp’s influence on the board does not come close to that of former mayors. Under John DeStefano’s tenure, the board was fully appointed and included no student representatives. Board of Education meetings saw the near antithesis of one member threatening another to a duel: almost no debate at all.
Another concern is lack of community involvement in the surveys set out by the national headhunting firm Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates. In June, only 14 members attended a community forum. Most of the firm’s public input came from online surveys designed to determine desired characteristics in the next superintendent, but only 1,022 people responded, just 14 of whom were students. Only 41 individuals, none of them students, engaged in stakeholder interviews or focus groups aimed at collecting information regarding the strengths and weaknesses of the school district.
Some parents think that there was no room for community input when it mattered the most: the period between when final candidates were chosen Nov. 10 and the Nov. 20 meeting.
“I don’t think we had much to talk about until we had actual candidates,” Miller, a parent organizer, said. “Theoretical discussions about what we want to see in our superintendent is kind of meaningless.”
Parents continue to demand more openness from the Board of Education.
In a statement released Tuesday, Nov. 21, a group calling themselves the “New Haven Public Schools parent community,” which included Waters and Miller, expressed disappointment at the board’s decision.
“The board’s vote deepens the perception already held by many parents that ‘parent engagement’ is a buzzword to be deployed when convenient, but not reflective of district practice,” the statement said. “We are shut out of our children’s classrooms, not given a defined role in school planning and decision-making, and we have been flagrantly ignored in our expressed preference for superintendent.”
The superintendent of the New Haven Public Schools directly impacts education. Birks will manage a school district of over 21,000 children, dozens of schools and a community that is now invested in seeing that this personnel change produces a positive change.
Birks, who redirected requests for comment to a public statement, understands the full scope of the situation and opposition she faces. In the statement, she writes that one of her first steps as superintendent will be to aid in the healing process, trying to listen and learn from those who felt left behind in the search process.
“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,” the statement reads. “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.”