Carolyn Sacco

The New Haven Board of Education has faced a tumultuous past few months, with one of its seven members facing major opposition to reappointment and another resigning.

Jamell Cotto, the current vice president of the board and the executive director of the nonprofit Farnam Community, was first appointed to the board in 2017 after the sudden passing of then-board President Daisy Gonzalez. Despite heavy criticism from New Haven Public School Advocates, an activist group comprised of parents and teachers from the district, Cotto was reappointed for a full four-year term by the New Haven Board of Alders Aldermanic Affairs Committee earlier this month. He has to be approved by the full board of alders in order to be appointed for a new term.

In addition, former chair of the Board of Education Finance Committee Frank Redente resigned from the board late last year due to “personal reasons” amid allegations that he helped his son — a district employee — receive a suspension with pay while under investigation for an altercation with a student at Wilbur Cross High School.

“In order to optimally serve its students, the New Haven Public Schools requires a Board of Education comprised of members with knowledge of education, no conflicts of interest, and a commitment to public education,” the NHPS Advocates said in a statement to the Aldermanic Affairs committee at the Jan. 2 meeting. “Over the course of one and one quarter years on the Board of Education, Mr. Cotto has unfortunately not demonstrated these qualities.”

In the statement, the NHPS Advocates raised concerns over alleged conflicts of interest due to Cotto’s position in Farnam Community — a Board of Education contractor — as well his disregard of public opinion. The Advocates claimed that Cotto had not fulfilled his promise to be a “voice for families” by voting for the confirmation of Superintendent Carol Birks in 2017 despite strong opposition among New Haven residents.

Still, other attendees of the Board of Alders meeting voiced support for Cotto’s advocacy in the Latino community and his attempts to improve the board’s budget issues. Cotto currently serves as chair of the Finance and Operations Committee.

Some community members expressed issue with Cotto’s lack of educational background, including board member Edward Joyner. Joyner told the News that there is “too little educational expertise on the board.”

Nora Heaphy ’21, a graduate of the Engineering and Science University Magnet School in the Elm City, was one of many to submit an application to fill the space on the board left by Redente. She expressed frustration to the News that just one member of the board has a background in education.

Cotto’s supporters testified at the meeting that his background as a Latino working in community organizations brings a new perspective to the board. Many people involved with Farnam Community testified in favor of his reappointment, and praised Cotto. At the meeting, board President Darnell Goldson praised his financial expertise, according to the New Haven Independent.

“My entire adult life I’ve watched the New Haven Board of Education being lead and run by educators,” Cotto told the News in an email. “The 20 million dollar question is ‘How is this working out for us?’ I want to see a diverse board of Community leaders, practitioner’s, educators, parents, students, child advocates, etc. This is how we bring equity back to New Haven Public Schools.”

Joyner — a former teacher at public schools in New Haven and principal at the high- and middle-school level — is the only member of the current board with an educational background.

Redente, who officially announced his retirement on Dec. 13, was once the operations director at Farnam Community. NHPS Advocates and other community members have criticized his former relationship with Cotto as his direct superior at the youth recreation center. Redente originally submitted a letter of resignation to New Haven Mayor Toni Harp in September but was asked to stay on until his replacement could be found, according to the New Haven Independent.

In an interview with the Independent, Redente said he hopes that the board will appoint one of the “outspoken parents” who are often at board meetings. Several NHPS Advocates members attend the board meetings on a regular basis to speak during time allotted for public comment. Redente specifically suggested Robert Gibson, a former teacher at James Hillhouse High School.

Redente, whose term as a board member was supposed to end in 2020, did not respond to the News’ requests for comment.

Several community members have already submitted applications for the board position to Harp, who will interview candidates and make a recommendation to the Board of Alders. The NHPS Advocates provided Harp with a list of names of educators, parents and youth service workers who they believed were qualified for the position.

“There are many, many people in our city with educational experience, no conflicts of interest and a demonstrated commitment to public education,” Heaphy said.

In addition to shifts in membership, the board begins the year $8.6 million dollars in debt. In the fall, 28 educators — including guidance counselors, teachers and librarians — were laid off. The board is continuing to look for more ways to cut the budget, including furlough days for staff.

The school board meets on the second and fourth Monday of each month.

Carolyn Sacco | carolyn.sacco@yale.edu