On Tuesday, the Board of Alders voted 18–8 against the reinstatement of Jamell Cotto as the vice president of the city’s seven-member Board of Education, following a long string of public testimonies criticizing Cotto’s capabilities in office.
The vote occurred at the biweekly Board of Alders meeting, three weeks after Cotto was unanimously approved for confirmation by the smaller Aldermanic Affairs Committee. He was appointed by Mayor Toni Harp after serving for a shorter first term following the unexpected death of Daisy Gonzalez in 2017. But controversy surrounding his reappointment has emerged, led by the activist group New Haven Public Schools Advocates. Community members have raised several concerns about Cotto, including conflicts of interest through his position as executive director of the Farnam Community and alleged poor communication with parents.
“Over the last year and a half that he’s been on the board, I haven’t seen a level of leadership that I would like to see in someone that’s on the [Board],” said Ward 22 Alder Jeanette Morrison, who voted against Cotto’s reinstatement. “So I look at this as an opportunity for the mayor to be able to provide a person that will really be able to make a strong impact.”
Cotto did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
During his tenure, Jamell Cotto also served on the Finance and Operations Committee. Cotto, who was born and raised in the Elm City, attended both private and public schools in the Greater New Haven area. He began his term during a tumultuous time for the district, in which the Board of Education was engaged in a prolonged search for a new superintendent following the resignation of Garth Harries ’95 in 2016.
NHPS Advocates released a statement encouraging alders to vote against Cotto’s reapportionment. The group cited concerns such as “[i]rrational decisions against the public interest,” as well as a consistent disrespectful tone whenever Cotto addressed colleagues or attendees of various meetings. The group also criticized Cotto’s lack of communication, as he allegedly neglected to ask questions about major contracts when parents asked him to do so. Furthermore, the statement listed attendance issues, noting Cotto’s absence from five of 28 Board meetings throughout his term — and pointed out a tendency to leave meetings early.
Additionally, NHPS Advocates have raised concerns about Cotto’s position as chief executive officer of youth nonprofit the Farnam Community, which contracts with the Board of Education. Fellow Board member Tamiko Jackson-McArthur serves on the board of the Farnam Community, and former Board member Frank Redente was employed there until recently.
The New Haven Independent reported that at the meeting, NHPS Advocates member Sarah Miller said she hopes to see Harp select one of the candidates that the group has endorsed, including Lauren Anderson, Hillary Bridges, Nora Heaphy ’21 and Matt Wilcox. She added that there should be a new member who is “in a better position to serve our kids.”
In an interview with the News, NHPS Advocates member Jill Kelly said that she did not believe that Harp would offer Cotto as a candidate again, but she said that it was possible for Harp to find other ways to put Cotto on the Board, such as the fall election for Board President Darnell Goldson’s seat.
Morrison told that the News that Cotto’s attendance record played a role in her decision to vote against Cotto’s reinstatement, stressing that accessibility is key in a representative’s effectiveness.
“One thing about when you’re on a board and you’re representing a population, you have to make yourself available to that population,” Morrison said. “Since children need permission from their parents for x, y and z, and the parents want to meet with you, you have to find a way to be able to meet with them.”
In interviews with the News, some Alders said that the Board would be better served by a candidate other than Cotto. Ward 2 Alder Frank Douglass Jr. said that he would prefer more educators on the Board, and the mayor should take past experiences into consideration. Only one current Board of Education member — Ed Joyner — has a background in education. Douglass added that he was “pretty sure” that there are plenty of educators willing to fill Cotto’s position.
Eight of the 30-member Board did cast their vote to keep Cotto on the Board. Ward 1 Alder Hacibey Catalbasoglu ’19, who voted for Cotto, told the News that, while the criticisms leveled against Cotto were fair, officials should have time to respond to the concerns — especially since Cotto has sat on the Board for less than a full term. Catalbasoglu also mentioned the logistical concerns of voting against Cotto — the mayor will need to appoint a new candidate, who will need to learn Board procedures.
According to Catalbasoglu, many children testified in favor of Cotto during the hearing, informing Alders that Cotto had served as a positive role model. Cotto’s career in New Haven has involved work with the Neighborhood Youth Center, in which he was “driven by his ability to partner with parents, paraprofessionals and teachers,” according to Cotto’s profile on the NHPS website. Cotto also established community initiatives like the Lifeguard Training and Certification program and expanded the Food Pantry Program of Catholic Charities/Centro San Jose to address food concerns within New Haven.
“During the committee hearing there were kids who came up and testified to talk about how much Jamell had changed their lives, and how he was a role model to him when they didn’t have one,” Catalbasoglu told the News. “It reminded me of me when I was younger.”
The Board of Education is no stranger to turnover. Former Board member Frank Redente resigned in December, following a pattern of absences from meetings similar to that of Cotto’s. According to the New Haven Register, Redente decided to leave his post because he was uneasy with the Board’s politics, and he regretted voting for current Superintendent of Schools Carol Birks.
Former Board member Carlos Antonio Torre, whose time in office overlapped with Cotto’s before Torre left in 2017, also wrote to the Board of Alders about Cotto. In his letter, Torre urged Alders to oppose Cotto’s reinstatement, writing that a board member must be committed to helping both parents and students feel welcome and to holding students’ best interests at heart. Torre asserted that Cotto does not embody those qualities.
“These are not things you need to learn ‘on-the-job’ nor for which we need to cut the individual some slack and allow the ‘learning curve’ to process its way through,” Torre’s letter states. “These are things, qualities, and attitudes that we would hope to learn in kindergarten.”
Harp will have 60 days to present another Board vice presidential candidate to the Board of Alders.
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