Last week, Mayor Toni Harp announced her nominations for the two vacant seats on the Board of Education — Yesenia Rivera and Liam Brennan LAW ’07.
The two seats were previously occupied by Frank Redente, who resigned from his post in December, and Jamell Cotto, who served as the Board’s vice president until he was voted down by the Board of Alders for a second term last month. According to the New Haven Independent, Rivera — who is intended to fill Redente’s seat — serves as the program director for the Edgewood PTO Child Care Program and works for a community development agency. Previously a prosecutor for the Department of Justice, Brennan currently works as an attorney at the New Haven Legal Assistance Association. Both nominations must be confirmed by the Board of Alders before their positions are official.
“I would like to see [someone] who’s willing to listen to all the different Board members’ viewpoints and make decisions based on facts, and not on some of the fiction that’s out there,” said Board President Darnell Goldson, when asked about qualities he would prefer in a colleague.
The process for finding these candidates has remained under the radar — even kept a secret from members of the Board. Goldson said that he did not “have a clue” as to how Rivera and Brennan were tapped by Harp.
While Rivera has remained largely out of the public eye, Brennan has been a vocal critic of the Board prior to his nomination. In a March 2018 column published in the New Haven Independent, he called the current Board of Education a “circus.” Following Harp’s firing of ex-Superintendent Garth Harries ’95 in September 2016 — which left New Haven Public Schools without a permanent superintendent for a year and a half — Brennan stated that “[Harp] approaches education erratically.”
Brennan had considered a run for the city’s top office against Harp but told the Independent on Wednesday that he decided to withdraw his candidacy for mayor following his nomination to the Board.
According to Ward 1 Alder Hacibey Catalbasoglu ’19, Rivera and Brennan will likely come before the Board of Alders for confirmation sometime in March. Neither candidate could be reached for comment.
These nominations punctuate a reshuffling of New Haven Board of Education members and education administrators. In December, Redente resigned from the Board as a result of his disappointment in current NHPS Superintendent Carol Birks’ performance and unease with Board politics. Last month, two high-level officials also departed the district — William Clark, the chief operating officer of NHPS, and Jamell Cotto, the Board’s vice president. While Clark resigned and left his position for a job in Waterbury, Cotto was voted down by the Board of Alders and will remain on the Board until his replacement is approved.
Board members’ lack of educational degrees has stirred up controversy in recent months. At a Feb. 8 meeting, parent activist group NHPS Advocates discussed the expertise they would prefer in a candidate, stressing that members of the Board of Education should have previous experience in education. Currently, only Edward Joyner, who has degrees in teaching and school administration, meets the group’s standard for experience.
The remaining members of the board come from a variety of backgrounds. Joseph Rodriguez, who was confirmed by the Board of Alders last spring, currently works as the deputy state director of the office of U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal LAW ’73 and formerly served as the West Rock Alder. Tamiko Jackson-McArthur is a pediatrician and practices at the New Haven Pediatric & Adolescent Medical Services. And Goldson — who is one of the two elected members to the Board — is the public relations director for two companies in South Windsor, Connecticut.
Despite parent pleas, Goldson said in an interview with the News that he does not think experience in the classroom is necessary to be a successful Board member. According to Goldson, the top five to 10 school districts in the state are not run by educators but managers. He added that there is nothing in the city charter that lists qualifications of a Board member, and the only legal requirement is that the candidate is registered to vote in the Elm City.
“I’d like to see scientific research that shows that having board members have an education degree makes them a better board member,” said Goldson.
Joyner, on the other hand, told the News that he would prefer a candidate with a “broad understanding of the variables that influence how students learn and develop, [and] an understanding of the complexities of teaching, learning, and school leadership.” Joyner also listed qualities such as a commitment to keep politics out of decision-making, a factor that Redente cited when he resigned from the Board in December.
According to Jim Finley, president and founder of Finley Government Strategies, Connecticut school districts generally have at least one teacher or school administrator on the Board. However, Finley said, most state school districts are much smaller — with education generally making up the largest portion of town expenditures. But in cosmopolitan centers like New Haven and Hartford, education funds exist alongside significant budgets for public departments and projects. Because the budgets of cities are stretched thin over several departments, the mayor is a Board member by default and tasked with overseeing the minutiae of every dollar that is funneled into the city’s school system.
Finley added that there is not a formula for the perfect Board of Education member.
“You’re always going to find people that disagree with you,” Finley said to the News. “But you have to, as a Board member, find a way to surmount personal or political differences and always keep your eye on the needs of the students of the school district as your number one priority.”
NHPS currently serves 21, 263 students in a city of 123,626 people, according to their website.
Valerie Pavilonis | firstname.lastname@example.org