New Haven Public Schools’ embattled Board of Education might have a new member on its roster: Larry Conaway, the recently retired principal of Riverside Education Academy.

New Haven Mayor Toni Harp called Conaway on Monday to field his interest in the position. In an interview with the News, Conaway said that while he previously mentioned his enthusiasm in assuming the Board’s vacancy to Harp’s administration, Monday’s phone call still caught him by surprise. He said he would gladly accept.

“My priorities would be students, teachers and families, and probably in that order,” Conaway told the News. “Students, teachers and families … Certainly my priority would be all students, at all levels, from the minute they enter the New Haven public school system until they graduate, and that would be all 23,000 students. And when I say all, I mean all equity — all ages, all genders, all sexes.”

If the Aldermanic Affairs Committee and the full Board of Alders advance his nomination, Conaway would fill the seat left behind by Joe Rodriguez, who stepped down from the Board on Sept. 1 because he felt he could no longer devote the required time to the Board. If Conaway officially joins the Board, his term will extend until December 2022. The seven-member Board of Education is comprised of four members nominated by the city’s top executive, two elected representatives and the mayor.

Before his retirement less than three months ago, Conaway served as the principal of Riverside for three years, according to his LinkedIn. He first came to New Haven in 1987 as a social worker and worked as an administrator at schools across the district, including Lincoln Bassett and Wilbur Cross. According to Conaway, his more than 33 years of experience in education qualify him for the job. In addition, he has a personal stake in New Haven Public Schools — all four of his children attended schools in the Elm City.

“I’ve witnessed many, many board meetings; I’ve presented at finance meetings I think I have more than enough experience,” Conaway said. “Plus I’m fresh off that 33 years [of] experience, [there’s] not really a big break in there, so I have a lot to contribute.”

In the past, candidates for vacant Board seats have been quick to address existing problems in the district, particularly issues surrounding transparency between parents and the Board. When asked about his thoughts regarding parent-Board relations, Conaway said that “transparency and responsibility” top his list of priorities.

Conaway’s words echo the statements of previous candidates, including current members Matthew Wilcox and Yesenia Rivera, who were nominated in February. Wilcox told the News in April that he also recognized the need for transparency — particularly regarding the school district’s budget — while Rivera told the News in February that she intended to avoid political intrigue during her time on the Board.

Conaway noted that while he is aware of current issues facing the district — like the budget crisis and the more recent bus route fiasco — his knowledge is limited to a “big picture” view, and that he would need to review the specifics of each situation before commenting on his plans to tackle them.

Current Board members also weighed in on Conaway’s nomination. Board President Darnell Goldson told the News that he is excited to work with Conaway, should the nomination advance. Wilcox echoed Goldson’s sentiment, stressing that Conaway’s years of experience will be an asset to the Board.

“I am always happy to work with whoever is in the room, so whoever is appointed, I want to work with them. I’m particularly happy that it’s Larry Conaway,” Wilcox said. “I have deep respect for him and have for years.”

Despite Wilcox’s high praise for Conaway, he said he worries that the Board’s significant workload might prove difficult for the recently retired administrator. He said that he has known Conaway for years — both because Conaway worked at New Light High School where Wilcox’s child attended, and because Wilcox’s wife volunteers at Riverside Education Academy where Conaway served as principal.

In an interview with the News, Joanne Wilcox also sang Conaway’s praises, calling herself a “big fan” of him and emphasizing how Conaway hires “good” people and takes the time to build strong professional relationships — while always thinking about how to better serve students.

“Larry Conaway is the best Board appointment the mayor has made,” former Board President Ed Joyner said. “He is a great educator and an even greater human being.”

The Board is no stranger to turnover — two years ago, the Board’s four nominated members were totally different. Two, Che Dawson and Carlos Torres, left at the end of 2017 due to terms ending. However, Frank Redente resigned last December, citing personal reasons and Board Vice President Jamell Cotto was denied a second term by the Board of Alders in January due to concerns about transparency and meeting attendance issues. Since then, Rivera and Wilcox have joined, and Rodriguez announced his resignation in June.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 21,883 students attended New Haven Public Schools in the 2016–2017 school year.

Valerie Pavilonis | valerie.pavilonis@yale.edu