Daniel Zhao

Members of New Haven’s Latino community crowded the back aisles of the aldermanic chambers on Monday night, waving signs in opposition to the confirmation of Larry Conaway, Mayor Toni Harp’s most recent nominee for the Board of Education.

Conaway is Harp’s second tap to fill the Board of Education seat vacated after the resignation of member Joseph Rodriguez in June 2019. Conaway has worked in local education for over 30 years. Recently retired, he served as the principal of Riverside Opportunity High School until the beginning of this year. Residents in opposition to Conaway’s nomination called for a Latino representative to take Rodriguez’s seat; they asked that the Board of Education’s racial makeup reflect the proportion of Latino students in the school system. The Aldermanic Affairs Committee chose not to vote on the nomination, instead passing Conaway’s deliberation up to the full Board of Alders.

“There is an obvious systemic culture in the New Haven School District which is anti-Latino,” Reverend Abraham Hernandez said in a press conference before the hearing on behalf of the New Haven Latino Council.

Before the meeting, leaders of the New Haven Latino Council held a press conference calling on the Aldermanic Affairs Committee to table the Mayor’s nomination. The Council presented its opposition to the nomination not as direct opposition to Harp’s nomination of Conaway but as a call for equity in the public school system, which has faced numerous challenges in management and leadership throughout the years.

The group claimed significant underrepresentation of Latino New Havenites among the district’s employees and administrators. Only 6 percent of district executive administrators, 15 percent of school principals and 8 percent of teachers identify as Latino. Meanwhile, Latino students now make up almost half of all students attending New Haven Public Schools.

With the departure of Rodriguez, Board Vice President Yesenia Rodriguez is the only Latino member left on the Board. The Council asked for equal representation in the form of three Latino Board members. The Board is currently composed of six members excluding the mayor, four of which are nominated by the mayor.

During his hearing, Conaway spoke about his desire to serve the district’s diverse student body. He called for increasing the number of black and Latino teachers and administrators throughout the district.

“I think there needs to be representation and diversity,” Conaway said, responding to a question about the specific needs of Latino students. He said that he hoped to increase the number of black and Latino teachers and administrators throughout the district and work to better understand the needs of all communities.

Conaway declared his first policy proposal would be to increase support for “alternative education” and an increased focus on Individual Education Plans for students who are struggling to meet standards. He described the district’s current vocational educational programs as under supported and lacking stability.

“I’ve lived [this issue] at the beginning of my career, and at the end of my career,” he said of alternative education, referencing his experience in area alternative schools.

JoAnne Wilcox — a local artist and volunteer at Riverside Opportunity High School, where Conaway served as principal until earlier this year — spoke in support of Conaway’s nomination, highlighting his support for local art programs.

“I think he has an understanding of federal, state and local constraints that are in the way of our children,” she told the committee. “He understands that resources are not allocated equitably and the things that get in the way of that.”

But New Haven resident Jesse Rivera voiced her disappointment with the nominee’s response to a question on the specific needs of Latino students. She instead cited a need for someone who could immediately understand and represent the needs of New Haven’s Latino community, which includes large numbers of Spanish speakers and recent immigrants.

The Elm City does “not have time for Conaway to learn along the way,” Rivera said.

Ward 4 Alder Evelyn Rodriguez continuously called on residents to move their considerations away from the question of racial equity and toward Conaway’s qualifications. Rodriguez framed the question before the committee as one of verifying the competency of Harp’s nominees in accordance with city code. Rodriguez explained that the code asks the board to verify competency and not necessarily choose representatives — which she attributed to the mayor’s powers and responsibilities — directly.

The question of the board’s role proved controversial, and both alders and members of the public disputed that claim. Many, including former Board of Education President Carlos Torre, argued that a nominee who lacks both the linguistic and cultural fluency to communicate with the city’s growing Latino population is unfit for the role.

The nomination was moved to a full vote from the Board of Alders without a recommendation. The Board of Alders will meet to discuss Conaway’s nomination on Nov. 6.

Emiliano Gómez | emiliano.gomez@yale.edu

Nick Tabio | nick.tabio@yale.edu