Yale Daily News

On Tuesday, New Haven citizens will vote for a representative to the New Haven Public Schools Board of Education. Voters must select a candidate without having seen the two in conversation, as one has refused to meet his opponent in debate.

The candidates on the ballots are Republican James O’Connell and incumbent Democratic Edward Joyner. In 2015, Joyner ran against O’Connell and won the District 1 seat. Currently, the Board of Education consists of Mayor Justin Elicker, four representatives appointed by Elicker, one student representative and two others selected by voters. This election cycle, according to the New Haven Republican Town Committee, O’Connell is running to put students first and to provide professionalism and accountability to the Board of Education. Joyner has refused to engage with his opponent in person.

James O’Connell

For the last 42 years, O’Connell has taught science at Sacred Heart High School in Waterbury, where he has served as chairperson of the Science Department. O’Connell has also served as a paramedic for more than 35 years, primarily in the New Haven and Meriden areas.

On Saturday, O’Connell told the News about his experience and prospective policy.

“New Haven has been an only one party town since before I was born,” O’Connell said. “If you don’t challenge somebody, then they have no responsibility or incentive to run a campaign, and they just win automatically. So this year, I decided to do a rematch with Dr. Joyner, who I actually ran against in 2015.”

O’Connell said his primary advantage over Joyner is that he will provide an “outside observer” perspective, as he has never been administratively engaged with NHPS. He added that he will try to bring “some kind of cohesion” between other members on the board, as he noticed that some board decisions are decided by three to four votes.

O’Connell was frustrated to see that New Haven did not try to have full in-person teaching during the last academic year, which he believes cannot be substituted by online classes. Last fall, in-person learning was not available to most NHPS students. In spring of 2021, more than half of students participated in hybrid learning, which included both remote and some in-person learning. O’Connell said he would have tried in-person teaching throughout last school year, with recommended vaccination, mandatory mask wearing and new ventilation system in the school buildings to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

O’Connell said if elected, he will set up an intensive remediation program in basic areas of language arts and math. He may consider lengthening the school day and providing weekend or evening sessions. He noted that he is aware this program can be expensive, but New Haven has received funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act and American Rescue Plan, which he thinks can be used to cover the expense.

“In primary grades if you don’t know how to read, you’re doomed,” O’Connell said. “I would say that get those kids as close to grade level as possible, as soon as possible.”

O’Connell also listed a perceived lack of supportive family members, a need to expand student access to technology and issues with school lunches as problems he would seek to address during his term. When asked about the district’s chronic absenteeism rate, he said he will try to make the school “a desirable, happy place.”

O’Connell told the News that he was offered a chance to participate in a New Haven Independent public forum debate with Joyner this year, which they did six years ago. O’Connell said he agreed to the proposal, but the offer was retracted.

O’Connell said he later wrote a personal letter to Joyner asking him to reconsider his decision against participating in the public forum debate, but he did not receive a response from the incumbent.

“I think it’s important for the voters of New Haven to be able to hear the candidates discuss and they can make their own minds up after that,” O’Connell said. He acknowledged that the Democratic party has an overwhelming advantage in the city, Joyner is a “very qualified individual” and it would take “some miracle for anybody for [his] party to actually win on election day.”

He added that he was disappointed that Joyner refused to participate in the debate. In a statement to the New Haven Independent, Joyner justified his decision by stating that O’Connell is a Republican who “pops up out of nowhere” and doesn’t hold any ties to NHPS. Joyner clarified that if O’Connell had run as an independent he may have reconsidered his decision.

O’Connell responded to the statement in an interview with the News.

“Neither major party in the United States or in Connecticut is perfect,” O’Connell replied. “We all have some issues with some members of our party. And I am not running against Donald Trump, I am not running against the former Secretary of Education, I am running against Dr. Joyner. I think the voters deserve to hear candidates.”

O’Connell plans to drop off around 8,000 informational pamphlets at the various doorsteps throughout the city by tomorrow, if weather permits. On Election Day, O’Connell will go to 15 polling stations throughout the day.

“I know that I face an uphill battle,” O’Connell said. “But I’ll be out there. People have a tendency to vote for a straight party. But I’m going to hope for the best. And if it comes out good. I’ll be happy. If it comes out bad, I’ll be happy that I participated.”

Edward Joyner

Joyner is the incumbent representative on the Board of Education. He was a teacher and assistant principal at James Hillhouse High School, the principal of Jackie Robinson Middle School, an assistant professor and administrator at the Yale Child Study Center and the Executive Director of the School Development Program at Yale. He was first elected in 2015, and won a new term in the district general election in 2017.

The News made several attempts to contact Joyner and his colleagues for an interview. However, Joyner could not be reached for comments at the time of publication.

At the July 27 Democratic Town Convention at the Betsy Ross Parish House on Kimberly Avenue, Joyner accepted the Democratic Town Committee’s unanimous endorsement for reelection to the Board of Education.

“I’ve had a long journey in life,” Joyner said at the convention. “I started as a poor kid in a small town in North Carolina… I certainly had the culture, the love and the encouragement that all children need to succeed.”

Joyner recalled that he has received mentorship from different communities along the way, including Jewish, Italian, Irish, queer and female communities. “That means that no matter what your ethnicity, race, sexual orientation, no matter what, that the Creator God made us all from the same source. All God’s children conspired to create the person that is standing before you today,” Joyner said.

During his time on the Board, Joyner has suggested the Board adopt a “healthy building certification” for all NHPS buildings, establish mentorship programs for middle school students, and improve school curriculum by “blending skill and content” and critically look at a variety of ethnic histories.

Connecticut law allows eligible residents to register to vote at any time on Election Day, which means that those not already registered still have the chance to do so on Tuesday. Same-day registration will take place at City Hall, which is located at 165 Church St.