City leaders call for more elected members on Board of Education
New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker opposes the proposed changes to the Board of Education’s membership, while other elected officials in the city have begun to speak up in support of them.
Courtesy of Leslie Blatteau
With New Haven’s charter revision ongoing, city leaders are calling for the Board of Education to increase the number of elected members from two to four.
At the first public hearing of the newly empaneled Charter Revision Commission on Thursday, members of the New Haven Federation of Teachers, or NHFT, submitted testimony calling on the commission to recommend changes to the Board of Education. These suggested changes include increasing the numbers of elected members on the BOE, as well as removing the mayor’s voting powers on the Board.
NHFT argues that these changes will boost accountability and accessibility to the board for New Haven residents. New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker said he does not believe that change is necessary, calling the current setup “appropriate.” He also maintains that increasing the number of elected positions might bog the board down in politics.
“By increasing the number of elected members of the Board of Ed, we could communicate very clearly to families that relationships matter,” NHFT President Leslie Blatteau told the News. “Rather than just one person representing half the city, why not double that. … They could do much more intentional work and work with their neighbors to get a sense of what people’s concerns are.”
Every 10 years, the city of New Haven reviews its charter. The current Charter Review Commission met for its initial organizing meeting on Jan. 31. The commission has nine members who were approved by the full Board of Alders in early January. Those members will issue their charter recommendations by May 15, at which point the Board of Alders will craft the recommendations into referendum questions that will appear on the ballot in November.
At their first meeting Thursday evening, roughly 30 New Haveners spoke or submitted written testimony, including NHFT Executive Board Member and Wilbur Cross High School teacher Melody Gallagher, who put forward NHFT’s proposal.
“We are concerned about the outsized influence that the Mayor’s appointees can potentially have on the board, and believe that more direct representation of the city’s residents will better ensure the community’s concerns and proposed solutions are more intentionally considered,” Gallagher testified on Thursday.
Gallagher also called for the mayor to be stripped of his voting powers on the BOE. According to the NHFT proposal, the mayor would remain on the Board as an ex-officio but non-voting member.
NHFT’s proposal has received pushback from Mayor Elicker, who told the News that the current configuration is “appropriate.”
“Two elected members gives the public more direct influence while balancing the importance of having members who are knowledgeable, productive and hardworking but may not necessarily be good at getting elected,” Elicker told the News.
Elicker claimed that “many other towns” with fully elected board members struggled to function during the COVID-19 pandemic as what he called “special interests” drove members to run. Having four appointed members and two elected members, Elicker said, “helps buffer from that type of politics.”
Elicker also pushed back against calls to strip his office of voting powers on the BOE.
“The Mayor sees firsthand the needs of the district and can also articulate the concerns and needs of the city,” Elicker said. “Not having the Mayor would risk creating an us-versus-them dynamic between the Board and the city which wouldn’t be productive.”
Gallagher was backed up by testimony submitted by NHFT president Leslie Blatteau, Executive Vice President Pat DeLucia, Executive Secretary Mia Breuler and Treasurer Mike Pantaleo.
Blatteau told the News that increasing the number of elected members on the BOE would also help increase the accountability that BOE members have to city residents.
“In my experience, the two BOE members who are elected have been the most accessible to me as an NHPS parent and union leader,” Blatteau said. “We need a range of folks who will dedicate significant time to NHPS, especially those who have kids in New Haven schools and know how they operate. We just really need to sort of build structures that empower parents to learn more and get more engaged.”
Elected BOE Member Darnell Goldson told the News that he also supports the change to increase accountability with the board.
Goldson claimed that before elected BOE members were added after the 2013 charter revision referendum, the BOE did not even receive information on budgets — many of the members also did not attend meetings.
“Elicker’s arguments are nonsensical,” Goldson told the News. “The only person who stands to lose from these changes is the person who holds all the power through appointing a majority of the Board right now.”
Fair Haven Alder Sarah Miller, who serves as the chair of the Aldermanic Education Committee, also told the News that she believes the proposed change would make the BOE “more accountable, more responsive and more representative.”
She added that she has heard from residents who would be interested in running to serve on the board but could not take on a citywide campaign.
“Smaller districts would make running for the Board of Ed more doable for more parents, caregivers, and other stakeholders whose perspectives and knowledge we desperately need at the table,” Miller told the News.
Miller also countered Elicker’s arguments that more elected members would make the BOE more political or would prevent qualified candidates from running because they did not want to mount a political campaign.
“Nothing politicizes the Board more than having the Mayor as a voting member. If you look around the country, you’ll see that it is almost never done and for good reason,” Miller told the News. “Our best shot at greater accountability, responsiveness, and representation is via more elected seats.”
Mayoral candidate Tom Goldenberg told the News that the conversation on elected positions is a “distraction from the fact that the Mayor has done a poor job on education.”
Goldenberg argues that having elections will not change the makeup of the BOE because of the power the mayor has on the Democratic Town Committee.
“There are several examples of how our Democratic processes are not open,” Goldenberg told the News. “Therefore, I do not think that there should be more elected members, but I do think that we need a new Mayor. The problem isn’t with the governance structure of our Board – it is with the governing.”
The BOE currently has seven voting members and two student representatives — two elected members, four appointed members and the mayor.
Correction 2/14: A previous version of this article stated that the two student representatives on the Board of Education are also voting members.