The abuse of power by some on the Hartford Board of Education was called into question after politicking and bullying behaviors ruled and dissenting voices were silenced at last week’s regular public meeting.
Upon arriving, it was evident this would be another dog-and-pony show, as a bus had been chartered to bring dozens of Achievement First supporters to the meeting. Gathering supporters and having them pack meetings is nothing new in Hartford.
Letting children see and participate in decision-making can be educational, but the nature of this particular action raises questions about who funded the bus and t-shirts, along with whether or not it is age-appropriate for elementary school children to be expected to sit still and quiet for hours on end.
Yet, the Board — at least on paper — claims that decorum is needed for its meetings.
Anyone who knows children can attest that unless their spirits have been utterly broken, they are going to be antsy in about twenty minutes, especially when the environment is freezing cold and the chairs are hard plastic.
No effort was made by the Board to remind the children that this was a solemn, public meeting, but then, it is unclear if the Board understood that either.
All night, cell phones rang in the audience without reminders from the Board to silence them. As the public spoke during the comment period, there was loud cheering and applause, booing, continuous snapping of fingers, and derisive remarks made by the audience toward members of the Board; those remarks were primarily dismissive of Board member Brad Noel, who several audience members referred to as “the white woman.” When Board member Robert Cotto spoke, there were audience members dismissing him for not being a parent; no such criticism was levied against other Board members — most of whom do not have children currently attending Hartford Public Schools — who happened to be in favor of approving plans for a new charter school. For minutes on end, audience members stood, blocking the view of those behind them.
Two individuals attending the meeting told Real Hartford that since the Board was doing nothing to quiet the audience, they took the responsibility to ask that those around them lower their voices, as it quickly became difficult to hear comments by both the public and the Board. In both of those cases, instead of being apologetic and speaking more softly, the intervening residents were met with verbal hostility.
Currently, there is no clear mechanism in place that would enable members of the audience to inform the Chair that a call to order is desired. Security guards stand between the audience and the Board of Education. Alerting via text message would require the Board have their cell phones out; it would also require that schools open their Wi-Fi so that everyone with the technology to do so can have equal access. Neither of these tactics is especially practical, but there must be some way to communicate needs for order without creating more disruption.
Until such a mechanism is in place, the Chair would need to be in touch with the vibes of the room so that he could run a meeting according to the Board of Education’s own guidelines.
The only call for order given between 5:30 and 8:30 was following the spectacle created when Board Chair Matt Poland had the mic cut for Councilman Larry Deutsch, who had signed up for public comment, waited his turn, and had only spoken for a few moments before being shut down. While others’ commentary exceeded five minutes, it was Councilman Deutsch’s desire to stand at an angle to address both the Board and the public, that allegedly made Poland declare the Working Families Party member to be out of order. Deutsch, who was attempting to share the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., said he felt it was rude to have his back to the public and wanted to speak in a way that was inclusive to the children in the audience. There is video of this incident circulating online; however, the video does not show the entirety of the incident nor does its producer provide any context needed so that the public who were not at the meeting have an accurate sense of what ensued. Councilman Deutsch did not rush the podium, did not speak out of line, did not exceed his three minutes, did not use any language that would be inappropriate for children to hear. He began by saying “We need to have the public involved. This is inspiring,” and was promptly cut off.
Deutsch, who was to speak against Achievement First was escorted away from the mic by security, all the while Poland repeatedly used the Councilman’s first name instead of his title.
John Motley — who is the Chair of the Hartford School Building Committee, a financial supporter of Teach for America, and on the Board of Directors for Achievement First Hartford — gave a maudlin “not in front of the children, Larry!” cry. On Facebook, locals asked what was behind the Chair’s actions. One individual suggested that the Chair be removed from his position for his inability to properly conduct a public meeting.
When Councilman Deutsch moved from the center of the room to the doorway as supporters gathered, I asked if he had cursed on mic. I had not heard anything inappropriate, but I wanted to confirm. He said no.
Following this incident, Deutsch said on Facebook, “It honestly was a surprise to me that the Board of Ed chair thought it was a big deal that I stood to face the public/audience as well as the Board. Seems like common democracy and avoiding rudeness, don’t you think?”
Deutsch also said that he “thought it better as example for kids and parents, more than the Board, to continue to speak to them as well, rather than meekly sit down.”
At this point in the evening, following the City Councilman’s removal from the floor, there were only a few remaining people on the public comment list and all manner of inappropriate grandstanding had occurred. Many had exceeded their three minutes, as indicated by the dinging of a bell, but only Deutsch had his mic silenced, and this happened long before his allotted three minutes were up.
Perhaps elsewhere, this would have been the spectacle of the year — a Councilman being censored moments into speaking — but the business agenda portion of the meeting had not even begun.
Board of Education Gives The Old Razzle-dazzle
Though the Achievement First vote had been scheduled for later on the agenda, it was moved up to the first spot. Poland claimed that “there’s been more scrutiny around Achievement First” than anything else in the past year and change, but what followed appeared to some residents to be scripted, rather than a genuine discussion of a significant matter.
A panel representing the interests of Achievement First sat before the Board to answer questions. Superintendent Kishimoto claimed that the charter school was “top tier” while inaccurately describing it as a “neighborhood school.” Those with Achievement First claimed that there were three children applying for every one seat available, thus creating demand for more school. Nobody provided evidence showing where these numbers came from. No studies were referenced.
When the matter of inappropriate discipline was raised — this was what all speaking against the plans for a new charter school found most alarming — there were attempts by Achievement First reps to brush the issue aside by repeating that almost half of the suspension/expulsion data was due to In School Suspensions, which they defined as when a student was removed from the classroom for more than two hours at a time.
Rather than demonstrate sound judgement as educators, it took the release of a report from the State on suspension and expulsion rates for Achievement First to wake up, saying they were “embarrassed by it,” and had sense of the problem until given data to compare themselves to public schools.
The lack of self-awareness combined with poor judgement should have informed the Board’s decision-making, but we all know how this story ends. Despite the extreme number of ISS and OSS for elementary school students, Poland said he wants to “replicate models that work.”
Since Achievement First’s wake up call, the school has not had a full year or even semester to implement and practice new policies; it has only been back in session a few weeks.
Ben Cruse — who has reportedly been named as the future Principal for Achievement First II — said that the charter school’s new policies include providing 1-to-1 mentoring of students who received multiple suspensions in the previous school year.
A woman, however, whose daughter attends this school and fits that description says the student, who also has a learning disability, has not received any of this 1-to-1 mentoring.
Besides suspensions, Achievement First was criticized for socially isolating students in a separate room, allowing them to remain in class only if students opted to wear white “reorientation” shirts. At the meeting, it was claimed that these rooms did not exist and that the t-shirt policy has been changed. Now, students can earn bracelets for good behavior. Representatives of Achievement First said there was nothing “humiliating” about this practice. Later in the meeting, Cruse referred to students being sent to the “Reflection Room” if they received four detentions. Much later, when Cotto asked directly, Achievement First said “there’s no such thing as a Reorientation Room.”
One would expect more serious discussion of a matter that removes so many children from the formal learning environment for what have often been minor infractions, but the Board was easily satisfied with a promise and a few weeks of using changed policies.
It seemed, momentarily, that Mayor Segarra was going to show integrity and backbone by challenging Achievement First on the issue of English Language Learners (ELL) being enrolled at a percentage that reflects Hartford’s demographics.
When Dacia Toll, Co-CEO and President of Achievement First, dodged the question, Segarra repeated: “But what assurances can I have?”
With no answer from Achievement First folks, Superintendent Kishimoto stepped in to explain that there are different ways that potential students could be targeted. Finally, Achievement First said that it had done “targeted ELL recruitment” elsewhere, but continued to provide no hard data.
Brad Noel, one of the two Board members to vote no, said the location of the school was still unknown, implying that more information would be needed for the plans to be fully understood. She asked outright, “Why would the Board support this?”
Cotto asked a multitude of questions, but the responses seemed ignored by most on the Board, including Lori Hudson, who appeared to be disengaged for nearly the entire meeting.
As the Board’s job is to look at the budget, Cotto inquired about $1M that Achievement First has after the bills are paid. Since Achievement First claims nonprofit status, it is legitimate to ask how the profit is used as there are guidelines indicating precisely how nonprofit organizations may spend revenue. No clear answer was given about how the “charter management fee” is spent, though 10% of “per pupil revenue” was said to go to Achievement First with some being used for Principal training.
Later, Achievement First said this new charter school “should be a net financial gain for the district.” The question asked was why Achievement First does not get local funding, just more money per pupil from the State. Here, Cotto clarified that the reason Achievement First does not receive local funding is because it is not governed by an elected school board.
Some Hartford parents have asked why the public school board would be interested in enabling charter schools, which would not have oversight from elected officials.
Cotto posed a question about the arrangement in the MOU between Achievement First and Hartford Public Schools which says that the charter school’s test scores will be included in the data for that of Hartford Public Schools.
Here, Board member Rich Wareing interrupted Cotto with a primarily incomprehensible outburst. Nobody cut his mic or attempted to escort him out. In fact, it was only after Cotto informed the Chair that nobody else was supposed to speak until a member yields the floor that Poland informed Wareing that he had to wait to respond. Before that, there was not a peep out of the Chair.
Since the charter school makes claims to be “public,” the question was asked by Cotto if any of this plan had gone out to bid through an RFP process.
Kishimoto said that “initially” they looked at twenty designs, but did not put the project out to bid in “this round” because “it’s a replication model.” In other words, because Hartford has already accepted one Achievement First school, there is no recognized need from the Superintendent for this bidding process to be followed.
If it seems like Cotto was doing most of the questioning, it’s because he was. He asked if Achievement First, in its current iteration in Hartford, meets the integration goals of Sheff vs. O’Neill.
Toll replied: “We are not responsible for meeting Sheff standards. We are a neighborhood school.” She added that it’s “not important” if Achievement First students are “sitting next to a white kid.”
In the spirit of two wrongs make everything alright, Poland remarked, “Achievement First is a community school that doesn’t meet those standards, but neither do other community schools.”
As the Chair spoke, he paused at key moments, as if waiting for applause from the riled up audience.
He said he wants to “replicate” the school “models that work,” despite all State report pointing to discipline methods that do not work, despite the practice of hiring a large number of teachers who are not certified to teach in Connecticut. Earlier in the evening, one person spoke against the push to appoint an interim Principal for the Hartford Public High School Law & Government Academy; Superintendent Kishimoto defended this decision, saying that until a permanent Principal was hired, it was necessary to appoint someone with experience. When it comes to administration, experience and credentials are desired; when it comes to those who are directly charged with educating our children, the message given is that a crash course in classroom management will suffice.
As the Board of Education voted on the adoption of the new design for Achievement First II, more questions were raised whether this decision was being made thoughtfully and solemnly, or if this was mere grandstanding. Board member Wareing, ignoring a petition containing several hundred signatures claimed that only two or three people were opposed to this measure who did not have ties to the public sector. He did not take into account how many people spoke in favor of Achievement First’s expansion who were being graded by that institution, employed by that institution, or who had close relatives under its employment. He went on to claim that the opposition to the school was nothing beyond “union politics.” Mayor Segarra also made the unsubstantiated claim that this was a union issue. The Hartford Federation of Teachers, a union, had distributed a factsheet at the meeting, yet none of the reasons for opposing the charter school were specifically related to union issues. The only actual talk of union issues at this meeting was by those claiming that there was some union conspiracy in the air.
Wareing accused the opposition of being wrapped up in “abstract” concerns, though he did not explain how questioning the exclusion of ELL and special education students, along with the very concrete problem of excessive suspensions for elementary school children, met his definition of “abstract.”
Board member Lori Hudson came out and said she was not interested in “filling quotas.”
In the end, the vote was predictable; some Hartford residents have suggested that this entire discussion was staged and that the decision was made long before the Board sat down before the public last week. Cotto and Brad Noel voted against, Rodriguez-Davila and Colon-Rivas were absent, and Poland, Hudson, McIntye, Segarra, and Wareing voted in favor of the creation of another charter school.
In Shakespeare’s King Lear a mad ruler is guided by vanity as he portions off pieces of his kingdom, giving his riches away to flatterers with questionable motives. The one party who does not sink to over-the-top gestures is disowned by Lear, even though her loyalty is truest. Later, he realizes his error and tries to make amends, but the kingdom has no return to normalcy.
Fever Pitch Has Consequences
While the Chair did nothing to call the public to order during last Tuesday’s meeting, aside from a brief show following Councilman Deutsch’s removal from the mic, it was clear that such an environment can have consequences.
One wide-eyed Hartford parent spoke with me at the meeting about the hostility she had just encountered when she attempted to mediate a tense situation involving a woman allegedly berating her young daughter in the restroom. This was in line with the rudeness turned on anyone who asked fellow audience members to use quieter voices so that they could hear the proceedings.
Unfortunately, I had my own exposure to this. As you know from reading Real Hartford, taking photographs and recording video serve as a way to document meetings and other Hartford happenings. Typically, I will take twenty pictures to get one that is usable in terms of appearance and fitting with written content. It is commonly accepted that public meetings will be documented by both the government and the media. Executive sessions and things like parent-teacher conferences are closed, and this is widely understood.
One woman attending the meeting was upset that I had taken her photograph; however, instead of tapping me on the shoulder — she was behind me for most of the meeting — and asking that I delete it, she waited until I was in a poorly lit section of the Bulkeley High parking lot before literally chasing after me. It was late and technically the meeting was still in session, but after the Achievement First vote happened, my priorities shifted to going home and having dinner like a normal person who likes to sometimes spend quality time with family. I declined to take my equipment out in a dark parking lot and declined to delete the photo which was legal to use, but which was not going to be simply because it was poor quality. I explained this choice and was perhaps mistaken in my assumption that she would, like most people, trust me because I do not waste my time with lies or promises I do not intend to keep. This was not the response the woman wanted. She stood behind my vehicle, making it impossible for me to leave without either bottoming out on a curb or backing over her. Attempts to reason did not resolve the situation. A friend placed a call to the police, who arrived and explained the law to the woman, which enabled me to finally exit this situation.
I have had a few people request I delete photos they consider to be unflattering to them (I decline) and a few who have let their camera shyness be known in the moment (which I typically honor unless the person is a current or aspiring public official). I have had people complain that a photograph, unaltered, did not portray their organization or neighborhood in the best light. Those photographs remain. We may have differences in opinion, but people have been respectful in those cases. There is, however, a line between approaching someone in a well-lit public venue or sending an email, and chasing a person down in a parking lot where there are few other people around. The latter had never happened to me before, but then, being in such an unruly public meeting for hours had not occurred either.
Following two separate fatal shootings at a Downtown club, the City leadership has rightfully taken a look at the venue’s atmosphere, calling for more responsibility from bar owners to maintain safer environments. While being cornered after the Board of Education meeting could have had a far worse outcome than an unfortunate verbal altercation and blocking of my vehicle, it should not take much imagination to make the connection here: allowing certain attitudes to go unchecked can enable things to escalate quickly.
Unlike the Shakespeare play, Hartford has opportunities to redeem itself without losing the kingdom. The public needs to behave like responsible adults at public meetings. The Board of Education needs to do the same and not allow meetings to spiral out of order. Readers who find the BOE’s behavior reprehensible need to demand change at the Board meetings and at the ballot.