The West Hartford Board of Education was presented with a number of issues during Tuesday’s passionate Public Comment session.
By Ronni Newton
A crowd packed Town Council chambers and spilled out into the hallway Tuesday night to speak to the West Hartford Board of Education and hear commentary about multiple highly-charged issues.
The Board was scheduled to vote on a proposal to change school start times – an issue that inspired passionate feelings both for and against making the change. A motion to table the proposal was approved by the Board in a 5-2 vote along party lines.
Members of the public also addressed the Board about human rights issues, particularly about consequences for hate speech in light of an anti-Semitic incident that took place at Hall High School last week.
Dozens of teachers, dressed in red and wearing stickers that read: “Is this how you treat the best teachers in CT,” sat in the audience, standing and cheering when West Hartford Education Association Negotiations Chair David Simon spoke on their behalf regarding a desire to join the state healthcare plan and to be paid a decent and competitive salary.
The Board also voted – as scheduled – to elect new officers.
Cheryl Greenberg, who has chaired the Board since taking over for Mark Overmyer-Velazquez in September 2017, began the meeting by reading a prepared statement, telling the crowd that she was sorry that many of the comments she made to those who had emailed the Board about school start times had become public, particularly one that was specifically intended to remain private and was personally insulting and dismissive, for forwarding correspondence between herself and another Board member to her friend Sarah Raskin, who heads the local Wake Up West Hartford organization, and for the impression that she had over-stepped into advocacy.
“I have tried to be fair and open to all opinions in my public actions and to make sure all sides get a fair hearing. That is my job as chair and I did it to the best of my ability,” Greenberg said. “I take full responsibility for all errors in judgement and deeply apologize for any hurt or embarrassment that I caused.”
She said she hopes this will not distract the community from the “substantive matter of school start times which deserves a full hearing on its own merits and challenges.”
Greenberg turned the rest of the meeting over to Carol Blanks, who was later elected Board chair. The Board customarily elects new leaders each November. Deb Polun was elected vice chair, and Lorna Thomas-Farquharson is secretary.
Before the Public Comment session, Blanks also read a statement, denouncing the incidents of racism and anti-Semitism that have taken place nationally and the specific incident of anti-Semitism that took place at Hall last week. Bigotry of any kind is unacceptable, she said, and our schools should be places of safety where everyone feels they can belong.
Blanks said that the Hall incident, in which a male student made remarks to a female student about Jews being “authoritative,” and crafted a swastika out of colored beads being used in a science experiment, could be a teachable moment. She said that the Board will examine its disciplinary policies regarding hate and bullying.
Individuals are permitted to speak to the Board during Public Comment sessions at the beginning and end of the meeting, and many who opposed the proposed change in start times showed up early to get on the list for a chance to speak. Eight were permitted to speak on that topic in the beginning of the meeting, including resident Meghan Culmo, who said that the process was tainted by two women who believe they know better than the parents how to raise someone else’s children.
“This is an epic governmental overreach by not listening to your constituents,” Culmo said, the majority of whom opposed a change once they realized the specifics and ramifications. “I don’t know how Cheryl Greenberg stays on this board … I call for her to resign.”
Others spoke about what they are sure would be a larger-than-anticipated fiscal impact, how the change would affect family life, and the need for parents to take charge of their own children and prevent them from using sleep-interfering electronics before bedtime to ensure better sleep.
“I strongly encourage an earlier bedtime for West Hartford teens rather than an earlier start,” said Hall student Emma Nordquist.
Amy Furstein, a medical technician who opposed the change, said she was very upset and disheartened that her job and her opinion were mocked in emails between Greenberg and Raskin, something that she said was “bullying, childish, and atrocious.”
“Shouldn’t the behavior of our Board leader set an example?” Furstein said, calling for Greenberg to resign.
Dr. Kelly Webber, and others who spoke at the end of the meeting, said that science is the compelling reason that teens should start school later. “Science support is simple – teenager brains are different from young children and adults,” she said.
“Thousands of high schools have changed their times and none have gone back,” said Susan Rubman Gold, a resident and clinical psychologist.
David Simon spoke to the Board about a different issue. As negotiator for the West Hartford Education Association (WHEA), Simon was representing the more than 100 teachers, dressed in red, who crowded Council chambers and stood in the hallway.
Simon said that the union had proposed a healthcare proposal that would save more than $1 million for each year of the contract, and yet although it seemed like a “no-brainer,” it was rejected by the Board. The plan that the Board proposed would instead result in the loss of earnings for teachers despite any salary increases, potentially driving those teachers out of the district.
“We the teachers of West Hartford are negotiating for a salary that keeps up with inflation, a healthcare plan that is better and can save the taxpayers enormous sums of money,” said Simon.
Following the meeting, Blanks told We-Ha.com that she could not comment on the teacher’s contract negotiations.
“That is something I am not at liberty to discuss right now because those discussions are considered closed door negotiations,” Blanks said, “between the WHEA and the Board of Education.”
Kim Jackson, mother of the student who was the victim of the anti-Semitic acts, also addressed the Board, and expressed her disappointment that consequences faced by the male student for his hateful actions toward her daughter, Leah, did not prevent him from the privilege of playing in the Hall vs. Conard football game just four days after the incident.
“Kids don’t come with instructions … Do kids make mistakes? Yes, of course they do.” But choices come with consequences, Jackson said. That’s the only way that children will learn accountability, and it’s the responsibility of educators, coaches and parents to teach it them.
Jackson requested “that the Board look very carefully at the policies in the student handbook, student code of conduct, and in the student athlete handbook. We need to make sure that what happened to my daughter does not happen to anyone else of any race, religion, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation.” She received a rousing round of applause and a standing ovation from the audience.
Following the meeting, Blanks told We-Ha.com that going forward the policy committee will look into modifying its policies.
“That’s an issue that the administration and the Hall High School principal are working on and as a Board, through the policy subcommittee, we will look at the policies that are currently on the books and look to improve them, add, modify, or tweak,” Blanks said.
When the Board reached the agenda item for school start times, Blanks read a statement. She thanked the Rethinking School Start Times Committee for its “good, honest work” led by Anne McKernan.
At a time of of such high emotions, Blanks said that it would be a mistake to vote, and it would not be what’s best for West Hartford.
“We surveyed parents, teachers, and children, with over seven thousand respondents, and, in the past few weeks, have received hundred of emails, on both sides of the topic. We, as elected Board of Education members, must always do what is best for the schools, and our students.”
Her request to table the action on the school start times proposal was approved 5-2 along party lines.
When and if the proposal to change school start times would come back to a vote is “to be determined,” Blanks told We-Ha.com after the meeting. She said that it would be discussed by the Board, and all options, including modifying the proposal, could be considered.
The Board has other important agenda items to review in the next few months, Blanks said, including the budget.
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