Board of Ed Elections, Party Politics vs. Principle



Town elections this November may seem like a non-event, with the Democrats having trouble finding a candidate willing to challenge Peter Tesei for the First Selectman’s spot and the rest of the board of selectman likely to remain unchanged. But wait! There is a very important reason why we should make a trip to the polls for this off-year election, and it has to do with the Board of Education (BOE), which by state law is a partisan organization with an equal number of Republicans and Democrats elected to its eight-member board.

It is no secret that over the past dozen years the record of the BOE has been less than impressive. Our schools are ranked well below neighboring districts in academic performance, as measured by Connecticut’s standardized tests. The board has made one bad choice after another in school superintendents (six in the past eleven years), capped by attempts by the Republican Town Committee (RTC) to cover-up the failure of the board’s chairman, Steve Anderson, to exercise proper governance and his lack of oversight of the recently departed superintendent Sdney Freund. 

Anderson was accused of failing to communicate to his board the unauthorized commitment he and Freund made to adopt controversial International Baccalaureate (IB) programs for elementary and middle schools—commitments also made without public hearings. Peter Sherr and Marianna Pons Cohen had the courage to bring to the board’s attention this and other serious irregularities in governance by Anderson and Freund. Whereupon, Sherr and Cohen were publicly and loudly vilified by Anderson and members of the RTC for impugning Anderson’s governorship.

This is a critical time for the Board of Ed. Just as it faces having to implement a potentially radical plan to meet the state mandate to redress racial imbalance in Hamilton Avenue and New Lebanon schools, as many as four incumbents will be leaving, including Peter Sherr, who was denied re-nomination by the RTC in an act of pure political retribution. He is therefore running as a petition candidate. Should his bid to win reelection not succeed, the board will lose one of its most capable and experienced members.

In the eyes of RTC’s executive committee, Peter Sherr’s sin was to vote his conscience and refuse to support its choice of Anderson to return as Board Chairman in 2011. Sherr and Pons Cohen had rightfully held him responsible for the debacle that culminated in Freund’s abrupt resignation, with an odor of misdeeds preceding and following his exit. Sherr did not believe Anderson’s failure of leadership should be rewarded. The RTC then turned to Barbara O’Neill who first agreed to be chairman but at the last minute reneged, saying that she was going to vote to elect Leslie Moriarty, a Democrat, for chairman regardless of  “what the RTC chairman thinks.” The committee went back to propose Anderson, but Sherr held his ground, making it clear, as he had at the very outset, that he would vote for any Republican except Anderson. As a result, the chairmanship went to a Democrat.

While the angst of the RTC’s executive committee is understandable, a very significant number of its regular members looked beyond pure politics and supported Sherr’s nomination based on his independence and integrity. In spite of the committee’s effort to block his nomination, he was only a few votes short of nomination by RTC’s full membership. 

Over the years the RTC, as the majority party, has been a constructive guiding force in town government. And it is true that the unexpected decision of Barbara O’Neill not to accept chairmanship put the RTC in an awkward position. Still, in view of his track record there seems to be no justification for returning the chairmanship to Anderson, and none for denying the return of Sherr to the board. It is unfortunate that politics had overcome principle. 

Peter Sherr has a strong point of view. He believes we need a realistic plan that doesn’t just meet racial balance quotas, but will actually improve educational performance. “It is fundamentally wrong,” he says, “to be classifying children by race and forcing them into social engineering schemes their parents don’t want. Our focus should not be on redistricting and busing to appease a potentially unconstitutional racial quota system developed in Hartford, but should instead be on closing the achievement gap in the schools in question with better programs and digital learning.”

He believes that the true interest of the children themselves on leaving their neighborhoods, as well as that of their parents, should be determined by in-depth interviews, rather than creating policy based on predisposed assumptions. And he adds, “While collaborating with the state board on ways to improve education, we should be prepared to challenge, if necessary, potentially unconstitutional schemes that don’t improve the lives of our children and undermine our neighborhoods.”

The degree of support for Peter Sherr and his concept of how Greenwich public education can be improved is evidenced by the fact that with a mere two-week window this summer, 1,345 people signed his petition, including over 1,000 Republicans. All he needs now is our vote in November.

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