“Dysfunctional” School Board Caused By Political Demagogues?

Board of Education member Howard Gardner shares in a commentary that also appeared in the Connecticut Post his perspective on the real cause of school board behavior.

Outside political forces tried to take over the Board of Education several years ago. Their strategy included promoting the concept a “dysfunctional board,” thus convincing the State Department of Education to replace an elected board with one comprised of political operatives of former Mayor Bill Finch. This coup attempt was subsequently overturned by the courts. Once again, the current mayor and the Democratic machine are vying for complete control of the board with the apparent cooperation of Interim Superintendent Fran Rabinowitz. Again the “D” word has raised its ugly head.

Is the current board dysfunctional? Definitely no … and yes.

No, the BBOE is not dysfunctional based on the presence of conflicts. The democratic process, Robert’s Rules, and common sense promote dialectics–contrasting and clashing of ideas through respectful deliberations. This process invariably leads to the best solutions.

And yes, the BBOE is dysfunctional for this reason–external political forces have poisoned board deliberations. Board chair Dennis Bradley, who was handpicked by Democratic Town Committee chair Mario Testa, now serves as a pawn to Testa and the Ganim administration.

Strangely, we see Republicans on the board aligning with the Democratic machine, allowing the machine to influence board decisions. Showing the greatest contempt for the 4,000 Democrats who elected him, long-time Democrat, Dave Hennessey quietly changed his party affiliation to Republican, and then resigned, allowing Mayor Ganim to appoint (his own) Republican Annette Negron.

Progressive members of the board aggressively push back on outside interferences, and insist that the board operate within the confines of the law; the reward for their effort is the attribution–dysfunctional.

Bradley declared his candidacy for state senator back in March, having served on the board for only four months. He seeks a higher office, yet he consistently demonstrates his lack of knowledge and respect for Robert’s Rules. Taking orders to suppress discourses and inquiries posed by certain members of the board, he disrespectfully walked out on a board meeting. His board cronies and the interim superintendent joined him in his walk-out on hundreds of parents.

The interim superintendent contributes to the board’s dysfunctionality. Instead of resisting outside influences, she uses them with the acumen of a seasoned politician.

She is adroit at weaving relationship webs to accomplish her agenda. Could it be that one such web includes former School Superintendent, Jim Connelly, a cousin of the interim superintendent; Mario Testa, Connelly’s old crony; Mayor Ganim; Bradley and his board minions?

Is this web being used to obstruct the board’s process to search for a permanent superintendent and to complete the evaluation of the interim superintendent? Could it be that all the wrong people are interested in keeping the interim superintendent in place indefinitely for all the wrong reasons?

Outside influences provide a political buffer for the interim superintendent. What are they asking of her in return?

The interim superintendent has used her influence to shift blame and to promote her image. What motivated the presidents of a local college and three universities to write a public letter denouncing the BBOE as dysfunctional?

None of these individuals, as reported, ever attended a single board meeting. Did they just wake up one morning and decide to write a letter via some collective and spontaneous volition?\

To conclude, the source of dysfunction within the board is not what is often suggested by the Connecticut Post’s coverage on education; or as advanced by the Education Bridgeport Blog. Their reporting focuses on the behavior of board members who rage against external political influences while completely ignoring the cause of the rage.

Sauda Baraka, Howard Gardner, Maria Pereira and Ben Walker make no apologies for the issues they have advanced. Go to the BBOE website and read the minutes of the Teaching & Learning, Facilities and Finance Committees; committees chaired respectively by Walker, Baraka and Gardner; read the issues being posited at these committee meetings.

They include: guidelines and standards to make substitute teachers more effective; strategies to improve and measure reading skills; analysis of the statistics on bullying across the district; how to curb the rising cost of special education; protecting the classroom from budget cuts; school security staffing levels and procedures; plans to improve district reading and math assessment; review of our Scientific Research Based Intervention (SRBI) initiative; introduction of African American, Latin and Caribbean studies; instructional time lost to exams/tests; special ed compliance; special needs of males of color; and, universal pre-K initiatives.

If focusing on the above issues is dysfunctional then the entire board needs to be dysfunctional.



    1. I’m astounded, for as long as I’ve been involved in Bridgeport politics, over a year ago I made a decision to support Ganim2, and it has proven to be one of the biggest mistakes I’ve made in 40 years; and I’ve made my share. I watch bad decisions being made that affect every citizen, city employee and in particular, the BOE. The evening Ganim2 and his entourage arrived at the first meet of the BOE, I knew it was just the beginning of a replay of his first time around. Mario Testa led the charge and put in place the rigging of the Chairmanship of the Board. I went home that evening knowing what was to come, since I served throughout G1’s entire tenure as Council President; I witnessed first hand what he’s capable of doing and I wish I had a way to apologize to all the voters I encouraged to support him, I was so sure he was different and would perform as he did when first elected the first time around. I conveniently pushed in the back of my mind how and why that first time ended. I never had a problem admitting when I’m wrong; I do what I can to rectify a bad decision or definitely learn by it. In this instance, I have put as much distance possible between him and his staff. Everything in the opening post is true, and it gets worse as each day goes by. Ganim and Testa have opted to become best friends with Fran Rabinowitz because since she’s interim she has nothing to lose by doing their bidding and causing disruption and chaos with the BOE. She’s insubordinate, exercises authority that’s not assigned to her job description, and if allowed, it’s only a matter of time before she opens the floodgate to allow Testa to raid the payroll and contracts that fall within the BOE budget. If Bradley and Baker win their respective elections, Ganim will have two more seats to fill with his cronies. He already displayed his willingness to ignore the City Charter by swearing in a member of the BOE he knew he had no authority to swear in. Hopefully there will be a Court action that will stop him from doing this again. His arrogance did him in once, who says lightning doesn’t strike twice!!!

      1. Lisa, I know how hard it was for you to make this statement. You are a person who keeps her word, the last time we talked you had expressed those concerns but you were going to monitor what was going on and if what you thought did happen, you would speak out and fight to make things better. You worked hard but what you and many others wanted didn’t happen and in fact Joe turned his back on you and those who supported him and he decided to go in a different direction.

        1. Thanks, Ron. I was so relieved when we had the opportunity to talk a while back. I had a feeling you knew what I wanted to say. I just wasn’t there yet. God willing, if I’m still alive and well when the next mayoral cycle comes, I will work until I drop to try to make up for my gross error in judgement, and after these present elections are over, I intend to slowly let my feelings be known to my good friends and former constituents, and of course promise them I’ll never do them wrong again. Wink wink.

  1. I remember years ago. Don’t know who was mayor at the time but Mario was Town Chair. As the rumor had it, he went on vacation back to the old country and while he was gone the BOE had voted on some school construction projects.
    Needless to say without Mario around to direct the voting, some contracts were awarded that he had promised to others.
    When he got back he was livid. He started calling anyone and everyone to find out what went wrong.
    He was so upset he called a non-Mario vote and started questioning him. Finally this person said, Mario, I don’t take orders from you. Did you forget?
    Mario simply apologized and went on to berate another BOE member.
    I think this was part of the bad old days Lisa was referring to.

  2. In my opinion there is more than enough blame to go around here. For too long the needs of Bridgeport’s kids have taken a back seat to the interests and agendas of board members. Some support the teachers unions; some support school reform groups; some members want everything done their way or not at all. Enough already!

    It is time to put the kids and their future first.

  3. What a beautiful, efficient piece of expository writing! Nobody does it better than Lennie Grimaldi! He led us by the shortest possible route through the dauntingly convoluted Byzantine labyrinth that describes the interactions of the members of the BOE and Bridgeport city government/party politics. Amazing! Even those unfamiliar with Bridgeport and its BOE can go away after reading this article and have a real sense, with specifics, of the essence of the problems with Bridgeport BOE function.

    That being said, the dysfunctional outcome of the aforementioned (current/on-going) BOE-City Politics dynamic, is only a symptom of the economic-AIDS contracted by the city as US economic/social policy undermined US cities beginning several decades ago (really in the 1950s). (Recall the archived article from the Bridgeport Post presented recently on this blog and in the Connecticut Post written in the early 1960s that described the unhealthy socioeconomic conditions of Bridgeport at the time in terms of the condition of the public school system, with the focus on Bassick High School?)

    I was a student-witness of the earlier part of the Bridgeport public school system nosedive. It started long before Joe Ganim and Mario Testa or Jim Connelly arrived on the scene. Not to absolve any of our city’s governmental or political leaders of any shortcomings or missteps in regard to the condition of the public schools, but truly, when considered in terms of the socioeconomic roots of the problems of the city’s school system, the real blame for the problems lies much farther up the food chain than Bridgeport City Hall. The jobs and money games played by political elements that befuddle the BOE involve really minor situations that don’t matter much in the grand scheme of things. Bridgeport, in socioeconomic terms, is very seriously ill, on the critical list. The problems of the school system are rooted in the problems of families mired in jobless and working-poor poverty and hopelessness. Bridgeport’s school system will not improve until tens of thousands of living-wage jobs are created in Bridgeport in the context of new tax base that can provide perhaps $100 million dollars in additional $ to bring Bridgeport public school education up to 21st Century, First World standards. The chump change being shuffled around by political games in Bridgeport is almost meaningless in the grand scheme of things. (Not to imply approval of such games.)

    The BOE must stop chasing its tail, however righteous that tail-chasing might be.

    The members of the BOE who are expending tremendous energy trying to properly address public school policy and administration in the context of the political turmoil generated in the context of their righteous fight, would do well to create a detailed roadmap of where the public school system needs to go, along with a detailed roadmap of how to get there, including the optimal financial situation. When they have this, they should then use all means at their disposal to secure backing of the public and all levels of government in securing that optimal financial situation and implementing the plan for our public school renaissance.

    In pursuing public and government support for the financing and implementation of the plan, the BOE would, of necessity, call much attention to the larger socioeconomic plight of Bridgeport toward the end of the revival of the Bridgeport economy. The current lawsuit addressing the state underfunding of Connecticut pubic schools provides an example, as well as a little momentum, for the types of efforts that are needed to fix things in Bridgeport.

    It’s all about $ and the education-income gap in American society. If Bridgeport could become ground-zero in the political activity focused on addressing this education-income gap, we might be able to get the type and level of $-action and political action from high levels that are needed to fix Bridgeport and its school system.

    I am aware of national news outlets and journalists, including Al Jazeera US, that are very interested in the education/income gap issue in the US (especially Connecticut) who would be eager to cover a Bridgeport BOE-led effort to address these issues in Bridgeport. Let’s stop chasing our tails locally and take the action/protests to levels of government/influence that can actually make a difference.

    To the dedicated, passionate members of the BOE who want to rescue the school system; I say to you the city must be socioeconomically rescued as part and parcel of any rescue of the school system.

    Stop wasting time and energy locally and join others (via networking/the sympathetic media) in taking the fight to levels that can implement real change. Don’t waste energy fighting over a few school system jobs and chump change. Create a comprehensive plan for the school system with clear financing goals connected to indicated education goals, and take it to Hartford and Washington.

    This is an election year; use it to get the attention and commitment of the big-office hopefuls.

  4. While I will agree with with the title of this article, this statement does not seem to make sense, “Showing the greatest contempt for the 4,000 Democrats who elected him, long-time Democrat Dave Hennessey quietly changed his party affiliation to Republican, and then resigned, allowing Mayor Ganim to appoint (his own) Republican Annette Negron.” If Dave wanted Mario and the Mayor to be able to cherry pick his replacement, why would he go through all the trouble of registering Republican? If Dave remained a Democrat, his seat would have been decided by the DTC, correct? And really shouldn’t his seat have been decided by the RTC? Seems to me Dave was making an effort to keep this decision as far from Joe and Mario as he could. I like Howard, I have met him, seems like a decent man, but he lost me there. Seems he has issues with certain BOE members, seems like he attacked Dave just to attack him. You can’t point a finger at dysfunction when you make dysfunctional statements like that. I stopped reading his article at that statement.

    1. Mary, it was the responsibility, by Charter, for the remaining members of the BOE to fill the vacancy. If they didn’t act within a specified timeframe, the matter would then go the the City Council. Ganim arbitrarily named the replacement before the remaining members had the opportunity to exercise their responsibility. The unaddressed question was whether the replacement should be a Democrat or Republican. The conflict of clarity began when Dave changed his affiliation just before resigning. Some argue he was elected as a Democrat and a Democrat should replace him, and some say that he was a Republican when he resigned and the seat should go that way. I don’t understand the reason why Dave chose to take that route, but it caused confusion that will probably be determined by a Judge. I believe the matter will be heard in late August. The DTC or RDC have no standing in naming a replacement for the BOE.

  5. www .the74million.org/article/connecticuts-shame-in-one-of-americas-richest-counties-a-high-school-has-been-failing-for-50-years

    Check out this link to a recent “Connecticut Post” article on the Bridgeport public schools that contains excerpts from a very eloquent 1961 “Bridgeport Herald” article written by a noted Bridgeport journalist of the time. The observations of that writer were an indictment of American society in 1961 and could present as a harbinger of what was to come and where we are now. And it also provides strong support for the contention that not much can be accomplished for Bridgeport or the school system through internecine political warfare in Bridgeport, however righteous the reasons/motivations.

    The powers that control politics and the economy in this country are only too glad to have needy cities preoccupied with local catfighting that keeps them distracted from the real source of their problems at much higher levels of the food chain. Hence the BOE takeover and political warfare of 2011-2012 (which continue to the present).

  6. Phil, you are absolutely correct, the future of Bridgeport’s children is being politically corrupted by people’s political aspirations, by personal vendettas and by the need to control everything.

    When are the children of Bridgeport going to be the only priority among the leadership of the BBOE, the members of the BBOE, the DTC and the Mayor?


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