Government watchdog John Marshall Lee attended the send-off session of the Board of Education last Monday as five newly elected members await their first full meeting December 9. He shares this report:
As November comes to a close so does meeting activities of City elected officials. The most significant final meeting of a Board was last Monday evening when the Board of Education convened. Linda Connor Lambeck covered the meeting and reported on discussion of an expression of interest in the Commissioner’s Network of schools. If that was part of the evening main course, there was more to this meeting that was not noted.
If you compare this final BOE meeting to a meal, it started a bit after 6:30 PM with appetizers, the positive reports from high school representatives. This was followed by an unusual dessert, an extended community send-off for retiring BOE members that included flowers for all. But Bobby Simmons who has served 12 years received organized and special attention with more than one dozen people rising to talk about his service to the community. Heartfelt respect and good humor were expressed by politicians, educational professionals, parents and union leaders for him. Several Hispanic words of wisdom and their meanings were shared in his honor. And finally a huge sheet cake was served to all present. An extended “ten minute break” was observed. Most observers, used to the tenor of BOE meetings, would not have believed the good feelings from all directions.
At 8:15 PM the meeting was called to order and proceeded with the Agenda though many in the audience gradually left in the next couple hours including students, lawyers, some Board members and public suspecting that nothing controversial would be settled. By 11:00 PM most of the audience (including the CT Post reporter) had left. Maria Pereira raised an issue regarding student safety dealing with agenda item, “School Resource Officers/Security Guards.” The dialogue opened with her statement that the school district is responsible for all outdoor team practices and home games and Sauda Baraka moved to the potential lawsuit of an injured child and the cost of same. Discussion of the activities of the eight security officers who carry weapons was pre-eminent. How their activities mesh with the 68 school security officers and the Bridgeport Police Department, the contract impacts on hours served as well as duties and the failure of Chief Gaudett to be present at the BOE meeting followed. Pereira made a motion that the Bridgeport Police Department immediately stops directing school security guards and SROs to any assignment outside the public school system. As discussion advanced Chairman Moales protested his understanding from the previous meeting that no issues of serious conflict would be advanced at the last meeting but to no avail.
By 11:20 PM a vote was held. Acting Chair Hernan Illingworth asked “All in favor?” “Ayes” came from Periera, Simmons, Baraka, and Bagley with no one opposed and Illingworth abstained. Ms. Baraka announced, “Motion carries.” But the meaning for the community is not necessarily as clear as the 4-0 vote.
A memorandum of understanding between the Schools and the Police Department has existed. Actual school security issues, like arrests, have reduced significantly in the past year. With Safe Corridors, building security technology, door alarms, wands and walkie talkies the administration has steadily moved to a position of confidence regarding security for school youth. Under school administrators Don Kennedy last year and Shively Willingham currently, various practical arrangements have created enhanced school security in cooperation with the Bridgeport Police Department and done this within budget. What will happen under this Board “policy directive?” Why was there no discussion of the practical aspects including specific costs? Is there a special interest at work here as union rules and arrangements were part of the discussion and ‘grievances’ came up as well? It is not clear how this relates to the issue of students in the classroom.
If we think of the ceremonial customs of our BOE where community comments or those from high school representatives are “appetizers,” then the BOE put “dessert” first under the impression that the meal itself would have no serious “digestive issues.” Whatever fragile BOE member understandings existed at 6:30 PM that might have been reinforced by the Simmons send-off, have likely been set-back significantly. And questions are numerous. What about necessary adjustments from the Police Department and School Departments and feelings about same? Are there morale and money issues that were not made public at the BOE meeting or at the Committee meeting? Will there be more or less security and safety for students ultimately? How do you provide security for a ‘cross-country’ team practice, for instance, when it leaves school grounds? Have there been issues with football or soccer practices of which the public has not been informed? And if an SRO observes an assault on a senior citizen across the street from his school post, does he ignore it, assist or call it in? Doing serious business late at night, with the public mostly absent has consequences. As Mom told my brother and me: “Eating dessert first may spoil your appetite for serious food.” Was it “sugar shock” or something else? Time will tell.