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Never Have That Recipe Again? Charter Revision Chair Cathy Simpson Finds Her MacArthur Park

November 11th, 2012 · 39 Comments · Analysis and Comment, Education

Charter revision cake

Songwriter Jimmy Webb would be proud. Illustration by Cathy Simpson.

Cathy Simpson chaired the Charter Revision Commission that conducted numerous working sessions over several months en route to crafting a ballot question that city voters rejected on Tuesday following contentious debate to decide the selection of school board members. She shares her observations about the process and result below:

Someone left the cake out in the rain
I don’t think that I can take it
‘Cause it took so long to bake it

If you want to make enemies, try serving on a Board or Commission in your town or city. People fear or loathe reform, even in areas which scream for reform, such as the public education system in Bridgeport. The city’s public school system is one of the worst in the State of Connecticut. The evidence shows most students are performing one grade level or more below acceptable standards. The children in city schools are disenfranchised especially as compared to children who live a stone’s throw away in Fairfield or Trumbull; hopes are quelled and lives are ruined due to a failing education system.

It is easy to get apathetic or just complain about a dysfunctional system from afar, but if you want to effectuate change, you have to take action. So chairing the Commission on Charter Revision gave me the opportunity to contribute to a very worthy cause of helping city students as well as modernizing sections of an outdated charter. Our commission met twice sometimes three times a week over the course of a four-month period. We held more public hearings than required and were able to have experts as well as educators and children on both sides of the issue of mayoral appointed boards present at our fact-findings. We ultimately decided after many hours of study and listening to presenters at public hearings and fact-findings that a mayoral appointed board was the city’s best chance to help children and the community. (No need to get into all of our hard work here; for fact-checkers it is all on the record–complete transparency, including transcripts of our minutes.)

On Tuesday, when the charter revision effort was defeated, it obviously was heartbreaking for so many of us who had worked so hard for making a change. I have to commend the grass-roots efforts of those opposed and was very surprised in addition to being very disappointed in the outcome. I started to rationalize the results in my head and then learned about Donald Trump’s crazy rants on twitter (which he eventually deleted) after he learned about President Obama’s win. I certainly do not want to be like Donald Trump, a sore loser, and decided to leave my pity party featuring MacArthur Park on the playlist to instead jot down my reflections about the process.

Unlike the recipe for the cake left out in the rain in MacArthur Park, the recipe for positive change is readily available. Notably, the revised charter did not pass but the document is still there for future commissions. Even if a future commission opts leave education reform out of the mix, there are so many other revisions, such as more accountability for elected officials and the user-friendly revisions are worth salvaging.

Although the opposition to a mayoral elected board won the battle on November 6, 2012, the war against substandard schools for city children has yet to be won. Some elected school boards, like those in the suburbs are highly functional. This is not the case in Bridgeport as evidenced by eyewitness reports, which were not refuted, of some members engaging in “guerrilla warfare” against the past superintendent and other obstructionist behavior. There is a perception which is not unfounded that some of the members of Bridgeport’s elected board have acted like “… wannabe mayors immobilizing the school system with their petty squabbles, power grabs and turf protecting.” (Finn and Keegan.) The elected board will not succeed unless members of the board see the need for change and are willing to take bold, positive steps to institute reforms, keeping the students as the number-one priority.

After winning, one of the leaders of the opposition when interviewed on her win by a local news station, referred to the question on the ballot as means to trick people so that “they” could take away the people’s right to vote. This reckless comment is akin to Donald Trump’s tweets calling for a “revolution” and referring to the election as “a total sham and travesty.” I wondered who left her cake out in the rain? She won! Why not be gracious and support working together as the President did after he won the election?

Irresponsible comments such as painting those in favor of charter revision as tricksters is absurd, especially as anyone who wanted to could easily access a copy of the proposed charter as well as the entire record of the process. Such comments are only meant to divide people rather than inspire people to work together. I hope the members of the current board are not of the mind to throw away the recipe for positive change by perpetuating such nonsense.

I acknowledge that giving up the right to vote for the board of education is considered by many to be an affront to the democratic public participation in school governance. I was naive to think that citizens would embrace the position that with a mayoral appointed board, you can vote out a mayor if schools fails. In my view, this strengthens the process as voter turnout for Board of Education is very low. Clearly, the majority of voters did not agree, but this begs the question as why so many turned out to vote against the charter and yet fail to participate in Board of Education elections. Based on voter turnout statistics, thousands of people came out for the presidential election, voted on the question, but did not vote in September for the Board of Education. I am hoping residents now that they have voted to keep their right to participate in elections for Board of Education in the future will turn out in droves as they do for presidential elections. In terms of qualifications of candidates for the Board of Education, town committees should attempt to find the best qualified candidates to run and support those candidates as they would for a mayoral seat. It is that important.

Whether you agree with the initiative for education reform does not change the fact that something drastic has to be done to stop the lunacy and dysfunction which has been perpetuating for years throughout the Bridgeport public school system. The Board of Education based on the election results is solely accountable now for the future of our schools and should keep in mind that a significant amount of Bridgeport citizens voted yes for change. I hope the Bridgeport Board of Education will not throw out the recipe available to them for a much-needed culture change, so that students succeed. As Mayor DeStefano pointed out during one of the Commission’s fact-finding presentations, stadiums don’t make great cities, good public schools make great cities as people will desire to live where there are good schools. Businesses will want to invest in communities with a good schools, creating jobs and a stronger tax base. Most importantly, a good education enables children to have hope for their future.

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39 Comments so far ↓

  • Ron Mackey

    I did not know Cathy Simpson chaired the Charter Revision Commission, and I’m sure she is a lovely person but this response sounds like Karl Rove (better known as Bush’s brain) when Rove said on air election night when FOX news made the call that Ohio was going to Obama and that gave Obama more than enough electoral votes to be re-elected president. While on air Rove just couldn’t believe what FOX news was saying and he challenged the vote count. Well, we all know the story and Karl “the brain” Rove was wrong. Well, Cathy Simpson is sounding just like Karl Rove.

  • Local Eyes

    Cathy Simpson deserves a larger-than-life statue placed outside the Bridgeport BOE.

    She is correct to place BPS performance squarely on the shoulders of the elected BOE. The current Mayor, who initiated many new reforms, can wash his hands of the entire mess while hoping for the best.

    Cathy Simpson is spot on to identify education as a prime economic development issue, too. The “no” crowd won the battle while reform lost the war to the status quo. It’s not a voting issue or a civil rights issue or a vendor/contract issue. It’s about direction and changing course.

    • yahooy

      Really? Are we to assume we are confident Finch/Testa/Timpanelli are capable of reforming education in our town? YES people are blind to the fact that the most lucrative contracts up for grabs are the 10s of millions of dollars that must be spent on BOE goods and services and student nutrition. Do you want Finch/Testa/Timpanelli being the final word on how that massive amount of money is spent and who those contracts will go to?

  • Joel Gonzalez

    Cathy Simpson, I got news for you: The cake never made it to MacArthur Park–it was left at McCarthy Park, 45 Lyon Terr., Bridgeport, CT.

    The opposition found your cake after the maintenance man put it in the trash. We, the opposition, used all those mailing pieces full of nothing but utter lies and used them as fuel for the fire to bake the cake. The smoke from the fire prevented Local Eyes from seeing what was to come.

  • Andrew C Fardy

    Cathy Simpson, you stated the Board of Ed was deadlocked with petty squabbles and other deterrents. How can this be when the Board had a 6 to 3 voting majority? If debates became long-winded under Roberts Rules you Move the Question and take a Vote which would have been 6 to 3 every time.
    What you and other charter commission members did not know or chose to ignore was Mayor Finch in his five years in office never and I mean never increased the education budget. With five years of flat funding for the BOE the only two people who brought this out were John Marshal Lee and myself. No one on your board acknowledged this when JML spoke before the board.
    Comparing Fairfield to Bridgeport is unfair as they spend considerably more per student than we do.
    I have never seen any of your members at a budget hearing besides Estrada who then was public facilities.
    Making the mayor accountable every four years is a joke. He is responsible for the money that goes to the BOE now on a yearly basis and has failed miserably.
    Mayor DeStefano is a jerk, what has an appointed board accomplished? Nothing, they are running neck & neck with Hartford who has an elected board.
    What you and many many others on both sides of this question have never said is change the coursework for kids not going to college. Give them skills to get a jump start on working and job selection while they are in high school.

  • Andrew C Fardy

    Here are some facts and figures for Cathy Simpson and the rest of the Charter Revision Commission to look at:
    Bridgeport spent $13,125 per student according to the state. At the same time Hartford spent $17,524 and New Haven, $17,899.
    Bridgeport has fewer employees than Hartford and New Haven and, without a grant writer, brings in far fewer grants.
    In Bridgeport, according to state statistics, there are fewer full-time equivalent teachers–1166 in Bridgeport to 1308 in New Haven and 1294 in Hartford.
    Bridgeport has fewer administrators–92.5 in 2009-10–compared to 124 in Hartford and 130 in New Haven.
    Here is a list of FFLD CTY Towns and their expenditures from 2009-2010

    Town/city  2009-10 
    Weston     $17,359 
    Greenwich  $17,155 
    New Canaan $17,032 
    Westport   $16,974 
    Stamford   $16,127 
    Wilton     $15,692 
    Norwalk    $15,686 
    Darien     $14,981 
    Easton     $14,674 
    Fairfield  $14,455

    What about these numbers and you wonder why the kids in Bridgeport are behind?

  • Jeff Kohut

    Cathy, your intentions and efforts were laudable–it was just the wrong recipe.

    In Bridgeport, it’s all about the poverty. We need leadership that will bring the tens of thousands of living-wage jobs that are needed to lift families out of poverty and allow the creation of home/family environments that can send education-ready kids to the public school system.

    As long as Stamford gets the Bridgewaters and Bridgeport gets the Bass Pro Shops and dormitories for Stamford (e.g., Steel Point), all of the charter revision in the world isn’t going to help our kids or our public school system–especially anti-democratic charter revision.

    Monumental, job-intensive, high-value tax base creation is what Bridgeport needs to make any significant gains on any front–from education to public safety. Our mayor and our governor don’t even hint at such efforts on Bridgeport’s behalf. (There are good manufacturing jobs out there for our people–that they can fill now, with only a modicum of training. Good, moderate-skill manufacturing jobs are returning to the US, but our illustrious state, local and federal leadership are not making any effort to get them to Bridgeport.)

    We will not improve on any front as long as official state policy relegates us to the role of “servants’ quarters” for the Gold Coast/suburbs–which currently defines official, state development policy for Bridgeport (Google “One Coast, One Future).

  • Local Eyes

    Only in Bridgeport would “no” be the strategy of the victors.
    Everywhere else, winners say Yes.

  • Joel Gonzalez

    “If you want to make enemies, try serving on a Board or Commission in your town or city.”

    This is one of the my original points of view I raised here on OIB when I started blogging five years ago. I opposed the mayor during his 2007 race after finding public documents that raise red flags as to who he really was. In April of 2008, I was the only one from the Parks Department targeted for layoff and as you can see from Cathy Simpson’s own writing, the ‘my way or the highway’ mentality is still alive and well. I usually take the highway because I know it’s a two-way highway and if it isn’t one, Speedy has ‘reverse.’

  • Joel Gonzalez

    “It is easy to get apathetic or just complain about a dysfunctional system from afar, but if you want to effectuate change, you have to take action. So chairing the Commission on Charter Revision gave me the opportunity to contribute to a very worthy cause …”

    Let’s back up a little (I reversed). I served on the Democratic Town Committee; served six years on the City Council (1995-2001) during the best years in Bridgeport’s recent history; I’ve worked with Republicans and people of all walks of life; I’ve challenged leaders in the 130th and 131st district; my wife and I are active in our children’s education.

    Cathy Simpson was a hand-picked choice of mayor Bill Finch to do as he wished and she delivered. When the people put a stop to their activities, she gets all apathetic and files a complaint with OIB. Now that’s an OIB classic.

  • Mojo

    *** Cathy Simpson is guilty of nothing more than drinking the Mayor’s and her own kool-aid as well as the rest on the charter revisions board! I’m sure they set out to try to improve a set agenda of change-needed items on the city’s charter and agreed the appointed board should be part of those changes. Instead it seems they catered more to the wishes of the Mayor and failed to be much more open and transparent on the actual vote “yes” question which seemed very deceitful to many voters. Going to the city web site to try to get a better understanding was no help either! A temp state-appointed board that goes back to a city-elected board after vast improvements and seems headed in the right direction with instruction is one thing. Even a half-elected, half-appointed board with public awareness and understanding might be possible, all if done the right way! But by the elections tally, it seems more voters regardless of the million dollar ads, felt it was done the wrong way and not clear enough to lose one’s voting rights concerning the BOE. Bottom line is, like the Mayor who does not make the best decisions at times, the DTC needs to get advice from experienced educators when it’s time to make the party’s choices for the BOE! Pick good quality people who really want to serve on that thankless board and who bring something positive to the table! What makes the charter revision board, the city council or anyone else who was in favor of the Mayor picking the BOE members think he’s better at it than the DTC or voters in general? So far most of his picks have been self-serving out of towners who think they got all the answers but are afraid to work with anyone local outside of their small Mayor-serving group. In fact, just who sits down with the Mayor to ponder whether a person is right or wrong for a particular board or commission before it’s referred to a city council committee and what are the real reasons? Personally I’m not convinced an appointed board would be any more in favor of the kids than an elected one if done right. In fact, it seems the only time the Finch admin is willing to play ball is when they’re looking for something that involves control, money or power. The voters have made their choice, now it’s time for the elected BOE to get to work, stop the petty arguing and grandstanding for the attending public and put politics aside! It should not be about the board, it should be about the kids! *** TIME FOR ACTION, NOT WORDS! ***

  • matt

    Agree with Andy/Jeff–the schools need MONEY, and it was the mayor’s decision to flat-fund them. Getting rid of a pesky minority doesn’t change that fact.

    I was phoning back during the BOE special election campaign when someone asked me what the point was to opposing mayoral appointments to the board. My answer (which got a vote for my candidates, if the response was true) was the Mayor has the power to get the nominees and whatever policies he wants on the Board of Education right now, and will for the foreseeable future. The difference between a “fighting” minority and a mayoral-appointed one is simply the former forces decisions to be made in view of the public, while losing the opposition sends the decision-making into the shadows.

    Look at it from a different direction: of the five in the majority (counting Simmons as minority for the sake of argument here), how many of these would not have been appointed by Finch if he got his way with the charter revision? He already can get exactly what he wants–he just doesn’t want the accountability.

  • Mojo

    *** You could continue to flatline the educational budget with an appointed board and not hear a protesting sound and still gain steps towards improvement. ‘Cause it would leave enough money to control and have power over the school system and everyone working there in time! Cuts, cuts and more cuts means more and more “charter schools,” no? *** CONTROL, MONEY AND POWER ***

  • anna

    I’m with Local Eyes. Cathy Simpson is courageous.

  • Ron Mackey

    anna, you said, “I’m with Local Eyes. Cathy Simpson is courageous.” Why is she “courageous?”

  • Mojo

    *** It appears every time anna and Local Eyes disagree with OIB bloggers, they’ve been drinking the Mayor’s Kool-Aid, no? Will someone please at least spike that punch! ***

  • Local Eyes

    When you spike the ball in the end zone, then you can spike my punch. Blogging is about opinions. This blog was overwhelmingly pro-NO. I avoided the debate for a full week before the election. I’m just a results-oriented crybaby.

  • Zena Lu

    We don’t usually get the results we want here on OIB, but when we do we prefer them served COLD and without Kool-Aid. :)

  • BlackRockGuy

    Cathy, your article is the biggest bunch of hogwash I ever read. I showed the ballot question to Bridgeport voters and they were insulted by what was the clear intent to mislead voters … And these people were from all walks of life from the poorest residents of the East End of the city to the more prosperous parts of the North End. The people of Bridgeport inspired by our President have awakened from their long slumber and want opportunities and a true voice in how our city is run. They are not going to accept rule by Paulie Timpanelli of the BRBC.

  • Follow the Money

    Ms. Simpson’s cake recipe had a yeast infection! Her committee could have had an offer of compromise with a blended board of five elected and four appointed by the mayor.

    When she writes about qualified Board of Ed. members is she referring to Pat Crossin who was the conductor and orchestrated the Ramos health benefit?

    Cathy Simpson is a good and smart woman. You don’t have to be a quantitative analyst to understand the dynamics of a special election. Ask Tom Mulligan about it after he got his ass kicked in a special against Rob Russo!

  • John Marshall Lee

    Cathy, George, et al.,
    You were called (or volunteered) to reform a Charter for the City of Bridgeport. Most of you had not had that experience previously. I was present at most of your initial meetings. Transparency was good. Being Open to citizen response (except at hearings) was less good and that was a majority decision of your committee. I suggested (hand raised, and out of order early on) that you allocate a period of time at each of your meetings to public input and response JUST LIKE THE BOARD OF EDUCATION was doing and continues to do. IT LETS THE PUBLIC KNOW YOU ARE LISTENING TO SPEAKERS, AND IT DIRECTS YOU TO CONCERNS YOU WOULD NOT KNOW ABOUT IF YOU DID NOT HEAR THEM OR FAIL TO ATTEND TO THE MESSAGE!!!

    By setting aside public input to separate meetings you continue the impression in this City that power does not care for perceived truth. Do you remember your first PUBLIC HEARING was scheduled for Noon to 1:30 PM on a weekday at the North End Library? Only two members of your committee were present: Estrada and Valentino (with a tape recorder). I was the only member of the public who showed up to speak, to share, to comment. When asked if I wanted to talk to the recorder, I declined, but did talk to George and Charlie OFF THE RECORD, where I could be more direct and less diplomatic. I don’t think that did any good, from what you manufactured for the voter.

    How many of the seven dedicated members were aware of how badly OPEN, ACCOUNTABLE and TRANSPARENT governance has dipped in this City by attending Board and Commission meetings throughout the City in recent years? Or how is the City doing with fiscal checks and balance which you were too busy to deal with because of your set goal to meet Mayor Finch’s educational governance bullseye? Finally, during the past seven months I have frequently attacked the Mayor’s failure to attend to current Charter requirements, his current accountability. No other experts, witnesses or speakers to your group have ever defended him to CRC, to the City Council, in the CT Post or on OIB. Why not? When he says ACCOUNTABILITY, what did you hear? How was he going to exercise ACCOUNTABILITY, you did not say.

    So let me get to the crux of the matter for me: ACCOUNTABILITY of the Mayor to the current Charter. When I spoke to your group I pointed at current weaknesses. It was only Wanda Jeter at Black Rock School on election day who prophesised “the Mayor will be responsible.” Why couldn’t others have substantiated the Mayor’s reform of his own tested and lacking Charter ACCOUNTABILITY?

    No doubt your work should be closely reviewed by another Charter group in the future. At the moment there is an elected Board and an educational administration that is more OPEN, ACCOUNTABLE and TRANSPARENT than that in the Ramos or Salcedo years in my opinion. Look at the financial info posted currently. It includes the school-based budgeting rationale for each location, numbers of students and personnel. And grants info not available to BOE or the public previously. It now is in evidence. The changes in the system itself do not happen overnight and the comments of Rob Traber, a teacher, and one of the leaders of the NO coalition, were positive in the direction of efforts at evaluating performance and results as part of a State model effort. I remain hopeful because so much reform has been initiated in the past 11 months as part of a five-year plan.

    Now it’s up to parents reading to kids, knowing what they learned today, getting them to attend to their homework, keeping challenging short- and long-term objectives and goals in front of them and all the rest of the things parents do to help youth do their work of growing up responsibly and smart in the 21st Century.

    In the meantime a few of us are still looking at the numbers (as Andy Fardy pointed out above). The City gets the State ECS money, but when and how does that flow into the educational system? And who runs the accounting and control system? My goodness, if the City has had control all along, how ACCOUNTABLE does this Mayor really look? It is a time to build trust in every sector by practicing more OPEN, ACCOUNTABLE and TRANSPARENT process and governance. Going for only a part of this triad leaves us pretty much where we have been … a City that needs to reform its act.

    Thank you again to the seven CRC members for your time and effort. You did what you were asked to do, and perhaps a little more. It’s a brick in the future structure. Hope that future groups will listen to the messages early and attempt to incorporate them when baking the cake. Your final product offered way too much frosting, too limited material in the cake itself, and people got very concerned with WHO WAS HOLDING THE KNIFE AND PORTION CONTROL. Time will tell.

  • Up On Bridgeport

    Thanks to all our veterans who have served and will continue to serve. Happy belated birthday to yahooy who served our country.

    Please see today’s article from the Post and note Timpanelli’s inciteful (sic on purpose) remarks.

  • Bob Walsh

    I guess Cathy has learned the old lesson. You can’t have your cake and eat it too.

  • Bob Walsh

    I appeared before the Charter Commission on several occasions and submitted written testimony as well as personal research in the topic of the board of ed. I submitted other recommendations which truly never saw the light of day (minority party representation on the City Council).
    When all was said and done, the fix was in from day one.
    But the bottom line for me was giving up one’s right to vote for BOE candidates to improve the Bridgeport School system to the level of Hartford and New Haven (some of the so-called experts) was a tradeoff not even worthy of consideration.

  • Joel Gonzalez

    Cathy Simpson lost this competitive race. Here is the competition Cathy was supposed to enter the first time. All of us at OIB will be rooting for you. Good luck!
    threadcakes.com

  • Bob Walsh

    Cathy,
    Please enlighten one of the more ignorant voters in the city of Bridgeport who not only voted against the proposed charter change but actively worked against it.
    1) Please list the charter changes recommended by the the mayor that were rejected by the commission.
    2) Please list charter changes that were recommended by the mayor that were not only rejected by the commission but that a completely opposite proposal was approved by the commission.
    3) Please list initiatives proposed by the commission that were opposed by the mayor.
    Thank You and I look forward to a detailed response.

  • Local Eyes

    I encourage Cathy Simpson to ignore Bob Walsh.

    p.s. whoever said you can’t have your cake and eat it too didn’t understand the benefits of baking your own cake.

  • Ron Mackey

    Local Eyes, so your point is Cathy Simpson should NOT answer Bob Walsh’s concerns and tell the public the TRUTH?

  • Local Eyes

    Bob Walsh didn’t ask a question, he demanded an answer. Consequently, he should be ignored.

    The “no” crowd upheld the status quo, embraced mediocrity and prevented progressive change.

    The TRUTH was spoken on Nov. 6. Now it’s called history.

  • Bob Walsh

    I am honored by the comments Local Eyes made.
    He is so out of touch with OIB, his comment makes me feel right on the money.

  • Bob Walsh

    The commission was rigged so much for the home team, I guess that makes the chair Homer Simpson.

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