The War Over The Education Ballot Question–Who’s Right?

A diverse coalition of operatives including politicians, clergy, labor unions, civil and voting rights groups are forging an effort to defeat the Nov. 6 ballot question that if approved by voters would give Mayor Bill Finch the power to appoint members to the Board of Education.

The ballot question has taken center stage locally with less than four weeks to election day in a presidential cycle. On one side is the mayor’s well-funded campaign organization beseeching voters to reform city schools by allowing him to select board members to bring schools to a new level of progress after decades of despair. The mayor is aided by an education reform group formed last year in the aftermath of state control of schools–overturned by the Connecticut Supreme Court–calling itself Excel Bridgeport, comprised of local business concerns, education professionals and lower Fairfield County money interests staffed by city school graduates, claiming the old way of doing things doesn’t work, citing cities such as Hartford and New Haven as mayoral-appointed models that work better than an elected body in the state’s largest city.

The mayor’s organization and Excel Bridgeport have begun an outreach of public events, phone calls, mail pieces and more on the horizon to make their case.

On the opposing side is a coalition force coming together in an effort to defeat the ballot question, arguing the most efficient school board is selected by the people not a mayor interested in a power grab to control schools, contracts and jobs for his political peeps.

In recent days meetings and discussions have taken place between representatives of the teachers union Bridgeport Education Association, Connecticut’s Working Families Party that has three of its members on the elected school board, the Bridgeport Child Advocacy Coalition, the Connecticut Citizen Action Group–a statewide organization that fights for social and economic justice–several city pastors and a whole bunch of political operatives experienced in city races.

The political mix is intriguing because of its eclectic blend that hasn’t always worked together. For instance, both former State Senator Ernie Newton and outgoing State Senator Ed Gomes, who finished second and third respectively in an August primary, are working against the question. They were defeated in the primary by State Rep. Andres Ayala who was backed by the Finch forces. East End District Leader Ralph Ford is also weighing in against the  question. When Ford and Newton work together they are a formidable force for influencing votes in the East End. Ford has had a falling out with Finch after backing him for mayor last year. (That’s another story.) Ford has his own political action committee–coined the Ford Dealership by OIB friend Tom Kelly–whose money has greased a variety of political causes throughout the years.

Former City Councilman Bob Walsh and former President of the Board of Education Max Medina are also in the mix working against the ballot question. And then there’s the liberal lioness from Black Rock, retired Superior Court Judge Carmen Lopez sharpening arguments against the vote on behalf of her Working Families Party advocates.

Strap in for a good fight.

“I don’t question the mayor’s sincerity toward the kids,” says Newton, “but when you start messing around with people’s right to vote that’s a serious issue.”

In the African American community, irrespective of recently low elector turnouts, decisions by the people have emotional impact. Newton, Ford and company who know how to hammer home that message will not be bashful reminding African American voters about the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In the world of city politics you leverage every advantage possible.

The ballot question may come down to which side is best financed. The Finch forces, backed largely by business community money, will have plenty of dough to make their case. What will the opposition spend in this larger turnout presidential election?

The following question will appear at the top of the ballot in both English and Spanish above the candidates for various federal and state offices.

“Shall the City of Bridgeport approve and adopt the Charter changes as recommended by the Charter Revision Commission and approved by the City Council, including education governance reforms.”



  1. I will be voting no on this but I really think this will pass. The way this thing is written will make people vote yes when they just see this question for the first time at the voting booth.

  2. Lennie, When you say “local business concerns” it may cause readers to think of the Regional Business Council. However other than two utilities, it looks like Excel has little “business support.” It really looks like Foundation or charitable funding support directed at education of Bridgeport youth.

    I wonder how many of these folks are aware of the poor record Mayor William Finch has for accountability to fiscal matters, how stripped this City is of genuine check and balance forces on financial matters particularly, and whether the forces for better schools from outside the community realize they are taking the current voting power away from active and informed taxpayers, similar to those who are their suburban neighbors, and placing it directly in the hands of an already autocratic and non-accountable governance structure. Open, accountable and transparent municipal governance is practiced in neighboring communities to a greater degree than in Bridgeport. Well-appointed volunteers, diversified in opinion, qualified by education and expertise, and not dependent on interests or agendas other than public service serve terms that are not expired are not foreign in those communities. Bridgeport is different and those supporters need instruction about what the loss of citizen voting for BOE representation will do to further Bridgeport’s trajectory away from democratic practice. Time will tell.

    1. JML:
      Who are you kidding? The BOE knows less about OATs than they do ABCs. I have seen more OATs in the last 6 months than I have in the last 16 years. As far as “active and informed taxpayers,” who in Zombieland is that?
      If the schools in the surrounding ‘burbs are doing well why wouldn’t we want Bridgeport schools run like they are? I have always been a fan of ‘If someone is doing a good job, do your job like they do theirs.’ As far as competent BOE board members go: The mayor can only appoint people who petition for the job and the electorate can only elect people who run. The mayor can appoint whom he thinks is the best person for the job but the 5-10% of the people who actually vote may vote for the cutest candidate. Who knows? All I know is for the last 16 years the schools have gotten worse and worse. So an elected BOE is just not working. Time to try something else. Why the mayor wants to put his hand in that wasps nest is anybody’s guess. Only two things can come from being responsible for the BOE. Either you fix it and you’re a hero or nothing changed and you lose the next election.

      1. BOE SPY,
        We have an elected BOE at this moment. Is it working? Parents for Progress claimed it is at their rally on Monday. The school system is changing every day so it’s hard to pin down just what people are distressed about or proud of these days. But getting results for problems and concerns like truancy, tardiness, graduation from HS percentages, seniors getting into colleges and thriving there because of HS preparation, lowering teacher absences and turnover, and improving test scores on reading, writing, arithmetic especially are some areas to watch for data on.

        The Mayor is not putting his hands in the wasp’s nest but rather into the potential cookie jar. His will be the only meaningful opinion on the expenditure of the City side budget of $250 Million but then will also include the $240 Million education budget (with nutrition and school debt) and then whatever grants flow into the school system with P. Vallas fame can increase from $70 to $100 million. That is not a wasp’s nest. That is the honey pot, and the insects are not worker bees but predatory politicians who have a favor to ask, a job they need, a proposal to advance their self interest. The more money you control, the greater is your power.
        Have you heard the Mayor or the Charter Review group discuss the type of results he is looking for? I have not except in the broadest of terms where there is no disagreement. Making choices in running an institution that serves over 20,000 youth members of this community is not easy.

        Unless the measurable metrics are out there in front of all of us, it is about as useful as pointing out to the Mayor he is required to provide MONTHLY FINANCIAL REPORTS TO THE CITY COUNCIL AND PUBLIC EVERY MONTH OF THE YEAR per the current and future Charter. When his administration provides them only 50% of the time, is that accountable behavior? Does the CT Post write about that? Does Channel 12 cover that? Can the B&A committee guide us without numbers? Would anyone know that metric if they did not read OIB? Has the Mayor told us whether the 2012 budget showed a surplus or a deficit? Do you know or care about genuine accountability? Time will tell.

  3. John: “forces for better schools from outside the community”? Isn’t there a blog post from earlier this week talking about Bridgeport parents supporting this referendum? It doesn’t get much more insider than that. And, frankly, so what if outsiders want to give money to these schools. Aren’t the schools always struggling with their budgets? My only question: Is their money green??? This small-mindedness that Bridgeport is so special and unique and everyone who lives outside the city limits is an evildoer is utter BS. Let’s use whatever we can from inside and outside the city to make Bridgeport a better place!

    1. BridgeportBooster:
      Are you a resident and voter in Bridgeport? You don’t say. By the way if you reside outside Bridgeport, but in CT, it means you are part of the major State funding of the Bridgeport Public School system that receives around 80% of operations and 90% of Capital Building courtesy of the taxpayers of the State of CT. There should be ACCOUNTABILITY, don’t you think?

      Want to give money to the schools for materials, volunteer to mentor students, visit schools on Read Aloud Day annually, assist in coaching or providing other types of adult presence to youth activities without compensation? I do not care whether you reside in Bridgeport or Timbuktoo, frankly; although regular travel from that North African City might wear on you as a volunteer.

      Where you get the “evildoer” comments for residents of outlying communities, I don’t know; but I think way too much of Excel and Parents for Progress media fuel is focused on taking the vote away from those who are using it today. That is wrong and would not be tolerated in any other community in Fairfield County, I believe. Could we agree on “educational governance reform” in a format less destructive of voter rights than the Charter Revision Commission crafted? You bet. And do you find Mayor Finch to be an ACCOUNTABLE leader? Because if you do, I am sure you will provide Chapter and Verse to support your belief to OIB readers. It is the lack of evidence of just that ACCOUNTABILITY regarding Mayoral appointments in the City of Bridgeport that I write about. So I am most anxious to continue our discussion about making Bridgeport a better place! Too many boosters fail to attend the meetings of our Board and Commission meetings to see what state governance ‘checks and balance’ have descended to. Time will tell.

      1. John: I am a Bridgeport resident and taxpaying homeowner sick of this us vs. them nonsense. It doesn’t serve Bridgeport any good. And yes, I do want accountability. How exactly were past elected BOEs accountable to the public? Didn’t they run up a multi-million dollar deficit Vallas and the state-appointed board successfully closed? I’d rather have an appointed board that doesn’t run up deficits and knows how to operate a school district and hire a superintendent than an elected school board that can’t manage a budget, fights among itself and keeps a do-nothing superintendent gainfully employed. You say: “I think way too much of Excel and Parents for Progress media fuel is focused on taking the vote away from those who are using it today.” Who exactly is using their right to vote for the Bridgeport BOE? Are you referring to the 95% of voters who DON’T vote in those elections?

        1. BB,
          I vote at every opportunity. You can consult my record at ROV. So it is my vote I’d lose and I will fight for keeping it.
          I am not about defending what went on in previous years with the BOE. Serious change was necessary. We are seeing results of nine months of leadership by a new Superintendent who is practicing OPEN, ACCOUNTABLE and TRANSPARENT (for the most part) governance in stark contrast to previous educational leaders (under a State-appointed Board and now under an elected Board).
          What indicates to you Finch should be given a pass for fomenting budget deficits and therefore being a serious part of the financial issues that caused discord on the old BOE? Should he be accountable for pushing the same $215 Million budget number several years in a row? And rather than bore readers to death, I ask you to read my recent columns for the litany of unaccountable behavior practiced by the Mayor during the past five years in contravention of the Charter. Where do you find the Mayor Accountable in his activities? What type of accountability are you expecting when you turn your vote over to this Mayor and Mayors to come for the next few decades? Time will tell.

          1. John: You are right, we have seen changes in the schools thanks to Paul Vallas, a man recruited by an appointed board. Do you think the yahoos on the elected board would have been able to recruit someone like Vallas? Not a fat chance in hell. There isn’t a single no-nonsense “change agent” superintendent willing to sign up to work for a district governed by the cast of characters from the last elected BOE. We owe the changes we’ve seen in the schools to Vallas and we owe Vallas to an appointed board. Time has told and that’s been the result and reality to date.

          2. And Vallas will be Gonzo Alonzo in June of 2013.

            Anyone who thinks a Super is taking his lead from an elected or appointed board is dreaming. You have three elected members who served on an illegal board. You have three elected members who were elected and voted NO to a Lifetime Health benefit for Ramos.

            Why hasn’t Leticia Colon’s spot on the Council been replaced after more than a month?

            What happens when Finch or another mayor fails to fill an expired BOE term?

            I’m sick and tired of this nonsensical argument about turnout for BOE elections. This past special election was held the day after Labor Day! What is the turnout in Mayoral muni elections for BOE? Off-year munis have a similar turnout for City Council and BOE!


  4. Off topic but on budget–who knows anything about this new appointment?
    BRIDGEPORT, CT (October 10, 2012) – Mayor Bill Finch today named Anne Kelly-Lenz to the permanent post of Finance Director for the City of Bridgeport. Ms. Kelly-Lenz had been serving as Acting Finance Director since the departure earlier this year of Dawn Norton.

    Ms. Kelly-Lenz has served Bridgeport as Treasurer since 2005 and Tax Collector since 2006. Prior to joining the City of Bridgeport, she served as Treasurer and as a consultant in the Town of Stratford from 2003-05.

    “This position is a logical extension of my work in the private sector and in municipalities,” said Ms. Kelly-Lenz. “I have a great team working with me, including the Acting Tax Collector Veronica Jones and Acting Deputy Finance Director Terri Coward.”

  5. *** JML, as far as writing long blogs in response to someone’s questions or comments, I leave you with this: “more is not always better!” Moving on, if opponent groups concerning the BOE “tricky question” wish to defeat this measure then they’d better act quickly towards getting some type of info. out on reasons for voting “no” or this (as donj says) will be a done deal and pass come Nov. 6! *** SPREAD THE WORD, VOTE “NO!” ***


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