Sherr will challenge O’Neill for school board chair

Peter Sherr, at left, seen here getting congratulations on Election Night, has thrown the Board of Education chairman race for a loop by adding his name to it. — John Ferris Robben photo

Peter Sherr, at left, seen here getting congratulations on Election Night, has thrown the Board of Education chairman race for a loop by adding his name to it. — John Ferris Robben photo

UPDATED MONDAY 5:25 P.M. — For the third year in a row the Board of Education chairman’s election has been thrown for a loop as a freshly re-elected Peter Sherr has announced that he will seek the board’s top position, setting up a challenge to fellow Republican Barbara O’Neill.

Mr. Sherr, despite not receiving the Republican Town Committee’s endorsement, was re-elected this month with the highest vote total of any of the six candidates running from either party. He outpolled both Peter Bernstein and Brian Peldunas, the two endorsed Republican candidates, and won a second four-year term as the three Republicans vied for two seats. Now he has said he will stand for chairman when the board elects its officers on Thursday night at 7 at Old Greenwich School, he and told the Post that he informed his Republican colleagues of that on Sunday.

For the past two years, the Board of Education had a Democrat, Leslie Moriarty, as chairman for the first time in decades in Republican-dominated Greenwich. However, Ms. Moriarty did not run for a new term and last week was her final meeting. It had been expected that Ms. O’Neill, the board’s vice chairman for the last two years, would be the favorite to be the new chairman since she had support pledged to her from the board’s Democrats. But now Mr. Sherr’s announcement puts a big question mark next to what had once been a very standard election.

“I’m glad to run for this and I would be happy to serve as chairman if my colleagues support me, but I also see this as a bit of an obligation to the will of the voters,” Mr. Sherr told the Post in an interview on Sunday. “I believe the voters sent a very loud and clear message that they want change on the board and they want new leadership. That’s why I will be standing up and running for this position.”

In an interview with the Post on Monday, Ms. O’Neill confirmed that she would be running for chairman and that Mr. Sherr’s announcement would not change her plans.

“I am definitely looking to stand for chair,” Ms. O’Neill said. “I’ve gotten a lot of emails and calls, especially recently, encouraging me to run and be the next chairman. I believe the vote total I received when I ran for election [in 2011] showed a mandate from the voters to go forward with this. The next step, of course, will be for the board to meet and decide.”

In the 2011 election, Ms. O’Neill, a former teacher and administrator, received 8,898 votes and was the leading vote getter amongst all the board candidates in a competitive race as four Republicans ran for two spots. In this month’s elections, Mr. Sherr was also the leading vote getter, receiving 6,615 votes compared to Mr. Bernstein’s 6,510 and Brian Peldunas’ 6,092.

Ms. O’Neill said she was told by Mr. Sherr about his own plans when they met Sunday at her request so she could ask for his support in Thursday’s election.

Mr. Sherr’s attempt could easily cause a fracture among the Republicans on the board, and there is a caucus scheduled for Tuesday night, when it will be discussed. Board member Peter von Braun, a Republican, told the Post on Sunday that he could not speak about what vote he would make until after the caucus, but added, “I can’t help but say that Peter would be a great candidate.”

Mr. Bernstein is the other Republican on the board, and then there are the four Democratic caucus members, whose vote seems likely to swing the election. Despite having the chairmanship the past two years and a seemingly split Republican party, it seemed likely as of Monday that the Democrats would not nominate one of their own for the position and would instead support Ms. O’Neill. Ms. O’Neill said she wouldn’t comment on any speculation about that.

In an email from earlier this month sent to Mr. von Braun by Democratic board member Adriana Ospina that was shared with the Post by a third party, she stated, “Barbara O’Neill is the Republican board member whom the Democratic caucus unanimously supports for chair.”

Neither Ms. Ospina nor Democratic board member Jennifer Dayton could be reached for immediate comment. The two other Democrats on the board, Debbie Appelbaum and Laura Erickson, have not yet been sworn in but will be on Thursday prior to the election of officers.

Ironically it was Mr. Sherr’s vote that put the board in Democratic hands two years ago, the first time the vote had been anything more than a non-event in recent memory. Mr. Sherr had clashed with then-chairman Steven Anderson and at first abstained from voting in the officers election, denying Mr. Anderson a majority against Ms. Moriarty’s challenge, and then switched his vote to supporting Ms. Moriarty, enraging Republican Party leadership in town.

Mr. Sherr told the Post at the time that he had told Republican leadership that he could not support Mr. Anderson months in advance and that he had begged them to find another candidate since he could not stand for chairman then. Mr. Sherr said that now, after this year’s vote for his re-election had come in, he felt he was in a better position to do the job given the support he got.

Last year, Ms. O’Neill was expected to challenge Ms. Moriarty for chairman but instead, after a delay in the initial vote, decided to remain as vice chairman and Ms. Moriarty was elected for a second year. It has been suggested since then that Democrats on the board had made a deal with Ms. O’Neill to support her this year in exchange for her not running for chair last year.

In recent months, Mr. Sherr has become a major face of opposition to the racial balance mandate impacting two Greenwich elementary schools, New Lebanon and Hamilton Avenue. Mr. Sherr and Mr. von Braun have called for strengthening Greenwich’s neighborhood schools and claimed that those two schools are exempt from the mandate because they are magnet schools and therefore would be classified as “unique schools” and would not have to be balanced.

State Commissioner of Education Stefan Pryor has said he does not agree with that interpretation since the schools are only partial magnets, but Mr. Sherr has persisted and several vocal parents have backed him up, calling for a court challenge to the mandate and opposing Superintendent of Schools William McKersie’s plan to make North Street School an open school of choice to try to deal with racial balance and overcrowding problems.

Mr. Sherr said he will be working to convince his Republican colleagues of his merits leading to Thursday’s scheduled election of officers. He noted that he is now the most experienced member of the board, having already served a four-year term that included being chairman of the negotiations committee. He said he would also talk to them about his leadership skills and try to get their support.

“I have a case to make about why I believe I deserve their support,” Mr. Sherr said, later adding, “I’m reading the situation based on what the voters have said and I’m reading it as they don’t want things to go on as they have been. They want leadership and they want change. If they didn’t like the things I was doing and didn’t like the policies I was advocating, I would have been repudiated at the ballot box.”

Mr. Sherr said he met personally with his fellow Republicans to tell them his decision, including Ms. O’Neill. He said, “Nobody tried to talk me out of that,” but said he couldn’t speculate about what their reactions were or what they might do on Thursday.

In talking with the Post, Mr. Sherr said if he was elected chairman he would look to move away from the more centralized board of past years, where the majority of the power rested with the chair and others didn’t have the chance to contribute as much.

“I want to organize the work quite differently and harness the skills and capabilities that are there in the other seven members of the board,” Mr. Sherr said. “I believe that would lead to a much more efficient and a much more effective board.”


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