Greenwich Board of Education delays vote on chairman to Dec. 5

For the second time in three years, the Board of Education faced uncertainty over its vote for a chairman as Tuesday night it voted to postpone the election of officers until Dec. 5.

At Tuesday night’s budget meeting the board had been scheduled to take a second vote for a chairman after a vote on Nov. 21 resulted in a 4-4 deadlock, with the Republicans all voting for Republican Peter Sherr and the Democrats all voting for Democrat Adriana Ospina. Instead the board postponed the vote 7-1 to the Dec. 5 work session at 7 p.m. at the Havemeyer Building on Greenwich Avenue.

Ms. Ospina was the lone vote against the motion. After the meeting she declined comment about the matter.

The vote for the board’s chairmanship last week was surrounded in uncertainty and led to two surprises. The first was that current board Vice Chairman Barbara O’Neill did not put her name forward as chairman, which she had said she was going to do, and instead supported Mr. Sherr. The second surprise was that the Democrats put forth a candidate of their own after initially indicating they would not. Democrats had initially said they would support Ms. O’Neill, a Republican, but after intense lobbying from within the party, Ms. Ospina, who has been the board’s secretary for the last two years, stood forward, giving Democrats the chance to hold on to the chairmanship they have had for the past two years after decades of Republican leadership.

In an interview on Monday, Ms. Ospina said she was unsure if she would stand again for chairman at Tuesday’s meeting and that decisions would be made after a Tuesday morning caucus for the Democratic Board of Education members.

“We are considering the various options we have, and when we caucus we will analyze our choices and we will determine what is the best course to do, what is in the best interests of the board and therefore our students,” Ms. Ospina said.

Ms. Ospina did not elaborate Tuesday night about what happened at the caucus meeting.

Ms. Ospina said she and the other Democrats were “absolutely surprised” that the vote ended up deadlocked at four with all four Republicans supporting Mr. Sherr, despite differences between them. Mr. Sherr was re-elected this month with the most votes of any of the school board candidates despite not receiving the Republican Town Committee’s endorsement and having now former colleagues of his on the board criticize him and endorse his opponents.

When asked by the Post if she could see herself switching her vote to Mr. Sherr to break the deadlock, Ms. Ospina did not indicate that would happen.

“I can’t speak for the rest of the Democrats, but as I told Peter myself in a conversation with him, I don’t see the support for him as chair,” Ms. Ospina said. “But I am only speaking for myself.”

Various scenarios have been discussed, including one where Ms. Ospina would serve as chair and Mr. Sherr as vice chairman. There has also been speculation of Ms. O’Neill standing for election on Tuesday as an alternative to both Mr. Sherr and Ms. Ospina. But ultimately no vote at all was taken. Now the questions will continue through the holiday weekend and into next week’s work session.

As part of the ongoing discussion around the matter, Ms. Ospina told the Post she had been reached out to about several ideas but that no one had reached out to her to switch her vote to Ms. O’Neill.

“I have been offered various options and I have made clear to anyone that the choice I will make will be based on what I believe is best and not because of any kind of deal,” Ms. Ospina said.

Neither Ms. O’Neill nor Mr. Sherr could be reached for comment.

Ms. O’Neill was the favorite to be named chairman heading into last week’s meeting, as Mr. Sherr was thought to have, at best, only his own support and that of board member Peter von Braun. Mr. von Braun nominated Mr. Sherr for the position, saying he was the one who could rise above the board dysfunction of recent years.

Mr. von Braun was cut off in his speech, though, by newly sworn-in Republican Peter Bernstein, who was serving as secretary for the vote because Ms. Ospina was one of the candidates. Mr. Bernstein told Mr. von Braun that personal attacks were not allowed in remarks, but Mr. von Braun insisted he was not attacking anyone. In the remarks that he did give, Mr. von Braun said that Mr. Sherr was in a good position to lead the board, having just been re-elected despite being “opposed by the educational establishment and the Republican Town Committee.”

Ms. Ospina was nominated by newly sworn-in Democratic board member Debbie Appelbaum, who gave a short speech extolling Ms. Ospina’s credentials.

“Adriana has worked tirelessly over the last two years as a member of the executive board of the Board of Education,” Ms. Appelbaum said. “While it’s important to note that Ms. Ospina would be the first Hispanic to serve as Board of Education chair, I nominate her based on her merits and qualifications. She has demonstrated a commitment to all students and stakeholders in the past two years. Adriana’s breadth of experience is just exactly what is needed in a Board of Education chair. She has experienced our schools K through 12 as a parent of five children and she has been a PTA volunteer at all three school levels.”

Because currently there is no official chairman for the board. Ms. O’Neill, as vice chairman, is the acting chair for as long as needed. Last Thursday’s deadlock vote started the clock ticking on a 30-day window for the board to settle this, but if it doesn’t, the decision will go to the Board of Selectmen.

To avoid that, the Board of Education must elect a candidate with a majority of the members voting in favor of the person. This is a similar scenario to what the board faced in 2011 when then board chairman Steven Anderson, a Republican, faced a challenge from Leslie Moriarty, a Republican. Initially, Ms. Moriarty had four votes in favor to Mr. Anderson’s three because Mr. Sherr abstained from voting rather than support Mr. Anderson. That was not found to be a majority of the board by Town Attorney Wayne Fox, and Mr. Sherr ultimately switched his vote to support Ms. Moriarty, giving her the chairmanship, rather than have it go to the Board of Selectmen.

The board also had an issue surrounding the chairmanship last year as Ms. O’Neill was expected to challenge Ms. Moriarty only to not stand for election, giving rise to the belief that the board’s Democrats cut a deal for Ms. O’Neill to support Ms. Moriarty last year in exchange for Democratic support this year. That deal has never been confirmed, and since then two new Democrats have been elected to the board.

When asked about this alleged arrangement, Ms. Ospina said, “If there had been such a deal, I don’t think I would have been a candidate.”

Thursday’s meeting was closely watched by both parties. Both Democratic Town Committee Chairman Frank Farricker and Republican Town Committee Vice Chairman Steve Warzoha were in attendance, as were First Selectman Peter Tesei and Selectman Drew Marzullo. After the vote deadlocked, Mr. Tesei expressed frustration with the process and found himself in agreement across party lines with Mr. Farricker about the need for charter reform for board elections.

“I think this validates the point that it’s time to look at the way the Board of Education is elected and then look at how its officers are determined,” Mr. Tesei told the Post on Friday. Mr. Tesei said this was something that had to be looked at going forward, especially after repeated years of issues surrounding the chair.

Mr. Tesei also attended the Tuesday meeting but left after no vote was taken.

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