O’Neill in as school board chairman

Before the Board of Education finally picked a chairman last week, there was one last twist in the tale that brought it right back to where many had thought it would be in the first place.

Before elections for the new board were held in November, most observers had felt that then Vice Chairman Barbara O’Neill, a Republican, was the favorite to take the top position on the Board of Education after having been second in command for the past two years. And it ended up being Ms. O’Neill who got that top spot after the board could not break a deadlock that had the four Republicans supporting Republican Peter Sherr and the four Democrats supporting Democrat Adriana Ospina. After the board’s Dec. 12 meeting began with the fourth deadlocked vote between the two candidates, nominations were reopened and Ms. O’Neill was put forward, ultimately winning the board’s support by a six-to-two margin.

A former teacher and department head inside the Greenwich Public Schools, Ms. O’Neill received unanimous support from the board’s Democrats after Ms. Ospina responded to the fourth deadlock by withdrawing as a candidate. However, Mr. Sherr pushed on with his candidacy and received his own vote as well as fellow Republican Peter von Braun’s in the final tally. Ms. O’Neill voted for herself and received support from Republican Peter Bernstein as well, a switch for both of them, who had voted for Mr. Sherr on each of the previous votes.

Ms. O’Neill was first elected in 2011 to a four-year term, capturing, by a wide margin, the most votes of not only the four Republicans running for two seats on the board but of the two Democrats running that year, too. She became vice chairman a month later after the first of what has now become several controversial years of chairmen elections after then Chairman Steven Anderson was voted out in favor of Leslie Moriarty after Mr. Sherr, who had long warned he could not support Mr. Anderson, broke ranks with his party and supported Ms. Moriarty, allowing her to become the first Democratic chairman in decades. Ms. Moriarty did not run for a new term this past November, necessitating this election for a new chairman.

Now Ms. O’Neill, who had been acting chairman ever since the first election of officers had failed to produce a chairman, takes over right in time for the board to vote on the 2014-15 school budget tonight at 7 p.m. at Greenwich High School. The proposed $144-million budget has been extremely non-controversial so far, and while there has been focus on areas like evaluation of middle school performance, the implementation of the digital learning program and preschool in the district, no board members have yet voiced any major objections. A few changes will likely be made to the budget at tonight’s meeting, but they are expected to be minor, with the budget then passing unanimously.

Check Greenwich-post.com for the latest updates Friday morning about the status of the budget.

The budget, which is a 2.10% increase from last year and has been called “modest” by Superintendent of Schools William McKersie, has caused few ripples, and the discussion over the last few weeks has been dominated by the question of who will be elected board chairman. Ms. O’Neill had been expected to run all along for chairman, but once her fellow Republican Mr. Sherr entered the race, claiming a mandate from the last race, where he was the top vote getter of all the candidates running despite not having the endorsement of the Republican Town Committee, Ms. O’Neill did not run and consistently voted for Mr. Sherr before last Thursday’s meeting.

She will now lead a slate of officers with Democrat Jennifer Dayton serving as vice chairman and Democrat Debbie Appelbaum serving as secretary. Ms. Appelbaum’s appointment came as a surprise to many, including Ms. Appelbaum. Mr. Bernstein, who had been serving as temporary secretary the past three weeks during the votes, had been nominated but Mr. von Braun suddenly nominated Ms. Appelbaum, who won by a five-to-three margin with Mr. von Braun joining the Democrats to vote for her. Ms. Dayton was elected by a six-to-one margin after Mr. von Braun nominated Mr. Sherr for that position and voted for him.

Mr. Sherr abstained from that election.

After she received the board’s support, Ms. O’Neill pledged to work with her colleagues as well as the town partners in the school communities and thanked them for their vote of confidence.

“I believe that we have a very talented board and should use all the talents on the board that we have,” Ms. O’Neill said. “We should come together and put behind us the differences that might have arisen over the past several weeks. We’re all here for the same reason, to make this a better school system for everybody, the students and the community. I know all of us will pledge ourselves, as I do, to work very hard to be inclusive and to work hard for the community and the students with the administration. We’re a team. All of us make up vital parts of this team that will move this school district forward.”

While Ms. Ospina did not speak about her candidacy at the meeting other than to say that “for the sake of the board” it was important to move forward as she withdrew, Mr. Sherr brought his case to his colleagues in brief remarks, saying he was not looking to lead the board but “co-lead with an effective vice chairman.” He stressed that he was committed to leading and that he wanted to be inclusive with his colleagues, and he rejected what he called “troubling behind-the-scenes insinuations” about his ability to work with Dr. McKersie and the administration, saying the success of the administration and the school system was “dependent” on having the “best possible relationship” with district leadership, particularly Dr. McKersie.

“I presented myself as a candidate to get functional, successful leadership on the Board of Education,” Mr. Sherr said. “It seems clear to me through the recent concluded election that this is a longing desire of the taxpayers and parents in Greenwich. I think they spoke loud and clear and I hear them. I know that one has to be prepared to be part of a solution and can’t be somewhere on the side and be part of the problem. That’s why I decided to stand for this. I have tried to explain to my fellow board members why I feel we need a different approach in leadership. I don’t think the old way works. My approach would be to be much more inclusive and collaborative and consensus-oriented. It would also be much more transparent and results-oriented than what we have experienced in the past.”

On Tuesday, Ms. Ospina told the Post she was disappointed she was not elected, because no one told her they weren’t voting for her because they thought she wouldn’t make a good chairman but because “they didn’t want to cross party lines.” She said because of what would have likely been future ties in the voting, she felt it was better to withdraw as a candidate for chairman.

“It was very clear to me that the only Republican who was actually considering voting for me was Peter von Braun, and going into the meeting, he made it clear that he felt he just couldn’t do it because of the repercussions to him from crossing party lines,” Ms. Ospina said. “I knew that wasn’t going to change.”

In an interview with the Post, Mr. von Braun confirmed that he had been approached and had considered it, but that he had been told not to do it, citing the backlash that Mr. Sherr received after voting for Ms. Moriarty and not Mr. Anderson in 2011. He praised Ms. Ospina as “talented, fair-minded and well-educated” and said he felt Mr. Sherr had support on the board but “not enough.”

“It was made very clear to me that if I crossed over, I’d be tossed into quicksand and hammers would be piled down on me,” Mr. von Braun said. “Look at what they did to Peter Sherr.”

Mr. von Braun said he wished the “political leadership” in town was more concerned with finding solutions to educational problems like the achievement gap and negotiating a racial balance settlement with the state than on fights over who was chairman.

Ms. Ospina said the Democrats did discuss with Mr. Sherr an arrangement where he would serve as vice chairman if she were chairman, but ultimately those talks did not reach an agreement. She said offers were made to Ms. O’Neill and Mr. Bernstein to serve as vice chairman under her, but they were told no. Ultimately, Ms. Ospina said she voted for Ms. O’Neill because of concerns about Mr. Sherr’s lack of experience in an executive position on the board. Ms. O’Neill has been the vice chairman for two years, and in that time Ms. Ospina served as the board’s secretary.

“Peter Sherr did not have five votes,” Ms. Ospina said. “We were comfortable with the idea of him being vice chairman and gaining experience developing leadership skills, but Barbara has much more experience, having served as vice chairman.”

Ms. O’Neill and Mr. Sherr could not be reached for additional comment for this story.

This was the third meeting at which a vote for chairman was held. The previous two had resulted in the deadlock and a third vote had been postponed. Throughout the process, there was furious behind-the-scenes lobbying to get one of the Republicans to switch and vote for Ms. Ospina. However, the person stood strong and voted for Mr. Sherr until Ms. Ospina dropped out, denying her a majority. Failure by the Board of Education to elect a slate of officers would have necessitated the Board of Selectmen getting involved, and First Selectman Peter Tesei was a regular at the meetings to observe the votes, as was Town Attorney Wayne Fox.

Both Mr, Tesei and his fellow Republican, Selectman David Theis, had committed to support Mr. Sherr as a Republican candidate, potentially paving the way for him had Ms. Ospina not withdrawn and the Democrats moved to support Ms. O’Neill. After last week’s vote, Selectman Drew Marzullo, a Democrat, told the Post he wasn’t surprised that Ms. O’Neill ended up being voted in. She had been considered the favorite heading into the election of officers last month, but Mr. Sherr’s entrance into the race threw everything into doubt and she did not initially stand as a chairman candidate when the vote was first taken on Nov. 21.

Mr. Marzullo, who would have supported Ms. Ospina had the vote come before the selectmen, criticized his fellow Democrats for focusing too much on Mr. Sherr. Throughout the process there were behind-the-scenes reports from multiple sources of Democrats on the board being concerned about working with Mr. Sherr and ultimately their votes all went to Ms. O’Neill.

“For weeks I have been saying both publicly and privately that just because Barbara O’Neill [did not initially run] and voted in favor of Peter Sherr four times, that she still, in fact, remained very much a viable contender,” Mr. Marzullo said. “So was I surprised? No. This was politics, and for anyone to say otherwise would be disingenuous. Over the last month I lobbied hard to just about anyone who would listen trying to change the dialogue away from an anti Peter Sherr ‘blocking strategy’ to a pro Adriana Ospina ‘BOE chairmanship strategy.’ And I did so because I believe Adriana was the best choice. Many people, including high-ranking past and present Democrats, became obsessed about Peter Sherr; that in the end, in my opinion, did a disservice to Adriana. This should always have been about who is most qualified to lead and who has the best chance under these circumstances in succeeding. I do wish Barbara a successful year and will do whatever I can in making sure that happens.”

Ms. O’Neill’s term as chairman will run through next November, at which time this could once again be another election. She, Mr. von Braun, Ms. Ospina, and Ms. Dayton are all up for re-election in 2015.

 

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