Showdown over school board leadership expected tonight

If you thought the Board of Education was in a phase of peace and tranquility, that could well be shattered on Thursday as the chairmanship comes up for a vote.

Less than a year after longtime board member Leslie Moriarty was elected chairman in an acrimonious 5-3 vote, the first time a Democrat was elected to the position in nearly 30 years, she could well find herself on the outside looking in after tonight’s meeting at 7 p.m. at North Street School. At that meeting the chairmanship will be up for a vote that traditionally has been a non-event. However, the expectation going forward is that Ms. Moriarty will be challenged for the board’s top spot by Vice Chairman Barbara O’Neill.

Ms. O’Neill was elected to the board only last November but assumed the vice chairmanship after a reshuffling after the election. Longtime chair Steven Anderson was challenged for the position by Ms. Moriarty last December, and she won by a 5-3 vote after Republican Peter Sherr switched his support to Ms. Moriarty after having supported Mr. Anderson in past elections and initially abstaining from last year’s vote. The switch upset Republican leaders, who openly dressed Mr. Sherr down in the hallway after the vote.

Board cabinet positions are for one year, but the thinking had been that Ms. Moriarty would remain as chairman through at least next year’s board elections, when four members, including her and Mr. Sherr, would be up for re-election if they chose to run again.

Instead, the vote could well be tonight, and it could trigger the involvement of the Board of Selectmen.

One potential scenario is that the four Democrats on the eight-person board would vote for Ms. Moriarty and the four Republicans would vote for Ms. O’Neill. Since the chairman must be elected by at least five votes, the tie would throw the board leadership into a deadlock. The board would then have 30 days from the time of the vote to reach an agreement before the matter was turned over to the Board of Selectmen under town charter. And since the three-person board has two Republicans and one Democrat, the odds could well be in Ms. O’Neill’s favor.

However, that is only a potential scenario, and nothing will be put on the record until tonight’s meeting. If no new chairman is elected tonight, Ms. Moriarty will remain chairman until either one is elected or the selectmen appoint one.

In an interview with the Post, Ms. Moriarty indicated she was surprised this was happening. She said she had worked well with all her colleagues and didn’t believe there was a reason to make a change now.

“I’m disappointed in some of my fellow board members,” Ms. Moriarty said. “I would certainly like to remain chair. I think a change of leadership right now would be irresponsible. We’ve been collaborating on some major issues over the past year and a number of them are still on our plate. It’s important that these issues be addressed, and I think there would be disruption if there is a change of leadership. I don’t think this is being driven by what’s best for the board and for the students. I think it’s being driven by partisan politics.”

Ms. O’Neill, who could not be reached for comment, was elected last November along with fellow Republican Peter von Braun as part of a wave of four new board members. Board dysfunction was cited as a major reason why Mr. Anderson did not remain as chair. But now, Mr. von Braun said, he felt a change would be necessary, given the number of issues before the board, including dealing with racial imbalance, the 2013-14 budget and transitioning to digital learning and how to fund it.

“The advice I have been given is that this will go much more smoothly if a Republican is in the chair,” Mr. von Braun said. “I think Leslie has been doing a good job. It’s not meant to be a criticism of her, but that’s a powerful message when we have so much that needs to be accomplished.”

However, when asked, Mr. von Braun did not reveal who had given him this advice and where the message was coming from.

Democratic Town Committee Chairman Frank Farricker echoed that sentiment to the Post, saying he was didn’t expect this to be happening now, especially considering the experience of both candidates. While Ms. O’Neill is a former teacher and school administrator in Greenwich, she has been on the board less than one year while Ms. Moriarty has been on it for seven.

“This is a political power grab, nothing less,” Mr. Farricker said. “Wasn’t it just a year ago when Republicans were telling us not to elect Marianna Ponns Cohen and Anna Povinelli to the board because they would make it too political? This isn’t being done in the best interests of the students, and as a parent that’s obnoxious to me. This is being done because Republicans have a sense of entitlement when it comes to this chairmanship. They don’t care who’s qualified. They only care that you have an ‘R’ next to your name.”

As opposed to what he said was the controversy and turmoil of recent years on the Board of Education, Mr. Farricker claimed Ms. Moriarty’s tenure as chair has been “quiet as a church mouse,” and he praised the board for its work in hiring new Superintendent of Schools William McKersie this past spring.

“It seems to me that under Leslie things are being done very well,” Mr. Farricker said. “Why does she have to go? They feel she has to because she doesn’t have that ‘R’ next to her name, and if this happens then it will be the end of this idea that the Board of Education is anything but a political animal.”

Mr. Farricker said the DTC has taken a fairly “hands off” approach toward the Board of Education other than choosing the candidates and discussing priorities with them. But if this happens, he said, the DTC will be forced to make this more of a political operation, calling the Republican political action in this case “selfish and arrogant” while claiming it “serves no purpose.”

Greenwich Republican Town Committee Chairman Jim Campbell could not be reached for comment.

Democrats are indicating they’re not about to let this happen without a fight. Board member Jennifer Dayton, who was also elected last year, told the Post that she strongly supports Ms. Moriarty.

“Leslie’s many years on the board have developed her expertise to provide unparalleled leadership in creating a framework for the board’s complex decisions, capital investments and strategic direction,” Ms. Dayton said. “Her leadership is a rare blend of consensus-building and brave advocacy. Leslie makes our community a better place and our schools perform even stronger each year by forging strong connections with superintendents, staff, town leaders, and parents.”

The Board of Selectmen is responsible for nominating candidates to town boards and commissions, so it does have experience in doing evaluations. Selectman Drew Marzullo, the board’s lone Democrat, said he hoped his colleagues would look at the merits of both Ms. O’Neill and Ms. Moriarty before making a decision if it comes to them in 30 days.

“There is no way to predict with certainty who the next chair will be or if this will even come before the Board of Selectmen for a vote,” said Mr. Marzullo. “But if it does I hope my two colleagues will afford Leslie an up-or-down vote just like we have done with all candidates in all years past that come before us. This Board of Selectmen in particular has prided itself on nominating qualified men and women independent of political party. If the Republicans are successful in their quest for absolute control, they will accomplish nothing more than introducing blatant politics into something like education that in theory is supposed to be free from.”

Mr. Marzullo called the attempt to replace Ms. Moriarty as chairman “unnecessary drama” and praised her performance.

“There is no reason other than politics at its finest to change leadership midway, especially when someone has proven themselves,” Mr. Marzullo said.

Selectman David Theis, who before being elected in 2009 was a member of the Selectmen’s Nominations Advisory Committee, said he hoped this would not end up coming to the selectmen.

“I feel it’s important for the Board of Education to work things out for their leadership,” Mr. Theis said. “But if they don’t, then we are ready, willing and able to make the decision. I’m a little surprised that someone that’s so new to the board would want to lead it, but we will judge this on the merits if it comes to us. I just think that the board members are in the best position to determine who will lead them.”

First Selectman Peter Tesei also said that he hoped this was something that could be resolved internally on the Board of Education.

 

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