Kelt Cooper, the choice of the Board of Education (BOE) to lead New Britain schools, rose to the top of the finalist list based on a good educational resume, accomplishments with English Language Learners and extensive experience in diverse districts in Arizona and Texas.
The winnowing process concluded after two days of interviews by advisory committees and the BOE. In a divided vote that stood at 5 to 5 during a tense meeting, Cooper finally got the nod 6 to 4 and may be the schools’ chief come July 1 subject to contract negotiations and a critically important site visit to the Texas district of Del Rio where he is superintendent now.
On Wednesday and the day of the decision, however, the process received a disturbing jolt of information about Mr. Cooper that did not turn up during the vetting process.
I found out about it from a retired New Britain music teacher and passionate advocate for education who posted on her Facebook page a disturbing story from the Texas Observer after what must have been a cursory search on the web.
The balanced and thoroughly researched story, written by Melissa Del Bosque, covers Superintendent Cooper’s controversial actions to expel students who allegedly were crossing over the Del Rio International Toll Bridge from Ciudad Acuna. The word allegedly is important here because Cooper turned out to be wrong about most of the children nabbed at the border by school employees who passed out warnings. All but a few were legally entitled to an education in his district. Nothing like using a sledge hammer to kill a fly to obstruct the civil rights of immigrant children.
From the Observer story:
All but 20 of the approximately 200 students issued warnings on Sept. 9 eventually returned to Del Rio schools. Texas RioGrande Legal Aid assisted at least 15 families who didn’t meet the new residency requirements imposed by Cooper. Some missed school for up to four weeks. But the crackdown, and Cooper’s blunt comments to the press about his actions, dredged up lingering racial division in Del Rio, where Mexican Americans have fought for equal education rights for more than century.
Mexican Americans in Del Rio say that whatever the legalities, Cooper’s actions had a chilling effect that could hinder their efforts to enroll more children in school. “It’s not in our interest to keep children who are U.S. citizens from getting a proper education,” says Alpha Hernandez, another attorney with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid. “Every year some children don’t get registered. I’ve seen children 7- or 8- years-old that have never attended school. We are already suffering from high unemployment and low educational achievement.”
Cooper sees the issue as clear-cut. It was never a question of immigration status, he says, but of residency. “If 200 children crossing at 6:30 on a Wednesday morning is not cause enough to be suspicious, then I don’t know what is,” he says. “No, I guess they all have sick aunts because that’s what a lot of them said.
Cooper, who received lots of national media attention from his moves and kudos from anti-immigrant forces, maintains he was just trying to enforce state law about residency requirements in organizing a border patrol that randomly stopped children and their families coming over the border. But the vigilante-like actions resulted in threatening notices to students who, when the facts were known, had the legal status to be enrolled in the school district.
The New Britain Board of Education put their faith and money in the IA-based firm of Ray & Associates. But when crunch time came the firm’s consultant had concluded the information about Cooper’s controversial and excessive “enforcement” actions were irrelevant to New Britain’s search.
However this search for a superintendent ends, it is clear Board of Education members were denied an important piece of information that should have been known during the screening process, not on decision day.