NB Politicus

Behind Mayor Stewart’s War On Supt. Sarra and the BOE

By John McNamara

The vandalism and trouble that occurred at New Britain High School in September needlessly escalated the rift between Mayor Erin Stewart and New Britain School District leaders.

Incidents of student misbehavior fueled by social media have not been limited to New Britain as districts in CT and elsewhere re-opened this fall.

Mayor Erin Stewart, however, used the disruption to immediately berate School Superintendent Nancy Sarra and educators for not cracking down enough on youthful offenders. The call to meet and work together came second only after Erin Stewart got her licks in on the campaign trail. Harsh criticism of educators is a central theme of Ms. Stewart’s re-election campaign. The NBHS incident was just an opening for the incumbent mayor to score political points at the expense of school officials dealing with Tik Tok-related misbehavior and parents wanting assurances that their children would be OK.

The Mayor’s social media response to the high school incident could be forgiven if it was a one off dispute between City Hall and the School District. The dialogue gets predictably contentious every year over local funding for schools as New Britain has ranked near the bottom on school spending during the Stewart years.

Mayor Stewart maintains that the schools need to “operate differently” before she’ll support additional city dollars for education. When Council Democrats proposed a meager $1 million increase in this year’s municipal budget Stewart and her Council Caucus opposed it. A $500,000 boost was OK’d but the City is holding onto that money four months into the fiscal year claiming that it has increased local aid to education without giving up a dime.

Stewart skewers the school district for being “dead last” in student achievement while her budgets give New Britain almost dead last ranking in how they support public education. Previously, the Mayor has expressed little concern or no concern over school achievement as she denies BOE requests each year. “In recent years, educators have said they need at least $5 million more than their regular budgets to catch up with similar districts. The nonpartisan School and State Finance Project last year reported that only Danbury spends less on each student than New Britain does, with even deeply impoverished systems like Bridgeport, Waterbury and Windham spending more,” according to a story by The Hartford Courant’s Don Stacom.

In her escalating feud with Sarra and the bipartisan Board of Education, Stewart employs Paul Salina, who has held a $90,000+ patronage job (interim director of operations) at City Hall since 2018. A former NBHS Principal and band leader who retired in 2003, Salina, 72, later returned to the public schools as an administrator before and after Kelt Cooper’s superintendency holding down a $146,000 operations officer job. When Superintendent Sarra reorganized and reduced administrative overhead, she reduced Salina’s role and salary. Salina retired again but quickly joined the Stewart administration with a vague and largely undefined strategy and policy role.

Erin Stewart and Paul Salina in a recent campaign mailer.

Within the last year the Stewart-Salina duo has ramped up the fight with the BOE on a range of issues from the hiring of a football coach to school funding to control of school construction leaving no space for any kind of cooperation.

The fight over the last year has primarily involved the School Building Committee (SBC) and the attempted hiring of another retired school official and colleague of Salina for an oversight job on the Chamberlain School renovation project.

“Relations between the Mayor’s office and the BOE, contentious over budget issues in most years, have become even more adversarial over the SBC’s move late last year to hire Ray Moore, a retired school facilities director and a colleague of Paul Salina, as a consultant or “construction representative” on the Chamberlain School project at a six-figure annualized salary. BOE President Merrill Gay, Vice Chair Nick Mercier and Dr. Violette Jimenez-Sims criticized the attempted hiring with “no request for proposals or bidding for this position,” asserting that the role could be filled with existing school staff to save money for other education needs. Intervention by the BOE’s attorney averted a full appointment of Moore at that time to the consultant post. Republican Mercier’s public opposition to hiring a consultant without BOE input and questioning the Stewart-controlled SBC also led to the Republican Town Committee’s ousting of Mercier in July for a nomination to a third term on the BOE. A longtime Republican activist and music teacher, Mercier will stand for re-election to the BOE as a petitioning candidate for his efforts at accountability on school construction issues. ” from New Britain Progressive, August 22, 2021;

‘The Return of Tim Stewart: Ex-Mayor Chairs SBC As $50M School Project Begins”

The flap over the hiring of a Chamberlain project consultant demonstrates what is behind the barrage of attacks against Sarra and the school board which have become fodder for Team Stewart’s campaign of misinformation.

At issue is power, patronage and the special favors that Stewart and her cronies want and used to get but are not getting anymore. Nancy Sarra won’t have any part of the political games Stewart and Salina want to play. She and the current BOE’s Democratic and Republican members who have her back are resisting inappropriate power grabs from City Hall as they focus on the challenges of educating in a chronically under-funded urban school system.


The Day After: Should fireworks be free or come with a fee?

Posted in city government, municipal budget, New Britain, Parks and Recreation by nbpoliticus on July 5, 2021

The 4th of July Show Tab This Year Was $60K and $10 A Car Load

By John McNamara

No one can deny that fireworks on the Fourth of July brings a community together. It is America’s birthday tradition that can awe and delight children or the child in all of us. And after 15 months of social distancing because of COVID, New Britain’s 4th was a welcome return to normalcy.

The City of New Britain obliged for the pyrotechnics this year putting up $60,000 of your tax money at the June 23rd Common Council meeting. The transfer of funds provided $24,999 for the show and $35,001 in overtime and salaries. Alderman-At Large Chris Anderson was the sole Council vote against the appropriation. His vote, however, was not about being a killjoy. I’m hoping he took in the show from his Buell Street home’s front yard just a block or so from the rockets red glare without paying the $10 fee.

“I voted no because I am concerned about this expenditure given our other budget needs and because the event will not be free,” wrote Anderson in one of his regular Facebook updates on Council business.

New Britain’s regionally popular “Great American Boom”, held at Stanley Quarter Park until last year and free to all, has been raised as a budget issue in years past. Some of the costs previously were met with fees on vendors and private contributions. Insurance man and former Alderman Carlo Carlozzi, for example, led the way a few years back in securing a major grant from Liberty Mutual to cover expenses. For the most part the bulk of expenses, however, depend on public appropriations.

New Britain was one of a handful of communities that went on with the show last year despite COVID concerns. Like this year the “drive in fireworks show” at Willow Brook Park near the baseball stadium required pre-registration at $10 per car load, a nominal fee that raised some but not a lot for the city’s Fireworks Fund. It’s been one of several public events that the Parks and Recreation Department assesses for admission. The fireworks fee undoubtedly had more to do with social distancing than revenue but it should be said that it could have been made free to city residents.

The change of venue these last two years also returned the city’s fireworks back to Willow Brook where it once was held. That’s a welcome change that should be made permanent. Holding an event drawing in excess of 20,000 people at Stanley Quarter in the residential Belvedere neighborhood creates a parking nightmare and heightened public safety concerns (Full disclosure: it’s my neighborhood).

Ideally, if the city restores the Great American Boom to a free-to-all event next year it ought to be a Greater New Britain event with costs shared by surrounding towns with a healthy dose of corporate, civic-minded philanthropy.

Alderman Anderson’s points on nickel and diming residents and striking a balance on budget priorities are well taken. Blowing $60K on its own on America’s birthday to light up New Britain night sky is a lot for a financially stressed city government dependent on borrowing.

GOP Alderman Hits School Board On Salaries But Rubber Stamps Pay Hikes, More Spending At City Hall

Posted in city government, New Britain Republicans, public education, Uncategorized by nbpoliticus on August 5, 2017

 

By John McNamara

The sometimes fragile relations between City Hall  and the Board of Education took a backward step this week over complaints from Ward 2 Republican Alderman Kristian Rosado appearing in the New Britain City Journal.

Rosado, in a front-page story in the City Journal , derided a unanimous BOE move on salary increases for three administrators,  pitting Rosado against BOE President and fellow Republican Nick Mercier.

unnamedRosado was joined by two BOE members, Sharon Beloin-Saavedra and Miriam Geraci, who either half-heartedly voted for the increases or didn’t stick around long enough to vote on the matter at a July 24th meeting.  Geraci, absent for the vote, objected because of uncertainty over the amount of Educational Cost Sharing (ECS) funds the city will receive in the unresolved state budget.  In a City Journal editorial, Editor Robin Vinci, often a mouthpiece for the Stewart administration on many issues, sided with Rosado.

The BOE, however,  unanimously approved three salary increases — a revenue neutral move, according to Mercier, because of a $49,000 cut in Assistant Superintendent Paul Salina’s compensation.  Receiving salary hikes were Chief Financial Officer Kevin Kane, Talent Officer Dr. Shuana Tucker and Assistant Talent Officer, Dr. Nicole Sanders, the principal of the North End School, who was promoted to the position.

 

City Journal Editor Robin Vinci, apparently confusing Dr. Sanders with someone else, falsely reported that Sanders is a member of the BOE.  By law, school employees cannot serve on the elected board.

Mercier, quoted in the City Journal, said “the chief financial officer is taking over as head of three departments, that warranted the salary increase. In terms of the talent office it was partially due to an increase in duties and responsibilities”  and making the salaries “competitive.” Mercier said the move is saving $20,000 in central office spending this year and will reduce administrative costs by $90,000 next year.

But Rosado lambasted the salary levels  as “outrageous and insulting considering that the average resident of New Britain makes under $40,000 a year,” saying more money should be going to classroom support.

By contrast, Rosado, in his capacity as a member of the Common Council, has been a reliable rubber stamp for Mayor’s office salary hikes and major budget increases on the municipal side of the ledger.  He supported Mayor Stewart’s budget that denied a very small increase for city schools.

No one questions Alderman Rosado nor the City Journal for casting a critical eye on how tax dollars are spent. But their critical eyes appear to be only wide open at the Board of Education. They are closed shut when it comes to salary hikes, increasing debt interest and all manner of discretionary spending by the Stewart administration.