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.


Remembering Steve Horowitz: Losing One of “New Britain’s Best”

Posted in CCSU, In Memoriam, Local History, public education, school board by nbpoliticus on July 10, 2021

Dr. Steve Horowitz, 68, CCSU Psychology Professor and a former President of the New Britain Board of Education, died last December 18th after a brief, sudden illness.

For Democrats and political activists in New Britain, Steve’s passing meant the loss of a close friend and one of “New Britain’s Best.” You can be forgiven if you don’t remember where the “Best” tag comes from. It goes all the way back to a 1999 Board of Education primary election when the endorsed slate of Horowitz, Peter Kochol and Juan Verdu, advocating for interdisciplinary teaching, minority hiring and bilingual programs, went up against a challenge slate organized by right-of-center former State Senator Tom Bozek.

The campaign involved nightly phone banking at Harriet Geragosian’s Unique Realty offices where the slate and volunteers would relentlessly dial up voter after prime voter to drive up turnout. It turned out only 19.6% of city Democrats (3,067) voted that September day but “New Britain’s Best”, all of whom served as Board President at one time or another, eked out a 36-vote victory.

Steve, like his running mates Kochol and Verdu, led the BOE as fierce advocates for public education, holding off critics of adequate school spending and acknowledging the inadequacies of property taxes as a way to meet the needs of the city’s children.

Steve leaves his wife, Adrienne Benjamin, a constant partner in progressive politics in New Britain, son Matthew and daughter Zoe. “Those who knew Steve are aware of his dedication to his family,” his obituary noted. “An early riser, he brought Adrienne coffee every morning of 34 years of marriage. He was exceptionally supportive of Adrienne’s career as both a clinical social worker and as an advocate for those with intellectual disability and autism. He was an adoring and proud father to Matthew. His towering compassion was seen in his devotion to his daughter, Zoe, whose special needs require constant care.”

from The Hartford Courant, September 14, 1999: A hard earned triumph for “New Britain’s Best “School Board Slate

The dedication to family and Horowitz’ public service were reflected in what he did in the classroom at CCSU where psych majors faced the rigors of his core courses on research methods to reach their academic goal. “If you really take the time to listen you’ll find that he is extremely intelligent, very passionate and knowledgeable about the subject and really cares about his students,” one student observed. “He is a challenging professor who expects a lot but he is willing to help you every step of the way if you try and make an effort.”

Though Horowitz earned enough political stripes in that 1999 primary and his years on the BOE, I can attest that he never stopped knocking on doors and making calls on behalf of progressive Democrats and causes year after year.

It’s hard to know Steve won’t be walking through the headquarters door to again grab a door-knocking turf. No time for kibbitzing. He knew it was time to get out the vote for the candidates he supported and the causes he cared about.

Let Steve’s life and activism as New Britain’s Best always be remembered for others to follow.

A Celebration of Steve’s Life and tree planting in his memory is being held at Walnut Hill Park at 11 a.m. on Saturday, July 10, 2021. To honor his memory, please consider donating to Harc, which has stepped up to help meet Zoe’s needs through this challenge. To donate, https://harc-ct.org/donatenow/ Or, Harc, Inc. 900 Asylum Ave. MS 1002 Hartford, CT 06105

  • by John McNamara

Stewart Seeks To Exclude BOE, Common Council From Approving Use Of School Construction Money

Posted in Bonding, City Hall, public education, school board, School Construction by nbpoliticus on March 8, 2021

By John McNamara

The Stewart Administration, blocked in recent months by a bipartisan Board of Education (BOE) and city ordinance from filling a political patronage job on a new school construction project, will seek to remove  Common Council and BOE authority on school construction spending handing the final say over to the seven-member School Building Committee (SBC) appointed by the Mayor.

A resolution filed by the Republican caucus Majority Leader Daniel Salerno and Alderwoman Sharon Beloin-Saavedra at the March 10th Council meeting would alter the membership of the SBC, by dropping Common Council appointments.  It would further cede approval to “engage, select, and enter into or continue all necessary contracts with contractors, architects, landscape architects, or engineers, and within the limits of the appropriations made by the council, this committee shall engage and fix the salary of one or more construction representatives ” to the School Building Committee. The existing ordinance requires  approval by the BOE and Common Council.

CITY HALL WATCH

The hiring of a construction representative for the Chamberlain Elementary School renovation project and re-roofing projects at Pulaski and Slade Middle Schools sparked controversy last year when the SBC selected Ray Moore, the former Schools’ facilities director, to be a construction representative at a six-figure salary shortly after he retired from his job at the schools.  Former NBHS Principal and retired School Administrator Paul Salina, who is the Stewart appointed Director of Support Services at City Hall, reportedly pushed hard for Moore, his former colleague, to get the lucrative construction representative’s position. 

BOE members, however, objected to the Moore hiring saying a newly-hired Facilities Director in the School District could handle oversight of the Chamberlain renovation without the added costs. “We try to save as much as city-wide taxpayer money as possible.” BOE Member Violette Jimenez Sims told the New Britain Herald’s Catherine Shen in a November 24th story. “For me, I would rather spend the money that would directly impact the children that they can use forever and ever and not spending it on a redundant service.” 

The Moore hire was subsequently set aside after BOE Attorney Patrick McHale asserted that state statutes and the ordinance gave the BOE the right of approval of the construction manager who answers to the SBC.

For all its clout in allocating and contracting tens of millions of dollars for school construction the School Building Committee is a relatively obscure municipal government committee.  It’s not easily found on the city website’s link to boards and commissions.   Its Chairperson, Frances Wolski, has been a member for multiple two-year terms during the Stewart administrations. The committee has seven members but two seats are vacant as of February.   The Committee’s most prominent member in recent years has been former Mayor Timothy Stewart, a position of influence he held during his daughter’s first two terms until his mysogynistic social media rants ended his tenure on the committee and as head of the Chamber of Commerce.

Last year the Council approved $57 million for the Chamberlain renovation and re-roofing projects contingent on state reimbursements.  State Representative Bobby Sanchez (D-25), the Chair of the Legislature’s Education Committee, has successfully worked to get a 95% reimbursement from the state for a renovated Chamberlain School in the east end and roof upgrades to two middle schools.

The proposed School Building Committee resolution is certain to raise new concerns by Common Council Democrats over the propriety of removing Council and BOE checks and balances on school construction.  School construction projects involve millions of dollars in state bond and local funds that need to be allocated with competitive bidding and full transparency, which is what the existing ordinance ensures.  Ceding all power now to the Mayor’s office and the Mayoral appointed SBC creates a process that will eliminate oversight by elected BOE and Council members.

Related Story:  School Building Committee Pick For Architect of Smalley Academy Renovation Has Its Share of Troubles.

Related Story from New Britain Herald  Construction Bill Will Fund Three New Britain School Projects