Worries about diversity after voters choose all-white school board
Updated 1:39 pm, Thursday, November 9, 2017
NORWALK — The slate of Democratic Board of Education candidates elected Tuesday night have more in common than just their platforms.
They ousted lone minority candidate and incumbent Shirley Mosby, leaving it up to the District A Democrats to take diversity into consideration when appointing a representative to fill the seat left vacant by Yvel Crevecoeur’s resignation late last month.
The Democratic Town Committee was criticized for putting forth a slate of all-white candidates when the makeup of Norwalk and its school population is much more diverse. The Norwalk Public School student population is roughly 30 percent white, 40 percent Latino and 20 percent black, but the board elected to represent and make decisions for the district is 100 percent white after Tuesday’s election.
“Diversity is something that we value as a Democratic Party and it is something that we are always looking at,” said Democratic Town Committee Chairman Ed Camacho. “It’s important for Democrats in particular that we have as diverse and as representative government as we can have, because with that diversity comes best governance. So that is something that we are always striving for. We’re not always successful at, but it is a very important factor.”
Mosby questioned the DTC’s decision not to endorse her as the party has historically always endorsed incumbents.
“The question is, ‘Why?’” Mosby said. “I lost the nomination by six votes. Incumbents are always on the ballot. There were two incumbents, myself and Heidi Keyes. One is black and one is white. What do you think? They should both be on there. Diversity means we embrace everyone. You need someone who has that experience that’s different, to represent everyone.”
Camacho said diversity will be taken into consideration when looking for qualified candidates to fill the remaining vacant seat, but specified the best candidate will be chosen regardless of minority representation.
“It’s something that’s always considered in every nomination, every position, we want to have as representative a government as possible and that includes diversity on the basis of gender, economic classification, race, ethnicity. ... It’s important for us to have as many voices as possible in our system of governance,” Camacho said. “It’s extremely important and something that we’re always trying to achieve, but no one factor, no one qualification is dispositive. Our children’s education and the economic future of the city depend on the success of its Board of Education, so no one factor trumps that.”
Prior to the election, three of the board’s nine members represented minority groups — an appropriate ratio considering roughly 30 percent of Norwalk’s total population is nonwhite. But with Crevecoeur’s resignation, Sherelle Harris opting not to run for re-election and Mosby obtaining the fewest votes, that ratio is now nonexistent.
While the DTC opted not to endorse Mosby for a second term — she was first elected to the board in 2013 with a Democratic endorsement — the Working Families Party did. Mosby said she was proud to get more than 2,000 votes as a WFP candidate, as typical candidates on that line usually net fewer than 1,000 votes.
“I’m very pleased and happy with that,” said Mosby, who spent election day standing in the rain outside West Rocks Middle School greeting voters. “I am grateful to the Working Families Party. I stood out there in the rain and cold because I love these children, and the people that voted for me, I’m grateful to them because they had to work to find me on the ballot.”
Zack Campbell, spokesman for Connecticut Working Families, said the DTC’s failure to put forth minority representation, as well as the ouster of Mosby, will likely discourage other people of color from pursuing elected positions.
“It’s not very reflective of the community of Norwalk and it’s not reflective of the educational needs of Norwalk,” Campbell said. “Norwalk pushing a Board of Education of entirely of white candidates takes Norwalk entirely in the wrong direction. Shirley, who we thought was a great candidate and has done a great job on the board, being pushed out sends the wrong message to parents who want to take a more active role.”
Mosby agreed, saying she’s always ignored challenges she’s faced as a minority, instead choosing to focus her energy on the children.
“I stay focused on the children,” Mosby said. “I walk through fire for these kid ... when they start treating people who already put their neck out there like this, other people won’t step up.”
Brenda Penn-Williams, president of the Norwalk chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, criticized the DTC for the decision to put forth an all-white slate of candidates.
“I think it’s horrible,” Penn-Williams said. “Democrats are supposed to be for all people, but you can see in Norwalk, they’re not.”
The candidates elected said they will work to represent Norwalk’s diverse population, and said they hope to work with parents to encourage more diverse candidates in the future.
Barbara Meyer-Mitchell, co-founder of the Facebook page “Norwalk Parents for Education,” said she will continue to use the platform to encourage parents from all walks of life to run in future elections.
“This is such a challenging issue for Norwalk and what I have been doing for the past year is to cultivate a new generation of parent leaders and continuing to give them a voice in the community,” Meyer-Mitchell said. “We’ll work very had to support the next generation of parents and we hope very much that we will have great minority candidates that are fresh voices who represent our parent community.”
Incumbent Heidi Keyes, the front-runner in Tuesday’s election, said the board will work to continue to improve outreach to the community and cited the monthly workshop meetings, which have been moved into schools to allow greater access, as an example of ways the board is working to include minority groups who feel their voice is not represented.
“I think it’s also important to have a board reflective of the community and we want to make sure that people step up in the future that are interested in running for the board,” Keyes said. “I think (the board) is a cohesive group. We’re all in it to make sure that the community is heard.”
Board Chairman Mike Lyons, a Republican, said adequate minority representation on the Board of Education has long been an issue, but said it is a two-way problem. He said the Republican and Democratic parties could do better outreach to recruit qualified minority candidates, but that it is also up to those qualified minority representatives to step up and run for office. Lyons cited diversity in the district’s appointed positions as an example where minority representation is present — the district has the highest proportion of black administrators of any municipality in the state.
“It’s important to have diversity, but it’s also important not to have a quota mentality where a certain number of slots are allocated based on skin color or sex or other criteria, because to me diversity of point of view is at least as important as diversity of skin color,” Lyons said. “So on the one hand, I think both parties could do a better job of outreach to the minority community to find leaders, but on the other hand the members of the minority community have an obligation to step up to the plate and run for office.”
This story has been updated to include comments from Shirley Mosby and Brenda Penn-Williams.
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