December 6, 2005
By RACHEL GOTTLIEB And OSHRAT CARMIEL, Courant Staff Writers
Mayor Eddie A. Perez placed another jewel in his crown Monday when, in a bold move that educators say is rare and perhaps unprecedented, he appointed himself to the Hartford Board of Education.
Perez begins serving on the board at tonight's meeting, where he expects to be elected chairman. It is a leadership job he will have to fit in among his duties as the capital city's first strong mayor in a generation and as the president of the school building committee, which oversees $1 billion worth of construction.
Perez said it's "not about being king," it's about being accountable.
With new power to appoint the majority to the city's school board, Perez said the school system's success or failure falls directly on his shoulders.
"I'm an organizer of people," Perez said after the council approved his appointment Monday and he received a congratulatory kiss from his wife, Maria. "I'm going to organize the school administration. I'm going to organize the school board."
And once the board has a solid plan for the future and the ability to implement it - a plan that will focus heavily on Perez's goals of preparing all students for four-year colleges and improving school safety - the mayor said he will find a replacement for himself on the board and step aside.
"It's the most urgent period for the school system," he said. "I didn't want to be on the outside looking in and wondering what happened. The best way is to be on the inside providing leadership."
Perez's self-appointment, depending on which critic or pundit is weighing in, is bold, courageous, arrogant or over-reaching.
"I feel sad at what I witnessed today," said former school board President Carmen Rodriguez, who attended the appointment. "It's hubris. It's the kind of pride that is self-defeating. It seems he doesn't trust the people he hired and appointed. It's almost as if he doubts his own judgment of people he put on the board."
"I think he should concentrate on running the city, on crime and on quality of life," said Michael Lupo, the chairman of the Republican town committee whom Perez passed over for an appointment to the school board. "This powerful mayor business is way out of whack. ... It really just looks like he wants to take absolute control."
Councilman Kenneth Kennedy said he couldn't fathom how the mayor of such a poor and struggling city could add the fate of education to his agenda of economic development, increasing home ownership and making the streets safe. Kennedy abstained from voting on the appointment of the mayor and two others to the board Monday night.
"It's a lot for any one man on his plate," he said. "I'm not sure why we should have only one individual - any individual, Eddie Perez, or even Gandhi. Can he be a peacemaker and run the government?"
Some observers say Perez's self-appointment could even put his political career at risk by removing any buffer between himself and public disillusionment with the school system. Solutions to the problems that beset the large and complex district elude the most experienced educators in the nation. Now, Perez acknowledges, he is responsible.
"The risk would be if I didn't do anything," Perez said. "People don't want excuses. You can't hide behind a tree and say it wasn't me."
The scrappy mayor, a one-time gang member, has never shied away from a fight.
"Eddie likes to have his hand right on a situation," former Councilman John B. Kennelly said. "He likes to be in the room, he likes to be at the table, he likes to be a part of the debate and not through surrogates."
Michael Resnick, associate director of the Virginia-based National School Board Association, said he has never heard of a mayor appointing himself to a school board, much less becoming chairman.
There are variations that come close, though. New Haven's mayor appoints all members and, as required by the city's charter, is a voting member himself. Stamford's board is elected, and the mayor is a nonvoting member.
Historically, Resnick said, distance has been built into the relationship between school boards and municipal politicians in order to guarantee that school systems have strong, independent advocates who don't have to worry about competing financial interests such as police and fire services.
"The more you bring education inside government, it becomes a department in government - it becomes one of many items that have to be balanced financially," Resnick said.
Perez said the school district still has a singular advocate for education. "I have a superintendent," he said.
But the superintendent's job just got trickier - like working in a glass house at the bottom of a rock quarry.
"As superintendent, you can disagree with the mayor, but you still work for the board," Kennedy said. Now, "if you disagree with the mayor, it means you can be fired - by the chairman of the board of education. It's like, `Excuse me, you're disagreeing with the mayor? Hold on, let me change hats: OK, you're fired.'"
Superintendent of Schools Robert Henry said he welcomes Perez. Their agendas are similar, Henry said, and serving on the school board "gives [Perez] a greater insight into how things work."
Sensing the potential for controversy over his appointment, Perez made personal appeals to many well-known and would-be critics in the week before making the announcement.
At a party last week, he asked Kennelly, his public nemesis, for his opinion, and how the move might play out politically. Perez called Councilwoman Elizabeth Horton Sheff Saturday night in Newport, R.I., where she's vacationing. Kennedy, a reliable dissenter, got a home visit from the mayor over the weekend.
"I think there is a perception by many that there is a bullying aspect to his style of leadership," said Andrea Comer, a newly elected board member. "I hope that each board member will vote not out of a perceived fear, but out of what's in the best interest of children."
But what of the city charter? Is this what its framers had in mind three years ago, when they decided to give the mayor five appointments to the nine-member school board?
Not exactly, perhaps. But it's totally within the spirit of the new city order, said Allan B. Taylor, chairman of the charter revision commission.
"We set up a structure that in effect makes the mayor accountable for the school system. By putting himself on the board, the mayor makes that even more clear. ... I personally think it's a courageous thing for the mayor to do."
Previous Perez appointees Ada Miranda and Israel Flores, both unaffiliated, will continue on the board. And Perez named two newcomers to the other two-year terms Monday: Democrats Pamela M. Richmond and David M. MacDonald.
Richmond is an engineer with Pratt & Whitney. She is a graduate of Trinity College and active in the Urban League of Greater Hartford, Nutmeg Big Brothers & Big Sisters, the Amistad Foundation and the Hartford chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers.
MacDonald, director of communications for the Connecticut Association for Community Action Inc., has experience working with children and parents. He is former co-director of the Hartford Parent Network and the Hartford Children First Initiative, programs run by the Community Renewal Team. He is a graduate of Boston University.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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