Paul Arvoy is the father of four children who went through Stamford Public Schools, and a fifth who is in high school now.
Arvoy, himself a product of the Stamford education system, has spoken out about last year’s high school scheduling change, the elimination of exams and certain holidays, the superintendent’s contract extension, no-confidence votes against the superintendent, and other controversies.
Now Arvoy wants a chance at a Board of Education seat that opened when a fellow Democrat stepped down Dec. 31.
Saturday, members of the Stamford Democratic City Committee will interview five candidates, including Arvoy, to decide who they will endorse for the seat. The city Charter mandates that a vacated seat on an elected board be filled by someone from the same party.
A Democratic Party endorsement is significant in Stamford, where the mayoral administration is Democratic, all the major elected boards are dominated by Democrats, and most voters are Democrats.
Arvoy thinks the Democratic City Committee’s endorsement decision should be more transparent, but committee Chair Robin Druckman said information about the candidates is not made public until it’s time to submit a name to the Board of Representatives’ Appointments Committee.
Representatives must approve whichever candidate the party endorses.
Until the Appointments Committee meets on Jan. 17, the party’s business is the party’s business, Druckman said.
“Candidates will be interviewed by the DCC Screening Committee and these interviews are only open to Screening Committee members, the full DCC membership, and Democratic members of the Board of Representatives,” Druckman said Friday. “The full 40-member DCC will vote on the candidate to endorse at our next meeting and I will submit the name of the candidate endorsed by the Stamford Democratic Party to the board’s majority leader.”
Even though the endorsed candidate may ultimately serve on an elected board and conduct the people’s business, the party is not obligated to engage the public in choosing that person, said Colleen Murphy, executive director and general counsel for the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission.
“Political committees are not public agencies under the law, so they are not subject to the FOI Act. It’s up to the party to determine how they operate those proceedings,” Murphy said. “Some political committees operate in a more open manner than others, but that is their prerogative.”
Arvoy said transparency “is crucial to a fair and just process,” especially since “a revolving door of politicians” hold the power in the city.
DCC members, for example, include Board of Education President Jackie Heftman and member Michael Hyman; Board of Finance Chairman Richard Freedman; nine city representatives plus the wife of a city representative; Mayor Caroline Simmons’ chief of staff and special assistant; and others in prominent positions.
One of the candidates seeking the DCC endorsement for the open Board of Education seat, Gabriela Koc, is a member of the DCC.
“It’s the same people in these positions, over and over,” Arvoy said. “And it’s a very silent process, which is why I am making noise.”
He has little hope of winning the endorsement, said Arvoy, an electrician, business owner and former youth sports coach. It’s not because he is a political newcomer, he said; it’s because he has made known that he doesn’t always agree with the party’s stance on issues.
“I am a Democrat but I am not welcome as part of their journey to get Stamford to a place where we improve education. The Democrats are pretty locked down,” Arvoy said. “A one-sided argument is not good. But if another side tries to put in their two cents, they get scolded. If you are someone looking to change minds, there’s no chance for you.”
Druckman said the party treats candidates fairly.
“This is an ongoing process and all interested candidates are being afforded the same opportunity to be interviewed by the DCC Screening Committee,” she said.
The criticism raised by Arvoy has been raised by another candidate scheduled for an interview Saturday.
Jackie Pioli, who served on the Board of Education for two years beginning in 2019, did not get the party’s endorsement even though she was the only Democrat running for reelection in 2021.
Pioli, a professional advocate for families with struggling students and a longtime volunteer in the schools, said it was retaliation for independent thinking and refusing to vote along party lines. Party leaders at the time said Pioli’s outspoken style was combative.
Without a Democratic endorsement, Pioli later ran for the school board as an unaffiliated candidate but did not win. A school board seat is open now because Democrat Ben Lee stepped down with a year and a half left on his term, citing added work responsibilities.
Pioli has the endorsement of the Stamford Education Association, the city’s teachers union.
SEA President John Corcoran said Friday the union put in a letter to the Board of Representatives that Pioli is knowledgeable about the issues, and has the experience and judgment to steer the district in the right direction.
DCC members asked him whether the SEA would interview other candidates seeking a party endorsement, but that is the business of the DCC, not the teachers’ union, Corcoran said.
“We have endorsed Jackie Pioli in the past, on more than one occasion, because we feel she does her homework, doesn’t vote along party lines, doesn’t care if something is political, she’s a digger, she asks pertinent questions,” Corcoran said. “We’re a union, not a political group. We support people who care about teachers and the students, whether they’re Democrats, Republicans or independents.”
Besides Arvoy and Pioli, the committee Saturday will interview Koc, who was deputy director of Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont’s re-election campaign last year. Koc, a native Spanish speaker, is a science teacher certified in grades 7-12; a volunteer for the Juvenile Review Board, which supports public school students who commit minor offenses; and president of the Connecticut Young Democrats.
Jennienne Burke also is seeking the party endorsement. Burke served on the Board of Education from 2015 until last year, when she did not run to keep her seat. During her tenure Burke was vice president and president of the board.
The fifth candidate seeking the party endorsement is Carl Weinberg, a 32-year Stamford resident and father of two children who graduated city schools. Weinberg is a retired partner at PriceWaterhouseCoopers who has served on the city’s Personnel Commission since 2014 and completed the state’s Accelerated Route to Certification program, qualifying him to teach social studies in grades 7-12.
Druckman, in her own letter to city representatives, wrote, “On behalf of all Democrats in the City of Stamford, I request that you and all other Democrats on the board support the candidate endorsed by the Democratic City Committee.”
But being a Democrat “doesn’t mean you are a part of their system,” Arvoy said.
“I think I deserve the seat because I am not a politician and I have no aspiration to be a politician,” he said. “But, because of the process, I am almost sure that this seat is not within my reach.”