STAMFORD – Battle lines are drawn for a Tuesday Board of Representatives vote on who should get an open school board seat.
It’s Democratic party-liners vs. Democrat free-thinkers.
On one side there’s Jennienne Burke – a former Board of Education president and vice president who had a seat from 2015 until last year, when she did not run for reelection. Burke historically has the party’s full backing.
On the other side there’s Jackie Pioli – who served on the school board from 2019 until 2021, when she did not get the party’s endorsement even though she was the only Democrat running for reelection. Pioli was known for asking hard questions and taking on controversial issues.
The empty seat belonged to Democrat Ben Lee, who left the school board Dec. 31, citing work responsibilities. The city Charter says the remaining year and a half of Lee’s term must be filled by someone from the same party.
So last week the Democratic City Committee interviewed five candidates, including Burke and Pioli. On Friday party leaders sent Burke’s name to the Board of Representatives as their nominee.
But there’s a twist.
City representatives, who must approve party nominees, and can add nominees of their own.
“Board of Representatives rules state that every member can nominate one person,” President Jeff Curtis said Friday. “Right now I have two letters addressed to me – one for Burke and one for Pioli. But that could change. It’s only one o’clock.”
Names would have to be submitted by 5 p.m., when city hall closes, Curtis said.
Board of Representative Legislative Officer Valerie Rosenson said the rules specifically state that names must be submitted not less than 72 hours before the meeting of the board’s Appointments Committee, set to start on Zoom at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday. Any name submitted outside the deadline may be considered only if the board suspends its rules.
As of nearly 3 p.m. Friday, she’d received nominations only for Burke and Pioli, Rosenson said.
The brewing battle seems to not make sense, given that Democrats dominate in Stamford. The 40-member Board of Representatives, for example, has 36 Democrats.
The role of one of them, City Rep. Megan Cottrell, illustrates what’s happening with the party in Stamford.
Cottrell, who chairs the Board of Representatives’ Education Committee, also sits on the Democratic City Committee. But she bypassed the party’s pick, Burke, and nominated Pioli for the school board seat, Cottrell said.
She took issue with how party leaders handled the candidates during last week’s interviews, Cottrell said. The Democratic City Committee is governed by its own rules, she said, but also by Robert’s Rules of Order, a manual of parliamentary procedure that most organizations use to conduct fair and orderly meetings.
“There are multiple instances where the DCC plays fast and loose with Robert’s Rules,” Cottrell said. “The Board of Representatives is not perfect; we make mistakes and ask questions about procedures all the time. But we stick much closer to procedures.”
During the interviews, the chair of the party’s screening committee failed to maintain a position of impartiality as outlined in Robert’s Rules, Cottrell said. Instead the chair “attacked” Pioli and another candidate, Paul Arvoy, Cottrell said.
“She was harsher on Pioli than Arvoy. There was not a lick of impartiality,” Cottrell said. “A chair should not make accusations or say, ‘You seem unethical.’ A chair should not ask, ‘Are you a real Democrat?’ which is what she asked Pioli. If you want to ask questions like that, step down from your role as chair. This was over the top. It sounded like a Salem witch trial.”
Pioli – a parent, school volunteer, and professional advocate for families with struggling students – has demanded answers from Central Office administrators about how money is spent, the value of educational programs, and other issues, prompting a complaint from the superintendent in 2021.
After Democrats would not endorse her that year, Pioli ran for the school board as an unaffiliated candidate but did not win. In the battle for the seat vacated by Lee, she now has the endorsement of the Stamford Education Association, the city’s teachers union.
“Pioli has been treated like a crazy person from the beginning because she questions politically well-connected organizations,” Cottrell said. “They have pushed her and sometimes she has reacted. They throw sand in her face and when she reacts they say she doesn’t play nice in the sandbox.”
Cottrell said that, as a member of the Board of Representatives’ Education Committee, she has struggled to get answers about budget expenses and funding.
Cottrell said it took her four years to get an on-the-record response about the purpose of a $500,000 contribution from Stamford taxpayers to Trailblazers Academy, a mostly state-funded charter school that now is closed.
“I was told it was confidential. I got the run-around. Finally last year I found out it was used to supplement teachers’ pay,” Cottrell said. “We can have a healthy debate over charter schools and how to fund things, but we need to be open about how we spend money. Jackie Pioli knows what to ask and doesn’t back off; that’s why I nominated her.”
Stamford’s Democratic Party, however, “feels we have to accept their nominee,” Cottrell said.
That is the case, said Robin Druckman, chair of the Democratic City Committee.
“Historically, it has been the practice that the Democratic members of the Board of Representatives have supported the Democratic party-endorsed candidate,” Druckman said Friday. “While board members have no obligation to vote for the DCC nominee, it is troubling that 36 Democratic members of the Board of Representatives – members who were endorsed and supported by that very same party – would choose not to respect the DCC’s endorsement for this vacancy.”
The party’s screening committee “gives all candidates due consideration,” Druckman said.
“The DCC is comprised of 40 elected members from each of the 20 municipal districts in Stamford, all of whom have the right to exercise their judgment on who they feel will be the best candidate to represent the Democratic Party in elected office,” she said.
During Thursday’s vote, 23 Democratic Party members supported Burke and six backed Pioli, Druckman said. They also cast ballots for two other candidates. Gabriela Koc got nine votes and Carl Weinberg got one, Druckman said.
Arvoy, parent of five Stamford Public School students and a newcomer to city politics, also was interviewed.
Arvoy said he appreciated the opportunity, but has to question the process.
“Ms. Burke walked away from her seat last year and should not be able to walk in through a partisan doorway to reinstall the same failing education policies that haunt this tenure of leaders,” he said Friday. “She does not represent the middle like her predecessor, Ben Lee, who listened to both sides.”
The Democratic Party “has to be more open-minded,” Arvoy said, and he’s glad city representatives are allowed to “take another nominee into consideration.”
“We must have fair, nonpartisan representation on the board for the future of Stamford’s students,” he said. “Unfortunately, this appointment is about a partisan agenda that needs to be re-addressed.”