Members of the Board of Representatives Tuesday interrogated two candidates vying for an open school board seat, but the discussion that began around dinner time and ended past midnight was fueled by politics.
Specifically, Democratic politics.
The school board seat was vacated by a Democrat so, under the city Charter, it must be filled by a Democrat until a special election can be held in November. But, in an example of party disunity, Democrats on the Board of Representatives’ Appointments Committee chose a party outsider for the seat.
Eight of the nine representatives on the Appointments Committee voted for Jackie Pioli, who failed to get the nomination from the Democratic City Committee, over Jennienne Burke, who won the party nomination.
The committee vote is considered a recommendation to the full Board of Representatives, which will decide who gets the seat when it meets Feb. 6.
So, even though 36 of the 40 members of the Board of Representatives are Democrats in a city where there are more than two Democratic voters for every one Republican, and the mayoral administration is Democratic, and Democrats dominate all elected boards, the established party doesn’t necessarily rule.
Tuesday’s meeting of the nine-member Appointments Committee, which has eight Democrats, illustrates the situation.
The meeting began with three quick interviews. One was with Maria Linares – no relation to former State Sen. Art Linares, who is married to Stamford Mayor Caroline Simmons. The Appointments Committee approved Maria Linares, a Republican, for a seat on the Fire Commission, 9-0.
Members also voted unanimously for Jim Fleischer, a Democrat who wants to sit on the Board of Assessment Appeals, and Ed Laux, a Republican seeking the same.
Those interviews were done within half an hour – a sign of a party on the same page. Then Pioli was up to bat. Her interview went on for three hours.
‘The wrong person won’
City Rep. Jonathan Jacobson, a Democrat, was upfront about the politics of choosing someone to fill the school board seat.
Jacobson said he’s sure that Pioli, like most people, thinks “party politics should not play a role on the Board of Education.” But, Jacobson said, “the problem is this vote is inherently political, since the only criteria is that you have to be a Stamford resident and a Democrat.”
His constituents, Jacobson said, are concerned that Pioli changed parties over time.
Pioli said she was a registered Democrat for many years until 2017, when the Green Party approached her about running for the Board of Education. Pioli is a professional parent advocate with expertise in special education who works throughout lower Fairfield County, and a longtime volunteer for organizations that serve schools.
“I knew nothing about politics. I thought it was an opportunity,” Pioli said.
She ran as a member of the Green Party and lost. She switched back to the Democratic Party, which endorsed her in the 2018 race, when Pioli won a three-year term on the school board.
Stamford Democratic Party leaders were not happy that she got more votes than the then-Board of Education president and ousted him, Pioli said.
“They were upset,” she said. “They didn’t think I had a chance to win, and I won.”
The then-party chair said so in an opinion piece published in the local paper, said city Rep. Megan Cottrell, a member of the Democratic City Committee who heads the Board of Representatives Education Committee and broke with the party to nominate Pioli.
“After you won he wrote an op-ed saying that the wrong person won the Board of Education election,” Cottrell told Pioli during the interview.
Tumult on the board
The school board for a portion of Pioli’s term, 2018 to 2021, was contentious. Members argued during meetings. Some said Superintendent Tamu Lucero and her staff were not forthcoming with budget and program information. Others said it was the board’s job to simply support Lucero’s administration.
Pioli said that, based on her knowledge of educational policy and programs, and state regulations governing special education, she requested data, which she did not always receive, on the success or failure of programs Stamford administrators had implemented, whether they were worth the cost, and whether other approaches would be more effective.
Lucero said board members were combative, and Democrats said Pioli didn’t back party initiatives as she should. Lucero alleged that board members bullied her and her staff, and asked for an investigation that cost taxpayers $400,000.
Democratic city Rep. Amiel Goldberg told Pioli “we have a risk management problem here.”
“I’m being asked to go against my party to support you,” Goldberg said. “Why should I vote against the Democratic City Committee and take the risk of another term of you at the Board of Education and it won’t be chaotic?”
People should read the report resulting from the investigation, Pioli said, because a story was created that she was to blame for the turbulence.
“Take the time to read the last 12 pages. There is no corrective action that I was directed to take,” she said. “I was one of nine board members and six were investigated. Look at the findings. It says training is needed for board members.”
Still, when she ran for her seat again in 2021, the party did not endorse her, even though she was the only Democrat running for reelection.
“You have said you did not get endorsed because it was retaliatory,” Jacobson said. “Is that what you believe?”
“I don’t believe that me not getting the endorsement was based on my work on the Board of Education,” Pioli said.
Rather than run in a primary against the endorsed Democrat in 2021, Pioli ran as an unaffiliated candidate.
“Why?” Jacobson asked.
“That was what I was told to do by (party committee) members who wanted to see me remain on the board,” Pioli said. “Now I question whether they really were my supporters.”
Jacobson asked Pioli about a comment she made about Stamford politics.
“You said both parties are split and struggling,” Jacobson said, asking whether she still thinks that about Democrats.
“Yes, there is a huge disconnect within the Democratic Party,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s because of Jackie Pioli, the Board of Ed candidate, but there is a divide. How do we come together? I wish I had that answer.”
Democratic city Rep. Anabel Figueroa said the Appointments Committee should focus on the candidate who best represents teachers and students. Pioli was endorsed by the Stamford teacher’s union.
“We keep talking about why she switched parties. She is not the only one. We had a Republican switch to Democrat,” Figueroa said, referencing Andy George, who changed affiliation in 2017. “We welcomed him to the point where he became president of the Board of Education.”
Two hours to go
Burke had her share of political questions during her two-hour interview.
She served on the Board of Education from 2015 until last year, when she did not seek reelection because she needed time to help a family member through a health issue.
Burke’s background is in health care, health education and public health. She is a longtime student mentor with a focus on college and career readiness, and a community volunteer who has a close working relationship with the superintendent.
The Democratic City Committee endorsed Burke with 23 votes; Pioli finished third among five candidates, winning six votes.
Cottrell asked Burke whether she could break with the party if she felt it would be best for the school district.
“I am known for being my own independent thinker,” Burke said. “It doesn’t matter if you are the superintendent or board president; it’s important for me to express my views. I can’t just follow blindly.”
Democratic city Rep. Bobby Pavia asked whether she had ever disagreed with a board position.
“We had a vote on whether to hire a distance learning administrator” during the pandemic, Burke said. “It was voted down. That really bothered me … because I saw what a huge undertaking it was. I had to show the united front of the board, and hope the staff could come up with an alternative for such a dire need.”
Democratic city Rep. Jennifer Matheny asked Burke about her tenure as president in 2021, the time of turbulence on the school board.
“What assurances can you give that the discord that led to the investigation would not happen again?” Matheny asked.
“As president, I did not want an investigation. The determination was not made by me; it was made by (city attorneys) once a complaint came forward,” Burke said.
Though Pioli said the investigation included six of nine school board members, Burke said “the entire board was investigated.”
“It was a result of individual behaviors that people did not take responsibility for,” Burke said. “This taught me to speak up sooner, to call out things more often.”
City Rep. Nina Sherwood, another Democrat, asked Burke about a union agreement backed by Board of Education President Jackie Heftman that would give highly paid school administrators a 10.5 percent pay hike over three years. City representatives recently rejected the pact, saying it was too high a tax burden, sending it to state arbitration.
Burke said she supported the large raises because “it was about being on par with what administrators in our region are being paid, and we don’t want to lose administrators to other districts because we are not looking at the correct market value of our employees.”
Sherwood said research shows that Stamford pays administrators “more than almost all surrounding districts,” and when asked, school officials said Stamford does not have a problem retaining administrators – they are low-turnover positions.
“I didn’t know that at the time,” Burke said. “If that had been information I had received, I may have considered it.”
Pioli said she would not have supported the administrators’ contract because teachers’ raises were less than half as much.
The person chosen to fill the school board seat will hold it until November, when she must run in a special election to keep it for the remaining year on the vacated term. Regular board terms are three years, so Burke or Pioli would have to run again in 2024.