STAMFORD – The Democrat who did not win her party’s endorsement for a seat on the school board was sworn in Tuesday by the mayor who rallied for the opposing candidate.
Jackie Pioli said she planned to hit the ground running by attending the school board’s Tuesday meeting, after a contentious vote Monday that appeared to be more about Democratic Party politics than education.
Pioli joins the school board after the Democratic City Committee endorsed her opponent, Jennienne Burke, and a Democrat-dominated Board of Representatives – the deciding body – nominated Pioli in defiance of party leadership.
In the Board of Representatives matchup Monday, Pioli received a decisive 24 votes to Burke’s 16, despite a rally Sunday at the Stamford Government Center, where Democratic Mayor Caroline Simmons urged supporters to tell their representatives to vote for Burke.
In a city where voters are overwhelmingly Democrats, the Burke-Pioli race pitted the mayor and party insiders against an increasingly influential faction that challenges the power structure.
Pioli said she’s concerned that politics has weighted the discussion since the party endorsed Burke on Jan. 12.
“It’s disheartening that a lot of the questions and comments have not focused on students and teachers,” Pioli said shortly before she was sworn in Tuesday afternoon. “A lot of the talk was not about education. It was more personal.”
That was evident during Monday night’s Board of Representatives meeting, which opened with a vote to change the rules to allow public comments before the balloting. The vote failed. Members of the public would express their displeasure later.
Consider the candidates
Burke supporters focused on Pioli’s three years on the Board of Education, 2018-21, when she challenged budgets and the effectiveness of academic programs, repeatedly requested data and questioned administrators using her own research. Pioli is a parent, school volunteer, and professional advocate for families with struggling students.
Things got contentious during that board tenure, especially after COVID-19 hit, and Superintendent Tamu Lucero asked for a review, which investigated the whole board and cost taxpayers $400,000.
Burke supporters blamed Pioli for the expense, calling her a bully. They cited her 2021 bid for a school board seat, when Democrats refused to endorse her and Pioli ran as an unaffiliated candidate, earning far fewer votes than her opponents.
Pioli supporters said a Democratic endorsement is crucial in Stamford, and when Pioli got the party nod as a newcomer in 2018, Democratic leaders did not expect her to win. But she earned enough votes to oust the then-Board of Education president, supporters said.
It’s unfair to label Pioli a bully, city Rep. Nina Sherwood said. The review commissioned by the city advised that the entire school board receive training, and that the chair enforce policies and procedures.
“Nowhere does it say that Jackie Pioli was out of order. She was not found guilty of creating a hostile work environment,” Sherwood said. “Members of this board who say she is a bully are showing bully behavior and name-calling a person who has done so much work for our students and teachers.”
Pioli was backed by the Stamford teachers’ union.
Burke, who chaired the school board for a time during that contentious period, had a seat from 2015 until last year, when she did not run for reelection. Burke’s background is in health education and she is a longtime student mentor with a focus on college and career readiness.
Supporters said she is a “consummate professional” who is “calm and collaborative” and a “top vote-getter in her elections.”
But, when the roll was called, nearly two-thirds of representatives voted to seat Pioli on the school board.
Then they opened the floor for public comment. Residents let them have it.
“This process is a travesty of democracy,” a man said. “Now that you voted, our comments don’t matter. Maybe we could have said something to change someone’s mind.”
The Rev. Joseph Ford called into the Zoom meeting to say “we have watched the way you voted tonight and will make our voices heard at election time.”
A woman said she is “appalled by the process … by using these tactics, we lose voters and their confidence. I implore you to change your process.”
City Rep. Jeff Stella, who called for an end to name-calling among representatives during Monday’s meeting, said that’s what he sought to avoid by slating the vote before public comment.
“Some people have been spewing hatred; they were already putting things on social media. We can’t have people going after each other during our meetings,” Stella said. “Once you say it, it’s part of the public record forever. I value people’s opinions, but we have to protect the individuals who come before us.”
Representatives had been speaking to constituents for a month and knew who they would vote for by Monday’s meeting, he said.
At least one caller raised the prospect of Pioli being the deciding vote on a contract extension for Lucero. The 2023-24 school year could be the superintendent’s last if she does not get an extension.
Pioli said Tuesday that Lucero “has an annual review, with goals that have to be met, so I would consider all the information and see where growth has taken place.”
Back to politics
The public discussion after Monday’s vote ended on a political note when Robin Druckman, chair of the Democratic City Committee, called in to question city representatives who did not accept Burke, the party’s nominee. Last year the same board voted for party-endorsed candidates to fill seats for constable and the Board of Finance “with no objection,” Druckman said.
“One wonders why this 36 Democrat-majority board would submit a name for a candidate not endorsed by the DCC, which has never been done before for a Democratic seat,” Druckman said. “It is extremely troubling — and the (Republican Town Committee) should be worried, too — that this board that claims to represent the people overreached on this appointment.”
Sherwood, the board’s majority leader and a Pioli supporter, said “having a city committee put someone’s name up is a custom – not a rule, not a requirement, not binding.”
The Democratic Party “is supposed to be tolerant of different opinions,” Sherwood said.
“There are a lot of people who don’t have a good relationship with the DCC and that has to do with the fact that the DCC is often intolerant of people who have their own mind. It’s been this way for years,” Sherwood said. “To the DCC, the best people are those who vote with what a Democratic mayor wants, and that’s not always what’s best for the city.”
Pioli said she would like to set politics aside and look ahead, taking from her experience with last month’s grueling three-hour interview before the board’s Appointments Committee.
“It showed me that I can endure and move forward,” she said. “You have to have thick skin to be in the game.”
Pioli said her focus will be the school budget, now being finalized.
The school board seat was vacated by a Democrat, and under the city Charter it had to be filled by a Democrat until a special election can be held in November, when Pioli would have to run to keep it.