‘Unfortunately, This is How Collaboration Works on the Stamford Board of Education’

Rebecca Hamman (Courtesy of the author)

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Stamford’s Board of Education has reached national notoriety this week on the internet, television, and social media platforms.  They have a dilemma—a vote was taken to remove two federal holidays from the school calendars for 2024-25 and 2025-26.  Now both Columbus and Veteran’s Day have been removed. 

Here is the scuttlebutt.

  1. A districtwide survey was used to develop the calendars, yet the Board of Education Labor Committee Chair never referred to this information before voting. 

  2. Onboarding (Policy 9230) for the new three Board of Education members was limited and certainly didn’t cover all the steps needed to make ‘right’ decisions (Policy 9005).

  3. One Board of Education member—who often has a dissenting voice and vote, was threatened to be censured (Policy 9005) because an online media article—not written by her—was printed to explain the details behind the calendar controversy (she was only quoted).  Sadly, no evidence was cited by Stamford City Corporate Council or Mr. Tom Mooney, both used as Board of Education legal support.  Meanwhile, the board President has been out-of-the country for two weeks and unable to discuss this threat.

  4. There is real, factual history surrounding Columbus Day, which many taxpayers are trying to bring to the attention of the Board of Education.  Italian immigrants suffered much discrimination and denigration in past generations, resulting in the largest single day of lynching in America—11 innocent Italian Americans as well as others were killed in 1891.  For atonement and an apology, President Harrison commemorated Columbus Day as a federal holiday in 1892.  Stamford community members have never forgotten this.

  5. Many Stamford veterans are voicing their concerns, too.  One of the dissenting Board of Education members, directly connected to 18 veterans in her own family (including father, several uncles, a brother and nephew as well as many cousins), believes none of the current members have served in any branches of the U.S. miliary service.  This could also skew voting.

  6. Due to national polarization of politics, history and the 2021 DEI (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion) federal executive order, not all curriculums are truth-based any longer.  As an example, the 1619 Project—a revisionist work that uses the cotton industry as the beginning of American history — has been eviscerated by well-respected scholars, but still is used in many classrooms throughout the United States.  During the calendar debate, another Board of Education member made it clear that primary resources now highlight Columbus as a villain, not a hero.

  7. Despite lots of drama surrounding school calendar development, Stamford’s Superintendent of Schools remains silent and reactive.  It has been pointed out several times that if more learning time is needed, SPS can create a policy to remove all religious holidays from the school calendars.  The Superintendent and Board of Education refuse to consider this. 

Despite the national uproar this district has created, federal and state law covers freedom of speech, and the reason one Board of Education member continues to speak out for the community. 

First, in Bond v. Floyd 385 U.S. 116, the United States Supreme Court clearly stated the following:

“The First Amendment in a representative government requires that legislators be given the widest latitude to express their views on issues of policy … debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open.  Legislators have an obligation to take positions on controversial political questions so that their constituents can be fully informed by them and be better able to assess their qualifications for office; also, so they may be represented in governmental debates by the person they have elected to represent them”.

That would seem to answer the question, however in 2022, the Supreme Court decided Houston Community College System v. Wilson.  In that case, the court referenced the Bond v. Floyd case.  In the Houston case, Mr. Wilson was elected to the Board of Trustees of the Houston Community College System.  Mr. Wilson often disagreed with the board about the best interests of the College.  The disagreements escalated to the point where the board publicly censured him. The censure stated, “his conduct was not consistent with the best interest of the College.” He claimed violation of free speech protected by the First Amendment.

The court concluded the censure did not violate his free speech.  The court drew a distinction with the Bond case.  It cautioned it was a very narrow distinction.  It said, “This case is a narrow one.  It involves a censure of one member of an elected body by other members of the same body.  It does not involve expulsion, exclusion, or any other form of punishment. It entails only a First Amendment retaliation claim, not any other claim or any other source of law.  The board’s censure spoke to the conduct of official business, and it was issued by individuals seeking to discharge their public duties.”  The court also explained the long-standing history and right of an elected body to discipline its members.  

Second, once the Stamford Board of Education adopts a policy, can the argument be made “seeking to discharge their public duties” by enforcing Policy 9005?  Clearly before a policy is adopted, no one can stop a member of the Board of Education from speaking for or against it in the public forum.  This is consistent with Connecticut General Statute Section 52-196a that states any civil action brought against someone for exercising communication or conduct furthering communication, in a public forum on a matter of public concern, the court should dismiss the complaint.  This would strongly suggest it is the public policy of the State of Connecticut you cannot stop anyone (elected or otherwise) from speaking out on matters of public concern.  

Here is the Stamford Board of Education Policy 9005—Statement of Integrity (2014), that one of the dissenting members is being threatened with censorship:

The long term health of a representative democracy requires that citizenship and leadership act upon what is right, rather than what is popular. As Board of Education members, our goal is to improve the education of our children and to advocate for them and their best interests. Board members must be working effectively together and with others in the community to successfully reach this goal. 

A Board of Education that operates with integrity will be a more effective board.  Integrity is first, discerning what is right and what is wrong, second, acting upon what you have discerned even at personal cost; and third, saying openly that you are acting on your understanding of right from wrong. It requires that students, colleagues, constituents, and others in the community be considered in every decision. A Board of Education with a sense of integrity will consider what is right, and what is wrong. This takes discipline and an awareness of one’s environment.

To this end, as a Board of Education with integrity, we will:

  • Understand that our first and greatest concern is the educational welfare of the students, and that all decisions must be based on this understanding

  • Render all decisions based solely on our judgment of the available facts and not surrender that judgment to individuals, special interests, or our own personal agendas;· Attend all board meetings insofar as possible, and be responsible for becoming informed on any and all issues coming before the Board, as well as being prepared to discuss and/ or act upon all agenda items.

  • Be responsible for becoming informed on any and all issues coming before the board.

  • Seeks to facilitate ongoing communication between the board and students, staff, parents and all elements of the community.

  • Conduct our meetings and foster an environment where all elements of the community can express their ideas.

  • Declare a conflict of interest when it arises and excuse ourselves from related discussion and action on that issue.

  • Refrain from using our position on the board for personal or partisan gain.

  • Insist on regular and impartial evaluation of all staff, and conduct a yearly self-evaluation and set annual goals.

  • Fairly assess all non-instructional aspects of the school operation.

  • Support all decisions by the board to the community once a decision has been reached.

  • Understand that we have no authority beyond that which is exercised at the Board meeting, and that we shall not lend the impression that we are speaking on the Board’s behalf unless that authority has been so delegated.

Using both law and policy, decision-making bodies like the Stamford Board of Education, should allow elected officials latitude.  This Board of Education has clearly displayed nationally it no longer listens to the community-at-large and has created a biased, partisan bowl of spaghetti.

Outside of the debate floor, the Stamford Board of Education president wields her power when appropriate for partisanship.  Case-in-point, seven members attended the CABE (Connecticut Association of Boards of Education) Fall conference this year. One member, a Republican, was not invited to participate with the team of six Democrats at lunch.  So, this member found a seat at another table. 

Feeling guilty, one of the six Board of Education members found the Republican out of approximately 500 attendees and said there was a seat available after all.  Odd that the Board of Education president, or her team of Democrats, would not even consider asking the seventh Board of Education member to join them for lunch that day.  Unfortunately, this is how collaboration works on the Stamford Board of Education.  If anyone disagrees with individuals in power or is vocal about it, they believe they can censure or bully them. 

Lately this seems to be how this partisan group works in this current polarized environment when making decisions around school calendars, districtwide surveys or listening to the community of stakeholders—just censure individuals when they disagree with you. It is easy to do and a great way to put them in their place, so they think.  Sadly, this is democracy at its finest in Stamford, Connecticut!  Hopefully there will be a second chance to reconsider the calendar vote… censuring doesn’t work for anyone or any group when the policies and processes are set up to fail.  Stamford Board of Education, please help make Stamford proud!

Dr. Rebecca Hamman currently serves as the Ad Hoc Policy Chair for the Stamford Board of Education.  Her comments are her own, and do not represent the official views of the Board of Education or its committees.