Norwalk BOE weighing major changes to school governance council policy

Students arrive for the first day of classes at West Rocks Middle School in Norwalk, Conn. on Tuesday, September 8, 2020.

Students arrive for the first day of classes at West Rocks Middle School in Norwalk, Conn. on Tuesday, September 8, 2020.

Brian A. Pounds / Hearst Connecticut Media

NORWALK — The city Board of Education is weighing significant changes to school governance councils, including limiting the authority of the councils to make decisions for the individual schools they serve.

The councils, which are made up of parents, students and school officials, were established five years ago to give parents greater input in how the schools their children attend are managed. The councils have wide authority and are considered the primary decision-making body for a school.

But according to Dori Page Antonetti, an attorney with the law firm Shipman & Goodwin, LLP, the district policy governing the councils should be amended to match state law, which does not explicitly give councils the power to make binding decisions.

“The legislature, as indicated by the statutory language, and the state Department of Education view school governance councils’ role as one of participation, consultation, advice giving in a wide variety of areas, but not ultimate decision making,” Antonetti said at a board policy committee meeting last week.

Superintendent Alexandra Estrella said the district asked Shipman & Goodwin to review the policy after a Freedom of Information Act request complaint raised concerns it was not in alignment with state law.

“One of the things that we’re trying to do is to well align ourselves to the state guidelines to make sure that in the future we don’t have complaints associated to SGCs, partially to those that are mandated by the state,” Estrella said, referring to eight student governance councils that are required under state law.

In addition to straying from state guidelines, Antonetti said the council policy conflicts with another board policy that vests the responsibility for managing schools with the district administration and not the student governance councils.

To avoid conflicting with state guidelines, Antonetti suggested the board change the definition of student governance councils to better reflect their role as advisory boards for the school principal and their staff.

Antonetti also recommended the board adjust voting rules for individual councils. Currently, councils must reach consensus or a two-thirds majority for an item to pass. Antonetti suggested the threshold be set at either a simple majority or two-thirds majority.

The change is necessary, Antonetti said, because the councils are subject to the Freedom of Information Act and a vote must be officially recorded under state law.

“Consensus implies that you are just coming to an agreement without having a vote or any formal way to understand what that consensus is,” she said.

Antonetti also said council term limits should be adjusted from a maximum of two two-year terms to no more than four two-year terms. State law, she said, allows members to serve up to four terms.

The recommended changes are far from becoming part of board policy. The committee has not taken any official steps to amend council rules, and some members expressed unease at parts of the proposal.

Heidi Keyes, a school board member and the chairperson of the policy committee, suggested altering term limits — which would allow council members to serve up to eight years — could prevent more parents from participating in the process.

“I just worry with those longer terms some other parents that really want to be active and join will have to wait that longer amount of time,” Keyes said, adding the committee should take more time to consider the recommendation.

Still, the possibility of reducing council authority raised alarm among some parents who currently sit on the district’s 20 student governance councils. At least seven parents wrote to the council last week in opposition to the proposed changes, including several council members.

“These changes represent a sharp contrast from efforts by the (school board) just a few years ago to encourage more parent involvement and include parents in the decision making process for their schools,” wrote Jason Penta, council co-chairperson at Tracey Magnet School.

Mike Raleigh, council co-chairperson for Nathan Hale Middle School, suggested any attempt to limit the power of student governance councils without the input from members could breed mistrust between the community and the district.

“Any effort to marginalize the helpful role and the positive spirit of the SGCs would be considered a major step backwards,” Raleigh said. “There are many SGC members in our districts with peer groups that I am sure can be mobilized to engage this issue if a discussion on the subject is desired, rather than doing it quietly in the background.”