First Selectman Dan Rosenthal is taking issue with a proposed Charter Revision charge that would review and determine whether to remove Newtown’s top elected leader as an “ex-officio” member of the Board of Education, and whether to remove the Board of Education as a “Town Department” in Charter language.
On March 3, the Legislative Council met to seat and charge the latest Charter Revision Commission. The 2021 panel will be made up of residents Prerna Rao (D), Elias Petersen (D), James Gaston (D), Anthony Filiato (R), Andy Buzzi (R), Dennis Brestovansky (R), and Scott Davidow (U).
After numerous local boards, commissions, and officials submitted suggested changes to Newtown’s constitutional document, Rosenthal took note of a suggested change forwarded by the Board of Education that read:
“Consider if the term ‘Town Department’ may not be appropriate in all instances. Replace the term with ‘Appropriation Assignee’ or another term that more clearly focuses on the assignment of funds. Review [recommended] sections that currently reference ‘Town Department’ to determine whether the language accurately applies to the Board of Education and current practices — submitted by the Newtown Board of Education,” and “Consider if the Board of Education should be excluded from the following: ‘The First Selectman shall be an ex officio member of all Town Bodies…’.”
“Perhaps I’m overreacting,” Rosenthal said, “but I was disappointed that… we’re poised to ask the Charter Revision Commission whether or not the Board of Education is part of the town.”
Rosenthal told the council that over the course of his life he has seen challenging incidents like teachers’ strikes, overcrowding driving the sudden need for portable classrooms to be installed, and more recent overcrowding necessitating the need to expand the high school facility.
“We dealt with many of those things, and we did it as a town, working together,” Rosenthal said. “My sense, by the suggestions the Board of Ed made, is that may not be where the Board of Ed is anymore.”
He pointed out that while it is seldom discussed, and few town leaders regularly participate in an ex-officio capacity, the first selectman being granted that privilege is codified in state statute.
“I’ve used it twice,” Rosenthal said. The first time was just after he first took office and the school board was involved in a search for a new superintendent.
“I reached out and asked where we were with that process and politely I was told it was none of my business,” Rosenthal said. “The other time was when I attended a Board of Ed meeting as an ex-officio member because of a personnel matter.”
The first selectman said that while the privilege has not been abused, he does see it as an element in the Charter “that ties us all together.”
“It’s quite clear that the Board of Education is a town department — that’s why they are in our financial statement,” he continued. “I think much ado is made about the Board of Ed being an agency of the state. But if that were the case, why isn’t the state sending unelected bureaucrats to serve? The Board of Education is elected locally, and we have a legal opinion that says the district is the town. That’s why we’re all elected by our residents.”
Rosenthal believes those particular requests by the school board “create a divide that is unnecessary, and I have concern for the future.”
But the first selectman said he was confident the charter commission members will reject the suggestions. Rosenthal earlier said he would make further appeals to the charter panel if the council would not take action to remove those charges.
Council Chairman Paul Lundquist responded saying he would take Rosenthal’s points as a preview of what would be articulated at a future charter commission hearing. Lundquist likened the school board’s suggestions to another charge that was not well-received — to eliminate the town’s elected Board of Finance, and replace it with an appointed advisory panel to the council.
“All these different perspectives were debated [when considering] how to frame the charter charge itself,” the council chairman said. “It speaks to some of the exploration the charter review commission will do in its work. And I have full faith in their abilities to get to the answer.”
School Board Chairman Michelle Embree Ku said her board decided to suggest reviewing the board status point because references to the Board of Education as a town department in the Charter are being used inconsistently.
“It is more a matter of what the structure in Newtown is according to the charter,” she said. “Sometimes the Board of Ed is considered a [town] department, sometimes it isn’t. I guess the board would argue boards of ed are not departments of a town, but rather extensions of a state agency. Similarly, the charter sets up the Board of Ed budget separate from the Board of Selectmen budget. The municipality also has very different roles than the Board of Ed.”
In regard to the first selectman being codified in state statute as an ex-officio board of education member, Ku recalled the instance when Rosenthal asked to be part of the meeting on the personnel matter.
“When Dan first said he had an ex-officio status, our legal counsel was surprised by that. It’s not a usual practice” to assert that status, Ku said, adding that she would be interested in reviewing the related language in state law.