This story was first published in the New Haven Independent.
Members of the Board of Education broke arancini rice balls — but no laws — at an informal dinner party.
That happened as school board members dug into plates of Italian food during a three-hour dinner on Wednesday night at Adriana’s Restaurant, the Grand Avenue eatery, with Superintendent Carol Birks and her top deputies.
In addition to sending out invites, school board President Darnell Goldson took care to set the table in a way that ensured the get-together would not run afoul of the state’s open-meetings law. Instead, he put on an evening of vulnerable personal conversation for New Haven’s sometimes feuding public education policy makers — all without taxpayers picking up the tab.
Goldson said that he organized the dinner to find a way for board members and district brass to develop a personal connection, especially after two new members were sworn in earlier this spring.
While they spend practically every Monday night together at hours-long meetings, speaking through microphones about the state of the city’s public schools hadn’t been the best way to get to know each other, he said.
Since becoming president, Goldson has tried to get the board focused on checking off its goals. He said that Wednesday’s dinner wasn’t a way for the board to secretively pass anything, just a chance to meet each others’ families.
On Goldson’s guest list were Goldson and Tosha James-Goldson; Ed and Shirley Love Joyner; Yesenia and Elmer Rivera; Matt and JoAnne Wilcox; Mayor Toni Harp and Superintendent Birks.
Birks also invited her entire leadership team at first, but she narrowed the list after Goldson said each person would pay their own way. On her list were Deputy Superintendent Ivelise Velazquez; Chief Operating Officer Michael Pinto; Assistant Superintendents Iline Tracey, Keisha Redd-Hannans and Paul Whyte; and Student Services Director Typhanie Jackson.
The Connecticut Freedom of Information Act does allow board members to chat with each other at a “social meeting,” as long as it’s “neither planned nor intended for the purpose of discussing matters relating to official business.”
In a Wednesday afternoon email, Goldson assured reporters that’s all that was happening.
“As a matter of transparency and openness I wanted to inform you that the New Haven BOE will be gathering for an informal dinner for board members this evening,” he wrote. “We will not make any attempts to hide behind closed doors, but we would appreciate that it not be handled as though it is a meeting or public event.”
When the Independent asked additional questions about whether school staff would also be in attendance, Goldson suggested that a reporter should actually drop by and “hover around to keep us honest.”
“The conversation will be light and NHPS business free,” he wrote. “In fact, I hope you would, to bear witness to the innocuous nature of the gathering.” I took the invite.
The board members heeded Goldson’s repeated reminders and avoided any matters over which they had supervision, control or advisory power. The only subject that came close, in reference to a recent aldermanic hearing about the proposed renaming Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples’ Day, was a brief mention that a Fair Haven elementary school also bears the Italian explorer’s name.
After an initially awkward start, the board members mostly opened up about their lives. They told about their family, the books they’ve read, the places they’ve visited, the hobbies they didn’t have time for.
A few people sipped Glenlivet whisky or glasses of wine. Just as many stuck to soda.
Then Goldson dinged a glass, thanked people for coming together and asked them to say a bit about who they are.
Most talked about where they’d grown up and gone to school, where they worked and how they’d fallen in love — whether meeting their partners at a dance, a bar or a summer camp.
They talked about why they’d gone into public service, as time-consuming as it had been. Goldson said he thinks he holds the city’s record as an elected official for being called out to the parking lot the most times.
The district’s administrators, all sitting at the other end of the table, then shared why they’d gotten into education. Many of them cited of their own experiences in the classroom, having a teacher who made college feel like “13th grade,” completing homework by the light of kerosene lamps, or recognizing painful inequities after a move to a predominantly white school in the suburbs.
By the end, board members loosened up and enjoyed themselves. Laughing off his one-time challenge to a duel on Bowen Field, Joyner challenged Goldson to a dance-off. Goldson said he’d accept only a challenge he could win.
Shirley Joyner and Mayor Harp both passed around pictures of their baby grandchildren, and they carried on a hushed discussion about whether it had been easier to raise boys or girls.
Meanwhile, Superintendent Birks periodically checked two phones she kept face-down on an empty chair beside her.
Goldson said the evening had been “invaluable.” He said it helped him understand where his fellow board members were coming from in a way that hadn’t been evident before — all without needing to bring in a facilitator, like the $15,000 consultant that Birks had once suggested after her own clash with the board over dismissing part-timers.
At the end of the night, after pounds of leftover pasta, salmon and pork chops were all boxed up, the $720 bill arrived. Board members each pulled out their wallets and paid their own way.