On Thursday night the Board of Education took a vote on whether to censure Peter Sherr, a three term Republican member, whose profane comment was caught on a hot mic during a Feb 19 BOE meeting.
During Thursday’s public comments, there were a handful of people who testified both in favor and opposed to the censure.
Beth MacGillivray said, “I am a little appalled that the BOE is spending extra time on this when there are so many issues that are so important,” she said. “A hot mic happens to people. It’s a mistake, but to make this a huge issue, I’m really appalled.”
State Rep (R-149) Kimberly Fiorello said she was speaking as a personal friend and character witness for Mr. Sherr.
“I think you know that since this Zoom era, there is a blending of our private lives and the time we spend as a public servant,” she said. “I understand there was an very unfortunate public mic situation, which is not a great example to set, but I hope all of you will not vote for the censure. I feel it is a harsh sentence, especially in these times when everything is Google-able and it would be a terrible last note on someone’s long service to our town.”
Molly Saleeby said, “Anyone can forgive an open mic, but I didn’t hear an apology that very evening, nor a few weeks later in an op ed that was written. We should have the highest of standards in this town.”
Janet McMahon urged the board to vote yes on the motion to censure Mr. Sherr.
“The profanity uttered by Mr. Sherr on the Zoom mic was neither a mistake, nor a one-off. Over the past 7 years I’ve personally witnessed countless BOE meetings where Mr. Sherr demonstrated aggressive, condescending and toxic behavior toward other BOE members, superintendents, and Havemeyer staff. Additionally, he has shamed, bullied and attacked Greenwich Public School teachers, parents and even students on social media.”
The vote to censure was no surprise. Back in mid-March, a motion had been made by Joe Kelly, also a Republican, to censure Mr. Sherr for “foul language.”
But during the retreat though, there was no opportunity for public comment, whereas during Thursday’s regular business meeting there were plenty of opinions, both in favor of censure, and opposed.
At the retreat Republican Karen Kowalski, who has steadfastly supported Mr. Sherr, made a motion to postpone the item until the March business meeting and Mr. Bernstein seconded the motion.
And so it was that on Thursday night that BOE member Christina Downey made a motion to censure Mr. Sherr, and Meghan Olsson seconded it.
“I’d like to make a motion that, as published in our agenda, that pursuant to board policy 9222 the board censure Peter Sherr for his conduct during the Feb 18, 2021 meeting, when he was heard using offensive, inappropriate language in uttering a disparaging comment about a fellow board member.
Censure is merited as his behavior violates board policy 9271 Code of Ethics. Specifically the provisions that board members and superintendents recognize that clear and appropriate communications are key to the successful operation of the school district.”Christina Downey
Mr. Sherr questioned who was presiding over the meeting. He said BOE chair Peter Bernstein had been advised to recuse himself and suggested Bernstein had a conflict of interest.
“We’ve been advised by the town attorney, you’ve been advised to recuse yourself,” Sherr said.
“The person you heard from is not the acting town attorney,” Mr. Bernstein said. “That would be Barbara Schellenberg.”
“There is no legal requirement for me to recuse myself,” Bernstein added.”There is nothing in our policy. There is nothing in state law.”
However, Bernstein offered not to preside over the item.
“We can certainly have Ms Stowe lead the discussion item,” Bernstein said, referring to vice chair Kathleen Stowe.
Ms Downey said, “I was distressed and disappointed by the insulting and derogatory profanity uttered by Mr. Sherr during the Feb 18 BOE meeting. All elected public officials are held to high standards of conduct and are accountable if they do not adhere to these standards. This is particularly true for this board due to our unique status overseeing thousands of young students and hundreds of teachers.”
“In particular, we, the BOE, and Greenwich Public Schools require appropriate behavior from our students and staff and acceptance of responsibility for failure to adhere to codes of conduct.”
BOE member Joe Kelly said his daughter had come home from her day at GHS and asked about the incident.
“She used an abbreviated version of what Mr. Sherr had said. I was offended by the abbreviated version,” Kelly said. “I said, ‘Please don’t say that at the dinner table.'”
“She said the kids at school are talking about it,” Mr. Kelly said. “Is it okay for students to use that language to a teacher, when that teacher is disciplining students? Is it okay for an athlete to say those words to a coach when he’s taking a kid out of a game and replacing him with a substitute? It’s not okay.”
“I support the censure, not because I hate Mr. Sherr,” Kelly said. “I am on the same political party he’s on. I’ve been a Republican for 40 years. It has nothing to do with that. It has nothing to do with his past performance. It has nothing to do with his opinions. A lot of his opinions I happen to agree with. It’s only specifically about his use of that language. He has to be censured as an example to the kids.”
Ms Kowalski said she was disappointed that the conversation was continuing.
“Mr. Sherr apologized publicly in the paper,” she said. “He said it was a mistake. He said it had nothing to do with a board issue or directed to any board member. Mr. Sherr is a board member who has been appearing publicly for 12 years, and this is the first f-bomb moment dropped in a state of always-on-TV, always-on-the-mic.”
“We seem more concerned about the mistaken hot mic than anything else before us,” she added. “I think this is a reflection on board leadership…”
“I think this is calling the kettle black, and casting the first stone,” she added. “My concern is that we have singled out this one incident to make some kind of statement. We need to be very careful because this borders on silencing free speech.”
“He didn’t say he was going to kill someone,” Kowalski continued. “He wasn’t inciting a riot.”
Kowalski said two years ago in February parents were “screaming” at each other over the disagreement over turf or natural grass field. “Where were the norms that night?” she asked. “Let’s be real careful that this is not a selective attack.”
BOE member Meghan Olsson said everyone makes mistakes. However, she said, “The key is whether we learn from them, and evolve from them, whether we own up to them, whether we admit them.”
“Children are listening to these calls. Students have been suspended for cursing, for using the f-word – less than what was said on that call,” said Ms Olsson who is a school teacher. “I know students who have been suspended for this.”
“We are holding our students to a different standard than we are the elected officials, and that’s not okay,” Olsson added. “Since Mr. Sherr seems to be doubling down rather than apologizing, I don’t see any other option than to vote for censure.”
BOE member Karen Hirsh said she had been disappointed to hear the disparaging remark from Mr. Sherr, adding that Mr. Sherr, as the longest standing board member, should be familiar with policy 9271, the Code of Ethics.
“Conduct like this does distract us from our responsibilities of focusing on the needs of our students,” Hirsh said continued. “I’m not sure why some are suggesting this is about character or that we are turning this into more than it need to be. It is simply a response to a moment that happened. We all make mistakes, but when we make them, we apologize.”
Ms. Stowe, the vice chair, said, “It would have been better for all of us if you had simply apologized promptly, as the minimum we would expect of any of our students, and we should expect nothing less from our leaders.”
Mr. Sherr shared remarks that he said were to addressed to his constituents.
“I’m sorry I didn’t manage my Zoom microphone effectively and you may have overheard what I’ve clearly said were private comments about a private matter,” Sherr said. “The reason board members don’t know that is that in the prior 30 days no one on the board other than Ms Kowalski has contacted me, reached out to me, asked me about this issue.”
“So I’ll repeat what I said before in a statement, it was a regrettable mistake. I think it’s important for people to recognize mistakes, learn from them and move on,” he continued. “As I’ve said before, if you’re a student, please listen to me carefully. I realize profanity has become part of your daily life. It’s something that is everywhere. It’s in art, popular music, literature, film, television. It has become pervasive in our society today that you as students are being raised in.”
“I know profanity is extensively used in texts and assignments actually being delivered in 10th grade English at Greenwich High School,” he added. “There are better, more effective words. Use them instead.”
“Now I want to address the six of you on the board. We have really serious issues: classrooms collapsing, students displaced, huge losses in learning, serious student mental health problems – genuine, real anxiety among our 1,300 employees, toxic school environments that have dragged on for nearly a decade, a broken special education system, and a yawning achievement gap.”
Sherr referred to the censure as a “stunt.”
“Every single one of you have used profane words in conversations with me many times,” he said.
“You’re trying to censure me for words that Greenwich Schools actually teaches in our classrooms,” he added. “I would suggest you all climb down from those very high horses you seem to be on and have a serious discussion.”
“I understand that you don’t like probing questions that I ask of Superintendent Jones and the administration,” he said. “I have great frustration that they never get answered.”
“I understand that you don’t like me having these opposing views,” he added. “I also understand that for some of you, there is a deep personal and political background to all this. I’ve worked hard to keep that away from the board. I understand, as an example, Ms Stowe and Mr. Kelly and others are really angry about my active and public support of the Republican opponent to a board member in the CT State Representative race. Mr. Kelly has made that point exceptionally clear.”
“This is about using power, which is an agent of the state of Connecticut, to try to chill my speech and wind up denying me my civil rights. That’s a very dangerous place for the board to be.”Peter Sherr
“You guys can go ahead and do what you do, finish this political stunt, which is what it is,” Sherr said. “I would rather you don’t force my hand to the next step. Board members cannot so brazenly use state given authority to besmirch someone’s reputation and deprive them of their civil rights without accountability.”
“You’re exposing yourselves and others to penalty,” he added. “I would encourage you not to do that.”
Mr. Bernstein responded briefly to say, “This issue has never been personal. It is about behavior at a meeting… the Code of Ethics we all must follow.”
“At the end of the day, a real apology actually would have gone a long way here, Peter,” Bernstein said. “It’s not on us to call you. It’s on you to call us. On behalf of myself, I’ve never heard an apology from you. What you wrote in the paper was not an apology. The community can come to its own conclusion on that.”
“We hold our students to a certain standard,” he added. “The standard when we have an expulsion hearing is whether the behavior violates or is disruptive to the educational process. You have violated our code of conduct. You disrupted the board meeting with your language. …We should set the example. I am aware of the time this is taking. I regret that we are not focusing on students right now. The fact of the matter is we need to tell the community we are serious about this. That we do want to hold ourselves and our students to a certain standard.
Mr. Sherr smiled broadly.
“You can smile and smirk all you want, Mr. Sherr, but at the end of the day, good governance is about being held accountable,” Bernstein said. “I’ll stop there and I’ll call the question.”
Ms Stowe called on each board member. Voting yes were Stowe, Karen Hirsh, Meghan Olsson, Peter Bernstein, Joe Kelly, and Christina Downey.
Voting no was Karen Kowalski
Mr. Sherr abstained
The vote was 6-1-1.