Stymied Again, BOE Tie Vote for Chair Falls Along Party Lines

In first happened in 2016.

It has remained an issue ever since.

At Thursday’s Board of Education meeting, the board failed to elect a chair when a tie vote fell along party lines. For a nominee to become chair of the board requires 5 out of 8 votes. There is a statute that kicks the decision over to the Board of Selectmen if the BOE fails to elect a chair with five votes out of eight.

On Thursday night the candidates for chair were Karen Hirsh and Karen Kowalski.

Both women recently won second terms on the board. Terms are four years. Republican Michael-Joseph Mercanti-Anthony nominated Ms Kowalski.

He noted that Ms Kowalski received the most votes of any candidate in the Nov 7 municipal election.*

(Correction Ms Kowalski was the second highest vote-getter with 9902 votes to Wendy Vizzo Walsh’s 9989 votes)

In her previous term Kowalski served as vice chair for a term and is currently the policy committee chair.

He said that along with Ms Hirsh, Ms Kowalski had drafted the current strategic plan. She also served as the BOE rep on the feasibility committee for Old Greenwich School renovation project.

“As chair I am confident that she will represent the opinions of the whole board, and rise above sometimes the gamesmanship that unfortunately too often characterizes our local politics and dissuade some of the partisan tempers in town.”

Democrat Laura Kostin nominated Ms Hirsh who is the acting chair given her roll-over roll as secretary, and the fact that both the outgoing chair Joe Kelly and vice chair Christina Downey did not run for re-election.

Ms Kostin praised Ms Hirsh’s experience and leadership. She recounted how in 2011 Ms Hirsh was elected to the PTA executive board at Glenville School, and in 2012 was elected co-president of that school’s PTA where she served until 2014.

“Those were difficult years. I refer to these as the FIRB years, and and anybody who would recall them would know that it stands for Facility Utilization and Racial Balance,” Kostin recalled.

“Our town was gripped with fear that our neighborhood schools model would be upended. Emotions were high. This auditorium was packed and our PTAs were on the frontlines during that particularly difficult time.”

Kostin said in 2014 Ms Hirsh was elected PTA Council’s VP of Student Support, and in 2015 was elected first VP of PTA Council before being elected President of PTAC, a role she served from 2017 to 2019, the year she joined the BOE.

“In the years that Ms Hirsh devoted her time to advocating for our schools, our students and their families, she also built relationships with others in town government, and regardless of party affiliation. I have yet to meet anyone who has not enjoyed working with her.”

After nominations, in her role as acting chair, Ms Hirsh loaned the gavel to Kathleen Stowe to conduct the election.

The Back Story

Back in 2016, after three tie votes at three separate meetings, the decision on a chair moved to the three-member Board of Selectmen, led at the time by Republican Peter Tesei.

The Board of Selectmen voted to pick Peter Sherr as chair, though the lone Democrat Drew Marzullo strenuously objected noting that traditionally a chair would serve two one-year terms and Laura Erickson had only served one year.

Mr. Marzullo nominated Ms Erickson, but that nomination was not seconded by either of the two Republicans on the three-member board.

In 2021, Christina Downey nominated Ms Stowe and Joe Kelly nominated himself for chair.

“I’d like to nominate myself. I’ve not prepared a speech, but I’m a really nice guy,” Kelly said at the time.

The board avoided a tie vote when Republican Karen Kowalski crossed party lines and voted with Democrats for Ms Stowe.

In 2022, when Ms Stowe announced she would not run again for chair again.  The board voted twice – Nov 16 and Dec 1  – along party lines in tie votes between Ms Downey and Mr. Kelly.

By their third opportunity to vote, Dec 15, after First Selectman Fred Camillo had signaled on his radio show that his Republican controlled Board of Selectmen would pick the chair, and that he would of course pick Joe Kelly. Ms Stowe, who had previously nominated Ms Downey, instead nominated Mr. Kelly. At that point, everyone rallied around Mr. Kelly and the vote was 8-0 in favor of his serving as chair. Moments later, in the vote for vice chair, Ms Downey was nominated by Mr. Mercanti-Anthony. The vote was 7-0 with Ms Kowalski abstaining.

Next Steps?

The board cannot vote on the other officers until the chair position is settled.

They are required to elect officers within 30 days from when the new board started, or the decision is bumped to the Board of Selectmen.

There is another chance for the BOE to vote at the Dec 14 meeting.

Prior to that, there may be another opportunity to vote if an additional meeting related to the budget is scheduled. Stay tuned.