A solid “no” was the answer on Election Day to a camouflaged question related to the Board of Education on the ballot in Bridgeport — 12,590 votes no and10,532 votes yes.
Perhaps that was the result of the efforts of the many activists and ordinary men and women working to preserve the people’s right to vote.
“Too many people have suffered and died giving blacks the right to vote for Bridgeport not to vote on Election Day,” the Rev. Al Sharpton told the 300 people who packed Mount Aery Baptist Church on the Sunday night before the vote.
It had been a battle from the get go. Although Mayor Finch got the approval of a charter commission he selected, and the City Council, he faced a strong challenge from many activists and residents. Very early in the process, residents from all walks of life opposed how the question about the Board of Education was phrased and finally appeared on the ballot.
It all started with the surrendering of the Board of Education by six board members to the state. Later, the decision was reversed by a state judge. After the judge ordered a special election, which took place on Sept. 4, Mayor Finch appointed a five-member commission to review the City Charter. Among other recommendations, the commission proposed a new way of selecting Board of Education members: They would be appointed by the mayor.
The advice was not taken well by residents, activists and community leaders. It has been a real battle. Letters, comments and interviews through various media venues flowed for months.
People and organizations supporting the “yes” position said the students are not learning and the system needs a dramatic change. The other side claimed the decision made by the city administration was not about getting better education for students, but instead, about money. They claim the mayor wants to control the nearly $250 million budget assigned to the Department of Education.
Community leaders such as Max Medina, a prominent attorney, Ed Gomes and Ernie Newton, former candidates for state Senate, and Jeff Kohut and Mary Jane Foster, former candidates for mayor, worked tirelessly to preserve what they say is a constitutional right.
Two organizations with similar missions clashed on different sides: Excel Bridgeport, a newly formed organization whose mission is to advocate for better schools and education, was on the “yes” side. The Bridgeport Child Advocacy Coalition, an long-established organization that advocates for education, housing and poor families, was on the “no” side. They both advised residents to act accordingly.
At Thomas Hooker School, Tiffany Ladson-Lang said she voted “no.” She said, “Of course I want better schools, but I don’t want to give up my right to vote. We should not have to give up our civil rights to get good education. We should be able to have them both.”
On Election Day, most of the people voting at Luis Munoz and Barnum schools didn’t understand what the question was asking. Robert Davis and R. Smith were distributing literature for Senate candidate Linda McMahon at Luis Munoz Marin School. They said they were not clear what the question meant. After they understood that voting “yes” meant the mayor would appoint the members of the Board of Education, they said they would vote “no.”
Bridgeport state Rep. Ezequiel Santiago said he would vote “yes” because he was not satisfied with the results and the quality of education the students in the city’s public school system are getting. “If the mayor has the authority to select people with skills and knowledge on education, probably we will get better results,” he said in an interview with the Fairfield County Independent.
James E. O’Donnell was volunteering at Luis Munoz Marin School for those opposed to an appointed board. He said he voted “no.” “There are 71 changes in the 126-page amended City Charter. There are provisions that would allow the mayor to get rid of people if they don’t agree with certain matters,” he said.
Raul Ruiz, a resident of Kossuth Street, said he would vote “no.” “If we ever get a mayor who wants to put in all his friends, regardless of their capabilities, we would be in trouble,” he said.
Several supporters of the “no” movement have said that if the “yes” side won, they planned to appeal with the Election Enforcement Commission. They said the way the question was framed showed a clear intent to deceive the voters. “Most of the voters did not understand the question,” one voter said.