Family ties: Dems criticize new board chair, Herbst supporters speak out

Trumbull’s Democratic Town Committee is urging the Board of Education to reconsider the election of Republican Deborah Herbst as board chair.

Democrats' concerns are not based on Herbst’s qualifications for the role — she is a retired elementary school principal and has served on the board 10 years — but her family connection. Herbst is the mother of the first selectman.

The statement, sent Monday by Tony Silber, is not only drawing the ire of First Selectman Timothy Herbst and the town GOP, but Deborah Herbst’s predecessor, a Democrat, disagreed Monday with his party’s stance.

Herbst, who served as Board of Education Vice Chair under Chairman Stephen Wright, received unanimous support when elected to serve as chairman last Tuesday.

Members of the Democratic Town Committee are concerned this will give one family too much control over the budget.

“Trumbull now has a first selectman responsible for an overall municipal budget of roughly $155 million and a school board led by the first selectman's mother that controls how $95 million of that overall budget is spent,” Democrats said in the statement. “This arrangement places too much policy-making power in the hands of a single family. It creates a conflict between the policy responsibilities and the personal ties of family members. And it places other town officials in awkward situations.”

First Selectman Herbst fired back Monday afternoon, saying that voters have continued to re-elect him and his mother to office. Last Tuesday, Deborah Herbst was nominated to serve as chair by Democrat Rosemary Seaman. Democrat Michael Ward seconded the nomination.

“There are six other people on that board,” the first selectman said of the Board of Education. “She has been elected as vice chairman and chairman unanimously and that is a testament to the fact she doesn’t put politics ahead of education. Her decisions are child-centered.”

Herbst noted that his mother was a leader on educational initiatives, including implementing full-day kindergarten.

Stephen Wright, who was board chair for eight years and chose not to run for reelection, offered support for Deborah Herbst, disagreeing that the board should reconsider her position. In his experience, Wright said Herbst has made decisions based on the best interests of the schools and the kids. She does a good job separating the personal from official responsibilities, he said.

“I think she deserves a chance and we can look at what she’s done in the past,” Wright said in response to the Democratic statement. “Judge her by what she does, rather than what you assume she will do.”

Wright commended her recent work in helping to negotiate teacher contracts and said when it comes to education she falls “on the right side” of things.

However, Silber, the chair of Democratic Town Committee’s Communications Subcommittee, said that Deborah Herbst becoming the chair increases her power “officially and unofficially” since administrators, teachers, parents and others will wonder if she is representing the school system interests or her son’s agenda.

“The question can be raised whether the hand of the first selectman is behind the actions of the school board,” Silber said. “The school system should be more independent. State statute specifically separates school budgets from town budgets. There’s a good reason for that.”

Chairman’s goals

Deborah Herbst chose not to comment directly to the statement from the Democratic Town Committee, but instead shared her goals as chair. She said she will approach her chairmanship in a similar way to her predecessor.

Steve and I worked well together,” Herbst said. “I believe that you establish priorities and then collaborate with your colleagues in a bipartisan fashion to get the job done.”

Herbst said her priorities include eliminating portable classrooms in the district, looking at leasing, rather than purchasing, technology, maintaining and improving student achievement results and developing a long-term capital plan.

“A good school system improves our quality of life and our property values,” Herbst said.

Finally, Herbst said she will work with fellow board members to find cost-savings and efficiencies not directly related to education.

“This will allow us to mitigate costs on behalf of the Trumbull taxpayer, while maintaining a superior school system,” she said.

GOP, former board member

Republican Town Committee Chair Jack Testani responded to the statement Monday, saying that Tony Silber should apologize to Deborah Herbst and voters.

“It is interesting that Trumbull Democrats campaigned on a promise to keep politics out of education and it took them less than a week to go back on their promise,” Testani said. “It would appear that the Democratic Party is a house divided in Trumbull.”

Testani said the Democrats being concerned about a “concentration of budgetary power” is a double-standard.

“The only town body that has final say over the budget is the Trumbull Town Council,” Testani said. “Trumbull Democrats had no problem nominating Vicki Tesoro to serve on the Town Council and take actions to adopt a municipal budget when her husband was an elected member of the Board of Finance, a separate legal entity involved in the Town budget process.”

Former Board of Education Democrat Lisa Labella, who was elected to the board from 2005 to 2013, echoed Silber’s concerns in a letter to the editor this week. Labella questioned if Deborah Herbst could be an objective chair.

“The influence of Mr. Herbst over his mother had been felt by the Board of Education over the last several years,” Labella wrote. “A review of Mrs. Herbst’s budget votes shows that, prior to her son's election, she routinely voted with the majority of the Board on the budget request, approving spending increases of more than 17% over 5 years. Yet, once her son was elected, Mrs. Herbst led the charge in attempting to drastically reducing the budget requests. Coincidence?”

The first selectman’s father, Michael Herbst, who is athletic director at Trumbull High, is also mentioned in the statement from Democrats.

“The town's most important institutions should not be controlled by a single family,” Silber said. “Not only does this control include the town government and the school board, it also includes the high school athletic department, which has a $1 million budget of its own and is led by Athletic Director Michael Herbst.”

First Selectman Herbst said his father is retiring after this year and he defended his long career with the school district.

“At the end of the day, he has worked very hard for this town for 37 and a half years,” Herbst said. “He has had an impact on thousands of kids and people that know him have the highest personal and professional respect for him.”

First Selectman Herbst said the statement from Democrats shows they didn’t listen to voters in the last election.

“If there was a problem, voters would correct that at the ballot box,” he said.