Trumbull charter commission leans toward eight school board members, talks term limits

TRUMBULL — With a month to go before presenting its recommendations to the Town Council, the Charter Revision Commission is working its way through what are likely to be some of the more controversial topics.

The commission, at its May 13 teleconference meeting, had in-depth discussions on returning the Board of Education to a non-partisan panel, with an even number of members split between political parties. The commission also split over enacting term limits before agreeing to delay a vote until all members were present.

Chairman Kate Donahue divided the school board discussion into two topics — whether to return the board to an even number of seats, and how many seats there should be. First Selectman Vicki Tesoro had recommended a return to six seats from the current seven-member board, but commissioners appeared concerned about overloading board members.

“Several people have said we should have eight, because there is so much work,” Donahue said.

Nancy Gardiner agreed that more would be better.

“These are all volunteers,” she said. Serving on the Charter Revision Commission had proven to be time consuming for the members, she said. “I can’t imagine what serving on the Board of Education is like.”

Members agreed that a board split evenly between the parties was likely a benefit to students, though the possibility of an unbreakable deadlock was a concern.

Donahue said avoiding deadlocks would be the board’s responsibility.

“The board operated that way for at least two decades,” she said. “They would have to work it out.”

Commission member Tom Tesoro, Vicki Tesoro’s husband, recalled his experience serving on the Board of Finance, which is also a six-member board.

“There were only a handful of occasions where it deadlocked,” he said.

The six-member board worked “extremely well,” Tesoro said. But the addition of a seventh member had made it more contentious, he said.

“I’m a big fan of equality forcing people — that’s what it is — to work together and if they can’t, it doesn’t happen,” he said.

Martin McCann, noting the contentious nature of politics at the national and regional level, said his concern was the possibility of a seemingly unbreakable deadlock between parties with entrenched positions.

“How is that resolved, and how is that in the best interest of our children?” he asked.

Tesoro said he believed state statute mandated school boards take certain actions, such as approving a budget.

“So if it’s a 4-4 vote, it doesn’t happen,” Tesoro said. “They’re going to have to find a way.”

Donahue agreed, saying that her experience with school boards is that they generally work together.

“They really see themselves as operating above that,” she said.

McCann conceded the point, saying, “Maybe I just have less faith in human nature than the rest of you.”

Correspondence with the public seemingly supported the idea of a non-partisan board. Gardiner said the commission’s feedback was unanimous.

“We’ve gotten recommendations from both sides of the aisle for an even number,” she said. “No one has recommended keeping an odd number.”

The board agreed to delay voting on the change until Town Attorney Daniel Schopick can research potential tie-breaking procedures in the event of an impasse.

The next topic, term limits, seemed to split the commission nearly down the middle, with Tesoro favoring them, Gardiner and McCann speaking against, and Donahue on the fence.

“I could argue both sides,” she said.

The commission also opted against voting on the term limit proposal due to a desire to hear the opinion of a member who missed the meeting.

The term limit argument is essentially simple, Tom Tesoro said. It boils down to retaining experience over a long time or opening town offices to new ideas and new faces, he said.

“Whatever way we vote, we’re not going to be wrong,” he said.

Gardiner took the position that it should be left up to voters to determine how many terms an official serves. This is especially true of smaller towns, which sometimes have trouble filling various boards and commissions, she said.

“You don’t always have people who want to run,” she said.

McCann agreed, saying that although new ideas could be good, inexperience was not.

“I get the concept of entrenched local government, but with a long term comes a depth of experience,” he said. “You may be sacrificing valuable experience.”

Tesoro disagreed, pointing out that the commission was discussing limiting officials to either two or three consecutive terms, depending on the length of the terms.

“We’re talking eight years, 10 years,” he said. “That’s a long time.”

Tesoro himself had previously served two terms on the Board of Finance before deciding against running again.

“It does force parties to broaden their reach, make sure they have a bench, and attract new people to their party,” he said.