Pioli left out as Stamford Democrats endorse slate of newcomers to Board of Education

Photo of Ignacio Laguarda

STAMFORD — The Stamford Democratic City Committee endorsed three candidates for the upcoming Board of Education election, but one name was notably absent: current board member Jackie Pioli.

She was unable to secure one of the three committee endorsements despite being the lone Democratic candidate running for re-election this year. She said it was in retaliation for her independent mindset; party officials agreed that her actions have upset Democrats on the board.

Pioli said she plans to run for the seat as an unaffiliated candidate.

The endorsements were decided after three rounds of voting among members of the committee on Sunday afternoon. After the first round, the top vote-getter was Ben Lee, a current Board of Representatives member, which meant he was officially selected and eliminated from voting in the second round.

Versha Munshi-South, a former teacher and principal at Public Preparatory Network in Manhattan, received the most votes in the second round.

The final tally was between Pioli and Michael Hyman, a staff member at the Stamford nonprofit Domus and former Stamford NAACP president.

Hyman received 24 votes, compared with 15 for Pioli.

Josh Fedeli, chairman of the DCC, said the trio of candidates selected by the committee is “one of the most impressive” he has seen in a long time.

“This is a really top notch group of candidates,” he said.

On Monday, Pioli said the decision not to endorse her was retaliatory because she does not always vote along party lines.

“They’re not looking for Board of Education members,” she said, about the DCC. “They’re looking for puppets.”

She added, “It clearly shows that the Democratic Party doesn’t want independent thinkers.”

Although Fedeli did not have a vote in the endorsement process, he did say Pioli was not selected because of her record on the board.

“The people who voted yesterday indicated they are not happy with her performance and the overall way she conducted herself on the board,” Fedeli said Monday.

During her three years on the board, Pioli has gained a reputation for being outspoken and for questioning administrators and other board members over a variety of topics.

In the past year, she joined the three Republican members of the board and Democrat Fritz Chery in an apparent attempt to make former board president and Democrat Andy George step down from his position. The same five members also shot down an attempt to hire a distance learning coordinator last summer, to the apparent chagrin of other board members and Superintendent Tamu Lucero.

Pioli also got into a shouting match with Republican Nicola Tarzia in early 2020 that ended a meeting of the board.

In response to Pioli’s comment about the DCC looking for “puppets,” Fedeli said, “I think that is exactly the type of comment and sentiment that unfortunately has become common. That’s the way Jackie has approached her position for the last three years.”

Pioli said she used her position to support students, teachers and taxpayers with “honesty, morals and ethics,” and that she will continue to advocate for residents of the city.

“I don’t participate with alliances that focus on control and power,” she said, in a written statement.

Every year, three of the nine Board of Education positions on the board are up for election. The seats currently held by Republicans Becky Hamman and Mike Altamura are also up for grabs this year. Hamman said she intends on running again, but Altamura said he would step down.

In a written statement, Altamura said he is against the idea of staying on the board for longer than two terms, and would like to see new people come forward.

Republican Josh Esses, who most recently lost an election for a state Senate seat, said he would run in the upcoming election.

The Stamford Republican Town Council was set to meet Monday evening to vote on its endorsements.

The Board of Education operates under a minority representation rule, which stipulates no more than six of the nine members may belong to the same party. Five Democrats are not up for re-election this year, meaning only one Democrat can join the board through the upcoming election.

But the rule does not stipulate that the minority representation on the board be all Republican. A candidate running as unaffiliated, or any minority party, would also qualify.

That means Pioli could make it back onto the board without the formal support of the Democratic party and as long as she does not finish third or worse among minority contenders.

After Sunday’s DCC vote, each of the three endorsed candidates spoke briefly.

Ben Lee said he decided to run because of his two young children.

“It is for them that I want to be involved in this,” he said. “For years, you have heard me say that the schools are the future of the city.”

Lee said the district is faced with a “generational problem” in terms of infrastructure, including numerous buildings in need of major renovations or a complete tear-down.

Munshi-South spoke about the influx of federal dollars coming to the school system as a way to dig out of some of the problems created by COVID-19.

Stamford schools received roughly $32.6 million from the American Rescue Plan federal stimulus, on top of the $14.5 million coming from the second Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, or ESSER, funds.

“I feel like I can bring in some expertise and knowledge, both as an educator and as a school principal, and as someone who works with school districts every single day,” she said. “I know what the challenges are.”

Hyman said there is a need on the board for “rational” and “sound” judgment, and said the federal money coming to the district makes it a critical time in the city’s history.

“I can’t imagine a better opportunity for us to think rationally about what needs to be done, what types of programs we need to put in place, and how do we work with our teachers, with our parents and with the entire city to move us to the next level,” he said.

Pioli said that even though she didn’t make it onto the DCC slate, she looks forward to “sitting on the board as a minority candidate.”

The election for the Stamford Board of Education will be held on Nov. 2.

ignacio.laguarda@stamfordadvocate.com