Photo: Ben Lambert / Hearst Connecticut Media
BRIDGEPORT — And then there were six.
After being blasted by the public during a blistering two-hour public session, the city school board agreed by a 5-4 vote to add a sixth person to the roster of candidates to be interviewed for the job of interim superintendent — and hold a public forum with finalists.
Board members Sybil Allen, Lamar Kennedy, Joseph Lombard, Maria Pereira and Chris Taylor voted yes. Board members Hernan Illingworth, Jessica Martinez, Joseph Sokolovic and Chairman John Weldon voted no.
The interviews, which may be held behind closed doors, were expected to start at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Claytor Magnet Academy on Ocean Terrace and were to continue on Wednesday evening in the same location.
The public forum will be held sometime next week.
The selected interim is expected to serve for up to a year in the city’s highest-paid municipal job while a search for a permanent superintendent proceeds. Schools Superintendent Aresta Johnson will step down in July.
The decision adds Denise Clemons, a city native and former district administrator, to the mix. The addition comes amid charges that some board members have already decided they want Mike Testani, the district’s director of adult education, for the interim job.
“The fix is in,” Pereira said in describing how the board’s add for interim candidates allowed individuals who are not certified to be superintendent to apply. That, she said, provided a pathway for Testani, who does not hold the certification.
Taylor said he met with Clemons and that she deserves an interview.
“That woman is all Bridgeport,” said Taylor.
Many who spoke to the board from the podium, agreed.
“Give her a fair chance,” City Council Member Ernie Newton said of Clemons.
City Council Member Eneida Martinez, who with Newton represents the city’s East End, credited Clemons with helping her daughter when Clemons was principal at Wilbur Cross.
“She can relate to our children,” the council member said.
Marcelin Joseph, another city resident and now college graduate, described running to the Cross office as a student after being teased. he said he was comforted by Clemons who not only talked to him at eye level, but shared a lunch with him that day and gave him advice on how to combat bullies by proving them wrong.
“She showed me she cared,” Joseph said. “She is highly qualified. Just hear her out. Give her a shot. She deserves it.”
Ralph Ford, another community member, said his fear is that even if Clemons is interviewed, the board majority will give the job to a preselected candidate.
“Don’t sit and don’t tell me you haven’t been lobbied,” Ford said. “You have … In the end, our kids will suffer.”
Weldon said after the meeting his mind isn’t made up about anyone.
“Mike is a really good problem solver, a great project manager and a good relationship builder,” Weldon said. “I know some have publicly pledged their support for him and others have pledged to never support him. For my own part, although I have a positive opinion of him, I haven’t decided if I think he has the skills to be a c-level executive at this stage of his career.”
Weldon said he expects most board members to try to be objective.
Clemons is a Harding High graduate who rose to the position of assistant superintendent before leaving in 2012. She served as schools superintendent in Gardner, Mass., for three years and for one year as Torrington schools superintendent.
Testani, who at one point was an assistant principal under Clemons at Cross, started out as a guidance counselor.
Other finalists include Wayne Alexander, an assistant principal at Read School; Christian Upright, a Central High School special education teacher; Johnathan Brice, an associate superintendent in Maryland, and Portia Bonner, a former East Haven Schools superintendent.
The call to make the process more transparent was echoed by half the audience.
The Rev. Cass Shaw, a leader of the Council of Churches of Greater Bridgeport, said the public deserves to hear from the candidates and ask them questions.
The Rev. William McCullough, head of Faith Acts, a community organization, said he demanded the process be open.
“I am concerned about process,” McCullough said. “You need to do the right thing for the people.”
Illingworth said he had no problem opening the process up even though it had not been done in the past when interim superintendents were selected.
“We are the only district that solicit interims in this fashion,” Weldon said.